Mash hits and golden oldies: The definitive guide to cooking potatoes to perfection

Danielle Alvarez's homemade fries (chips) recipe.
Danielle Alvarez's homemade fries (chips) recipe. Photo: William Meppem

How do I make fluffy mashed potatoes? T. Stapleton

There are those who like fluffy mashed potatoes and those who prefer them rich and creamy. If you want fluffy potatoes, you want to avoid releasing the gooey starch that forms as the potatoes cook. The worst thing you could do is put the potatoes into a high-speed blender, which simply turns the boiled potatoes into a gloopy puree. Similar if you use a hand beater. To avoid releasing the starch chefs run their boiled potatoes through a drum sieve and mix through the fat and seasonings with minimal agitation to avoid releasing more starch. There is a dirty secret that some chefs in some eateries have – not places at which you or I would dine – and that is to use a percentage of dried-potato powder in their mashed potatoes.

Jill Dupleix's baked potato with peas and rough pesto recipe.
Jill Dupleix's baked potato with peas and rough pesto recipe. Photo: William Meppem

How do I avoid lumpy mashed potatoes? S. McIntyre

I went to a lovely city restaurant recently and was amazed by the smooth consistency and creamy texture of their mashed potatoes. The chef explained he used an equal ratio of butter to potato. It's the type of food that, if sold in supermarkets, would attract TV reporters screaming at the camera, "The food that is clogging the nation's arteries." Speaking of clogging arteries, there is a mashed potato product that is sold in popular fried chicken outlets. This is lumpless because it is made with powdered potatoes. Some brands of instant mashed potato contain synthetic fat to emulsify the product, disodium pyrophosphate to regulate acidity and sodium bisulphate as a preservative. Nice. Some potato proponents advise using a blender to smooth out the lumps but this can lead to gluey mash as the smashing action of the blades releases the starch. After choosing the right starchy potato, peeling and cooking it until it's soft but not sodden, the single best way of ensuring lump-free mash is to use a potato ricer or rotary handmill such as a Moulinex. To this "riced" potato add your warm milk and butter and mix through.

When I make mashed potato, it goes gluey. M. Robbins

Jill Dupleix's kale colcannon mashed potato recipe.
Jill Dupleix's kale colcannon mashed potato recipe.  Photo: William Meppem

As a kid did you ever make papier-mache? A grown-up would cook flour in water until it formed a thick glue. During cooking the starch granules absorb water molecules and form a gel. A similar process occurs in potatoes. If you break open the cooked starch granules in the potato they release this water and starch gel and you literally end up with glue. When you enrich potatoes with butter or oil you are trying to gently coat the starch granules with fat to give the mixture a creamy texture without breaking them open. If, however, you put cooked potato into a food processor then the blades will break up the granules and you will end up with potato glue. Here are a few basics to avoid gluey mash. Firstly, steer clear of waxy potatoes. Look for starchy varieties such as King Edward or Coliban. Cover potatoes in cold water then simmer gently, don't boil them vigorously. When soft, drain and leave on low heat to allow the steam to evaporate. Warm the butter in milk with salt and add to the potatoes while still hot. Mash as gently and briefly as possible. I can't confirm it but apparently mashed potato was the reason lamb shanks in gravy were invented.

Roast potatoes

There's many ways to roast potatoes - but which work best? Photo: Shutterstock

What is the best way to roast potatoes? W. Zau

Advertisement

Some like to put their potatoes in the oven with a roasting piece of meat or chicken and cook them together for an hour or so, turning the potatoes so they can get a good basting in the fat. The result is dark, delicious potatoes with a crisp finish. There are others who cut up their potatoes and cook them in vegetable oil in the oven. That's a waste of good potatoes and energy as they end up tasting like the industrially produced oil they were cooked in, as far as I'm concerned. For a crunchy roast potato, try peeling and cutting them into even pieces about the size of half an egg. Place in a saucepan and cover with cold water and season with salt. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes until half cooked. Drain. The starch in the exterior of the potato will have gelatinised (another word for gone mushy). Place the spuds back in the saucepan, season with a little salt and pepper and add some fat. This could be from a roasting chook, lamb, olive oil or butter. Toss around in the pan until the potatoes are covered in a fatty seasoned paste of their own making. Place in a roasting pan and then into the middle of an oven preheated to 220C. Bake for 25 minutes, turn, and bake for a further 25 minutes or until golden and crunchy.

What is the best potato for roasting? M.Moore

Some varieties are starchier than others and will give you a crisper exterior. Starchy or floury potato varieties include coliban and king edward. All-purpose potatoes suitable for roasting include desiree, kennebec, pontiac, red rascal, royal blue, sebago and spunta. I am most impressed by the wilwash potatoes from Jones Potatoes (jonespotatoes.com.au).

