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Monday, October 20, 2003

Science of Perfect Potatoes

I met someone recently who told me if you want to write a bestseller, use the word "secret" in the title. I hate to admit it, but I think he might be right. After all, who wouldn't want to know all the great cooking secrets? The secret to perfectly fluffy mashed potatoes. The secret to deliciously crisp crunchy oven-fried potatoes (the kind that don't get soggy five minutes after coming out of the oven). Well if you're looking for those secrets, you're in luck.

Enough experimentation and you can probably discover some of the secrets to good cooking. Personally I'll stick with the experts. One expert, namely Martha Stewart has demonstrated on her popular how-to-do-everything-better show, how to make the lightest, fluffiest mashed potatoes; the secret is to use a ricer. A ricer is a gadget that looks like an enormously large garlic press. I have yet to find another use for the ricer and yet, if you love mashed potatoes, the good ones like you get in really fine restaurants, this is one gadget you've got to get your hands on. Martha typically calls for 1/2 cup of milk and 2 tablespoons of butter per pound of potatoes. I like a lot less milk, I use closer to equal parts butter and milk. I believe that Jacques Pepin advocates whipping with a wire whisk to lighten them up even more and melting the butter with the milk to ensure proper absorption but I'm often too lazy to bother with that level of detail.

After you have mastered the mashed potato basics--the proportion of milk and butter, salt and pepper to taste--endless variations await. A squirt of wasabi. A head of roasted garlic. Or one of my favorites, a handful of chopped sauteed green onions and some parmesan cheese. These are mashed potatoes to write home about!

So on to the oven fries. Oh how I tried to get this one right! But I finally read Shirley Corriher's book, "Cookwise" and learned the secrets. First off, chilling the potatoes helps to convert some of the starch to sugar and that helps the potatoes brown. She also advocates steaming the slices of unpeeled potatoes for 8 minutes before drying them thoroughly, spraying with cooking oil and baking at 450 degrees until golden brown, she says about an hour but I think a bit less than that in my oven. A set of techniques I doubt I would have come upon on my own, Corriher has quite a knack for chemistry and while I don't, I do appreciate the affects of chemistry on my potatoes.