Perfecting potatoes


Potatoes. They are a perennial favorite. Here are a few of our most beloved ways to make them — mashed, roasted or in a casserole — and some recipes to help you along.

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MASHED

Mashed potatoes are among the simplest and most satisfying potato dishes. Whether you like them whipped and creamy, dense or fluffy, they are easy to pull off on a weeknight but special enough for a holiday. And when plain mashed seems too plain, expand on the classic with endless variations of herbs, aromatics and cheeses.

Basic Method

Put a large pot of water on to boil, adding a tablespoon of salt for each gallon of water. While the water heats, peel the largest potatoes you have (two per person is a good rule of thumb) and roughly cut into large chunks, about the size of a jumbo egg. Boil until tender all the way through (start testing after 10 minutes).

Heat any flavorings (butter, milk, cream, buttermilk, stock) you plan to add. When potatoes are tender, scoop out a cup of cooking water and set it aside. Drain the potatoes and return them to the pot. Place over low heat and shake until most of the steam has dissipated.

Add some of your flavorings, mash and taste. Add salt. Repeat until mashed and seasoned to your liking. Adjust the texture with cooking water. Serve immediately or cover tightly and set aside for up to 30 minutes.

Tips

— Choose large potatoes to minimize peeling.

— It’s better to overcook potatoes than to undercook them; be sure to cook them so they are thoroughly tender.

— Throw garlic cloves and bay leaves or other aromatics into the cooking water; it adds another layer of flavor to the potatoes.

— Shake the drained potatoes in the pot over low heat, to get rid of excess water and add fluffiness.

— The traditional squiggle masher is not as efficient as those with a flat face and a grid pattern. A ricer makes the fluffiest mashed potatoes. Do not use a blender or food processor.

— Make sure everything you plan to add to the potatoes — milk, cream, butter, stock, cooking water — is very hot before you begin mashing.

— Quickly mashed potatoes are the fluffiest. The longer you work them, the denser and creamier the mash will become.

— Mashed potatoes will stay hot in a ceramic or glass serving bowl for at least 30 minutes. To keep them hot longer, place a bowl inside a pan of simmering water on the stove and cover it tightly. You can also reheat cold mashed potatoes in this way; stir occasionally to redistribute the heat.

— Add another root vegetable. Some combinations: two-thirds mashed celery root to one-third mashed potato; half mashed turnips or parsnips to half mashed potato; half mashed cauliflower to half mashed potato.

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ROASTED

It’s very easy to make pretty good roasted potatoes — coat them with oil, stick them in the oven, and what’s to stop them from getting done? — but making great roasted potatoes demands a little extra attention.

Basic Method

Tiny new potatoes can be roasted whole and raw, but mature, starchy potatoes need a quick precook in boiling water or the microwave.

After that, the sky’s the limit, in terms of cooking fat (butter, oil, chicken fat, lard), seasonings (warm spices, chili powders, dry herbs, spice pastes), and garnishes (herb leaves, grated cheese, yogurt or crème fraîche, olives, citrus zests).

A good guideline is 6 to 8 ounces raw potatoes per person. If using micro or baby potatoes, leave them whole. For mature potatoes, peel (or not, as you prefer) and cut into even, thick wedges about the size of an orange segment.

Microwave the cut potatoes in batches until softened but still firm in the center, about 4 minutes total. Or boil in salted water; start testing for doneness after 10 minutes. (Skip this step if using whole baby potatoes.)

When you’re ready to roast, heat the oven to 450 degrees and spread the whole raw potatoes or parcooked wedges on baking sheets. Drizzle with a little oil or fat and toss well, preferably with your hands. Keep adding oil and tossing to coat: The potatoes should be evenly coated, and the pan should be slick but not drowning in oil. Add plenty of salt and any spices.

Roast 20 to 30 minutes, until bottoms are browned and a spatula slides under them smoothly. Turn and keep roasting until done, another 20 to 30 minutes.

Tips

— Have in your kitchen arsenal two large, rimmed baking sheets: Giving the potato pieces plenty of breathing room is the most important factor in getting them crispy.

— Potatoes should not be swimming in cooking fat; this will keep them from becoming crisp.

— To keep the exteriors from becoming leathery, always roast potatoes at high heat.

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GRATINS AND CASSEROLES

Potato casseroles and gratins are comforting, savory and satisfying dishes. They can be rich with dairy, oozing with cheese or savory with stock, but all rely on the soft starchiness of the potato to hold them together.

Basic Method

The key to a successful gratin is getting the proportions right, so the potatoes cook through as the liquid is absorbed or evaporated.

Here’s a good method: Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Peel the potatoes (unless they’re thin-skinned) and slice them up to 1/4-inch thick; you’ll need enough to layer them in an ovenproof skillet almost to the top. Place them in the skillet, overlapping slightly, until it is just about full.

Dot the top of the potatoes with 2 to 3 tablespoons butter, cut into chunks. Add half-and-half (or a combination of milk and cream) to come 3/4 of the way to the top (2 to 3 cups).

Place the skillet on the stove and bring the liquid to a boil; reduce heat and cook for 10 minutes, until the liquid level drops. Put the pan in the oven and bake until the top browns, 10 minutes; reduce heat to 300 degrees and garnish the top with grated cheese (Cheddar, Gruyère, Parmesan) mixed with a pinch of grated nutmeg. Cook 10 minutes more, or until tender and browned.

