by Diana Bulls
What is the kitchen utensil that does basically one job and does it so well that no one has ever made changes to its basic design? It’s that odd utensil inherited from a grandmother that the unenlightened lets sit in the back of the utensil drawer. I’m talking about the humble potato masher. A kitchen tool design originating in the 1860s and still the most tried and true method of mashing potatoes.
A brief history of potatoes
Potatoes have long been considered a European staple. In fact, a lot of people living in Ireland and Poland would probably swear that the starchy tuber got its start there. Actually, potatoes are a New World food, native to the Americas and only introduced to Europe around 1536 by Spanish explorers. Potatoes soon became the diet mainstay of the poor and downtrodden.
A brief history of mashed potatoes
Of all the Indian people in the Americas who ate potatoes, the Incas seemed to prefer theirs mashed. Some sources say the actual recipe for mashed potatoes originated in 1771 when a French man named Antoine Parmentier held a competition on ways to make potatoes. Other sources say that it was the English who came up with mashed potatoes and gravy, somewhere in the 1600s. Today, the tuber is common in dishes and beverages the world over, in everything from potato chips to French Fries to vodka and, of course, mashed potatoes.
Types of potato mashers
I suppose the first potato masher was a rock or smooth stone, followed by a hand-shaped masher made of wood. With the machine age, the wood masher evolved into a hand or machine-turned wooden mallet. In the mid to late 1800s, two masher types of the modern design we see today emerged. The most popular has an S wound wire that is flat at the bottom, or sometimes a round or square wire grid that is flat at the bottom. This is probably the potato masher your grandmother had. Because of the room between these S winds, there is never the worry of over-mashing the potatoes. The other type of masher has a round disc with holes drilled into it, but it can over mash the potatoes.
How to make perfect mashed potatoes
It’s all in the potato masher, the right kind of potatoes, and a little butter, salt, milk and elbow grease. An electric mixer, food processor, or ricer can make the potatoes overly sticky because over mashing activates the starch in the potato. Some experts say you can use a hand held electric mixer, but most agree the old fashioned, original design works best. The best varieties for mashing are Russet, Yukon Gold, or Red because they yield smooth and creamy mashed potatoes. The basic recipe for mashed potatoes is pretty much the same all over—it’s what you add to them after they are mashed that distinguishes one recipe from another.
Basic Mashed Potato Recipe
• six potatoes (not too big, not too small), Russet, Yukon Gold or Red
• 1 cup of heavy cream or half-half
• 1/2 cup of salted butter
• salt and pepper to taste
1. Peel and wash the potatoes; leave some of the skin on to give them more of an old-world, traditional flavor and texture.
2. Cut them into big chunks (they may take longer to cook, but they’ll absorb less water).
3. Place potatoes in a medium to large-sized pot and add cold water until they’re fully covered. You can add salt at this point, if you like.
4. Cover the pot and turn the burner to high until the water boils; turn it to a simmer and cook for another 15 to 20 minutes. Check if potatoes are cooked by poking a large piece with a fork or knife—it should go in easily if they are done. If not, then give potatoes a few more minutes before taking them off the heat.
5. Drain water from the potatoes and put them back on the stove in the same pot. Turn the burner on very low and get all or most of the water to evaporate. Don’t walk away from the pot at this stage, and be sure to stir them constantly, as you could easily burn them if too much water evaporates or if the same potatoes sit at the bottom of the pot for too long.
6. At the same time, you can add the cream and butter together in a separate pan and heat on low just enough to melt the butter.
7. When all the water is evaporated from the potatoes, mash them with a hand masher. Once you’ve mashed the potatoes to the perfect consistency, add the melted butter and cream mixture.
8. Now is the time to get creative. Try adding cheese, sour cream, cream cheese, bacon, onion, peppers, garlic, or fresh herbs.
Collecting potato mashers
Potato mashers make a great first collection for anyone, but especially for kids. On antiquing jaunts, my two girls used to look for potato mashers while I was checking out the big-ticket items. Vintage potato mashers can still be easily found in thrift stores, yard sales and antique malls, and are relatively inexpensive, but don’t overlook some of the modern mashers. There are many shapes and different handle materials and they all (old or new) can make an interesting display. Hang them on the wall or just put them masher-side-up in a country crock on your counter. If you haven’t already, be sure you rescue Grandma’s potato masher from the back of your utensil drawer.