Of all the beloved dishes on the holiday table, mashed potatoes are beloved-est. Fluffy billows of creamy white, crowned with butter or gravy, they fill the biggest bowlfuls on the sideboard, and sidle up so well to the mains at any classic American feast, vegetarian or meaty.
But strive as we might toward potato perfection, who hasn’t messed up the mashed on at least one occasion? Too wet, too dry, gluey or pasty, mashed potato fails are a holiday heart-breaker. To help you avoid mashed mishaps this year, we reached out to two top Chicago chefs for favorite methods and how-tos toward potato perfection.
Chicago Chefs Matthias Merges, owner of four restaurants and former director of operations for Charlie Trotter’s various ventures, and Michael Sheerin, executive chef at Embeya and, the soon-to-come Packed Dumpling House, had these combined tips to offer. The good news? Perfection is possible. The challenging news? Don’t wait til the last minute! Achieving superlatives like “best” does take time. You’ll need to start your potato process in the morning on feast day for marvelous mashed results.
Start with the Basics
1. Start with a big pot of cold water and skin-on whole potatoes. For 8 to 10 servings, wash and rinse 15 medium sized Idaho or Yukon Gold potatoes. Place in pot, cover with water to a depth that’s 1 inch higher than the top of the potatoes. Turn heat to medium only until water begins to steam. Turn heat to medium low.
2. Don’t boil the water. Also a surprise. But both chefs say to slowly bring the temperature of the water only to 200 to 205 degrees, just below a boil. “Never let the water boil,” says Merges. “This causes the cells in the potato to burst and become watery.” Also, leaving the skin on, says Merges, helps protect the potato “meat” from getting soggy and promotes more even cooking.
3. Simmer the potatoes until very easily pierced with a fork, 2 hours or more. Make sure the potatoes are not under cooked.
4. Place the cooked potatoes in a warm oven (convection oven if possible) to dry the water from the surface of the potatoes
5. For every 15 potatoes, heat a combination of 2 cups heavy cream, 2 sticks butter and 1/3 cup olive oil
6. Mash potatoes while still hot, adding the warmed cream, butter and olive oil in small doses. Remove and discard the skins, and using either a potato ricer and a wooden spoon (Merges favorite method), or, an old-fashioned potato masher (Sheerin’s favorite method), mash and work the potatoes, adding the warm cream/butter/oil in small doses and continuing to mash and work until all of the liquid has been incorporated.
Once you’ve got the basics down, turn your creativity to mashed potato recipes with mix-ins like Chef Alec Sherman’s rustic, skin-on ‘Smashed Potatoes with Sunchokes Roasted Garlic and Baby Spinach’. Sherman, chef de cuisine at Chicago’s Southport & Irving restaurant, grew up in the Midwest and has long loved the simple rusticity of skin-on mashed potatoes. “I enjoy the texture, and it reminds me of home,” says Sherman.
“The four ingredients my family has always used include heavy cream, butter, salt and fresh cracked pepper. But we recently elevated this with one of my favorite ingredients: sunchokes!” Sherman says smashing roasted sunchokes into the hot potatoes with roasted garlic and pureed baby spinach “ has completely changed our mashed potato game: The additions give the finished dish great flavor and a beautifully vibrant green color.”
We love the earthiness of the sunchoke/roasted garlic combo, too. Add it to your holiday table with roasts—vegetarian and meaty. It’s also nice with almost any grilled meat (Sherman serves it at Southport & Irving with a chimichurri-marinated hangar steak and crispy sweetbreads.) The earthy flavor of roast garlic and sunchokes (also known as Jerusalem artichokes), and the bright green shock of the spinach makes this flavorful variation a pretty addition to holiday tables.
In sum? “Cook them slow, mash them hot and warm the cream/butter before mixing in,” says Sheerin.
· 2 pounds Idaho potatoes
· 1 head garlic
· 1/2 pound sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes)
· 1 Tbsp olive oil
· 1 tsp sea salt; 1/2 tsp fresh cracked pepper
· 1 and 1/2 cups heavy cream divided into ½ cup measure and 1 cup measure portions
· 4 Tbsp butter
· 3 cups packed baby spinach
- Make potatoes: Place 2 pounds of Idaho potatoes in cold water. Heat to just below boiling. Water will be steaming but not moving. Cook potatoes in steaming water until tender: about 1 1/2 hours.
- Heat oven to 350. Toss sunchokes in olive oil and salt and pepper. Place on sheet pan.
- While potatoes are cooking on stove top, roast sunchokes in oven at 350 until soft. Also place head of garlic in square of aluminum foil and roast until soft.
- Remove garlic from oven and set aside.
- Turn oven down to 325.
- Remove sunchokes from oven and puree with 1/2 cup cream, using immersion blender, or food processor.
- When soft, remove potatoes from water. Place in warm 325 oven to dry potato skins.
- While potato skins dry, heat second pot of water to boiling.
- Blanch spinach in boiling water for two minutes. Using a strainer, remove spinach from water and plunge into ice water. Squeeze out water. Puree. Set aside.
- Remove potatoes from oven. Leave skins on. Smash with a potato masher in a large pot, add garlic and sunchoke puree and smash more. Stir in pureed spinach. Salt and pepper to taste.
And don’t forget the gravy! For gravy like liquid gold, think about roasting a small turkey a few days before Thanksgiving, saving the meat from the carcass for after-holiday sandwiches, pot pies and casseroles, and using the bones to make Mike Sheerin’s favorite gravy. Enhanced with onion, garlic, white wine, thyme, and loads of mushrooms, this gravy is truly the crowning glory worthy of topping your marvelous mashed.
Liquid Gold Gravy Ingredients
· Bones from the carcass of one small 10 to 12 pound turkey
· 1 head of garlic, cut in half, chopped into pieces
· 1 large onion julienne sliced
· 1 cup white wine
· 12 cups water
· 1 Tbsp butter
· Bunch of fresh thyme
· 1 ½ pounds crimini mushrooms, sliced
· 1 to 2 Tbsp Wondra flour (as needed to thicken gravy)
· Sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
1. Place oven rack in the center. Set oven temperature to 350.
2. Break up turkey carcass bones into level layer in large roasting pan. Sprinkle with julienned onion and garlic pieces. Add 1 cup water. Roast bones at 350 for 1 hour.
3. Remove bones to a separate bowl. On stovetop, deglaze roasting pan with 1 cup wine. Pour through a strainer. Reserve liquid.
4. Return bones to roasting pan. Cover with 12 cups water. Set oven to 325. Roast bones for 3 hours.
5. Near the end of cooking time, in a heavy skillet over medium heat, melt butter and cook mushrooms with thyme. Set aside.
6. Remove roasting pan from oven. Pour liquid remaining in roasting pan (3 1/2 to 4 cups) into skillet with mushrooms. Cook down for 10 minutes
7. Add the wine deglazing liquid you reserved. Simmer for five more minutes. Pour all through a strainer. Discard mushroom and thyme solids. Return liquid to sauté pan over medium heat. Whisk in small amount of Wondra flour to thicken to desired consistency. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve over mashed potatoes.