Tips

— Potato casseroles keep better in the refrigerator than plain cooked potatoes, so a casserole is your best bet if you need to make a potato dish in advance.

— Many delicious ingredients can be added between the potato layers: grated cheese, chopped herbs, cooked leeks or onions, ham or cooked bacon, or cooked spinach or Swiss chard.

— Some or all of the dairy can be replaced with stock.

— Try infusing the dairy with herbs, such as bay leaves or chives; spices, such as coriander and peppercorns; or heat, from chipotle chilies in adobo.

— Some or all of the potatoes can be swapped for sweet potatoes or winter squash.

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BEFORE YOU START

When you’re shopping, it’s good to know which potato varieties are best suited to which cooking methods. Here is a breakdown.

— High-starch, such as russets, are good for baking whole, mashing, roasting, frying and adding to salads.

— Medium-starch, such as Yukon Gold, Yellow Finn, Katahdin and Kennebec, are good for mashing, roasting, gratins, putting in salads and boiling.

— Low-starch, aka waxy potatoes, such as Red Bliss, Norland, White Rose, most fingerlings and new potatoes, are good for roasting, boiling and putting in salads.

— For an all-purpose potato to have on hand, buy russets or Yukon Golds and keep them in a cool, dark place.

— The New York Times

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Sweeney Potatoes

By SAM SIFTON

TIME: 1 hour

YIELD: 8 to 10 servings

This is a variation of a dish sometimes called “company potatoes,” popular in the postwar kitchens of the 1950s, made with canned condensed soups and frozen hash browns. Maura Passanisi, of Alameda, California, shared it with The New York Times as a tribute to her grandmother, Florence Sweeney, who originally served it as a Thanksgiving side dish.

2 1/2 pounds russet potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1/4-inch cubes

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, at room temperature

1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted, plus more butter for the pan

1 cup sour cream

1/4 to 1/2 cup whole milk

Kosher salt and ground black pepper, to taste

2 1/2 cups freshly grated sharp Cheddar cheese (about 8 ounces)

Chopped fresh parsley, for garnish (optional)

1. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Put potatoes in a large heavy-bottomed pot and cover with cold water. Set on stove over high heat and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and allow potatoes to simmer until they have just started to soften, about 10 minutes. Drain and set aside.

2. Combine cream cheese, melted butter and sour cream in a large bowl and stir to combine. Add enough milk so that the mixture is creamy but not soupy. Season mixture with salt and pepper to taste. Add potatoes to bowl and stir gently to combine.

3. Generously grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Tip half the potatoes into the dish and spread to the edges, then scatter half the grated cheese over the top. Add remaining potatoes and spread to the edges, then top with remaining cheese.

4. Bake until casserole is bubbling at the edges and cheese has melted across the top, 30 to 35 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley before serving, if you’d like.

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Sweet Potato Casserole

By MARIAN BURROS

TIME: 2 hours

YIELD: 8 servings

This version of the classic Thanksgiving side dish forgoes the traditional marshmallow topping for a generous sprinkle of brown sugar, butter and pecans. You get crunchy, soft and sweet all in one glorious bite.

4 medium-large sweet potatoes (about 3 pounds)

6 tablespoons brown sugar

1/4 cup orange juice

1/4 cup heavy cream or whole milk

3 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon salt

For The Topping

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened slightly

1/2 cup dark brown sugar

3/4 cup chopped pecans

1. To make the casserole, heat oven to 375 degrees. Bake sweet potatoes until very tender, about 1 hour, 20 minutes. Remove and let cool. Reduce heat to 350 degrees.

2. When potatoes are cool enough to handle, cut them in half, scoop out flesh and mash until smooth. You should have about 4 cups. Using a hand mixer, mix in brown sugar, orange juice, heavy cream, butter, vanilla and salt. Place in a casserole dish.

3. To make the topping, combine the butter, brown sugar and pecans. Sprinkle over sweet potato mixture. Bake for 30 minutes.

Serve hot.

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Fiery Sweet Potatoes

By JULIA MOSKIN

TIME: 2 hours

YIELD: 10 to 12 servings

Coconut milk and fiery Thai spice paste turn up the heat, but the familiar brown sugar and butter are still part of the mix in this amazing and unexpected combination of flavors that would be a fine addition to any table from Thanksgiving through May.

5 pounds sweet potatoes

1 cup canned coconut milk

1 tablespoon Thai red curry paste

1/2 cup dark brown sugar

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 teaspoon salt

1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Bake potatoes on sheet pan until very soft, about 75 minutes. When cool enough to handle, peel and mash.

2. In a small saucepan, heat coconut milk with curry paste over low heat. Mix coconut milk mixture, half the sugar, half the butter and the salt into potatoes. Keep warm until ready to serve, or cover and refrigerate up to 2 days.

3. At least 30 minutes before serving, heat oven to 425 degrees. Put potatoes in a baking dish, cover with foil and bake 20 minutes. Uncover, dot with remaining butter and sugar and broil until brown and crusty, checking often to prevent scorching.


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