Marinated kipfler potato salad.

Marinated kipfler potato salad. Photo: William Meppem

How do I keep my potatoes firm for potato salad? D. Keith

If you slowly bring your potatoes to just under 60 degrees in a pot of water and hold the temperature there for about 20 minutes, you can create firm cooked potatoes. By doing so you're activating an enzyme in the cell walls that changes the way calcium ions affect the pectin. Pectin is the starch that gives fruit and vegetables their rigidity and this process makes it more stable at higher temperatures. After this slow, low heat treatment the potatoes should remain firmer when cooked in the normal manner afterwards. Once cooked, dress the potatoes shortly before serving so they don't absorb the dressing and soften.

Can I use boiled potatoes cooked the previous night to make potato salad? K. Liew

You can. But it wouldn't be very nice to eat. Potato salad is about fresh, warm potatoes sucking up the dressing and the outside layers of starch, which subsequently become quite sodden and indistinguishable from the dressing. Cold potatoes take on rich dressing as easily as middle-aged men handle change. I grew up on a farm with an elderly couple from Germany, and Rosa, the wife, would finely dice onions and make a dressing of oil, vinegar, sugar, salt, pepper and a chicken stock cube (seriously). Once the potatoes were done, Rosa would add the onion and let the residual heat soften them. Then she would add the dressing and, just before serving, she would add a small handful of chopped parsley.

My grandmother made a potato salad with a vinaigrette that made a creamy dressing when it went on the potatoes. I make my potato salad with kipflers and I can't make it as creamy as Oomah's. L. Schulz

I deduce from your surname and use of the familial "oomah" that your family may be German? I suspect, then, that your grandmother would have used floury potatoes that release starch into the dressing, making a rich and thick slurry. You're using kipflers, which are waxy and hold on to their starch. Try cooking a starchy potato such as a coliban, russet or King Edward, alongside the kipflers. Then mash the starchy potato into some of the dressing and fold it through the rest of the potatoes.

Roesti with blue cheese and bacon.

Roesti with blue cheese and bacon. Photo: William Meppem

What is the secret to getting a crisp roesti? O. Anstruther

I hate to say it but the answer is: the microwave. Take three washed potatoes, skin on, and grate them. Spread them out on a large plate and microwave on high until soft. Heat a heavy-based skillet over medium heat and add a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Spread the potato over the skillet and press down using a spatula or wooden spoon. Season with salt and pepper. Cook for 5-7 minutes until brown and crisp. Slide off onto a plate, cover with another plate and flip. Add some more oil to the skillet and slide the roesti back, uncooked side down. Cook for a further five minutes or until brown and crisp. Serve with anything, they are so delicious. Note: Recently in this column I recommended using a microwave oven to precook the grated potato for roesti. A. Cory wrote in with, "My Swiss heart stopped when I read your (microwave) instructions for making a crisp roesti! I am sure it will make a nice crisp potato cake, but it isn't roesti! This traditional Swiss dish requires a bit more patience. Boil whole potatoes in their skin until barely cooked. Refrigerate cooked potatoes overnight, peel and grate on the coarsest grater you can find. Heat some lard or duck fat (or ... olive oil) in a heavy frying pan and fry the potatoes as you described."

New potatoes are basically immature potatoes.

New potatoes are basically immature potatoes. Photo: William Meppem

What's a "new potato"? N. Lee

We think of potatoes as winter vegetables, as that's when we enjoy them the most, roasted with a juicy joint or mashed to serve under snorkers and onion gravy. But late summer is their harvest time. Potatoes are tubers that grow underground. When potatoes mature, the plants above ground wither and the skin on the potatoes hardens, protecting the potato and enabling it to last for months. New potatoes are basically immature potatoes, harvested early, with a very fine skin and sweet flesh. They don't store well and are best steamed or boiled and served with butter and in a potato salad with sour cream, dill and mint.

Where can you buy new potatoes? These have been listed as ingredients in recipes lately but I've never seen any for sale. Those tasteless, hard-skinned chats are not the same. J. Hanson

We plant sprouting King Edward potatoes in a big wooden box filled with hay and a little compost. In early spring we lay down a big piece of hay, cover it with compost, lay a few sprouting potatoes on it, cover them with loads of straw and then wait until the potatoes send up their sprouts. Then we cover them with more straw to stop the light getting to potatoes forming under the straw. After the potatoes flower we poke our hands under the straw, looking for bulges where potatoes might be, and twist off enough for a new potato salad. The plant survives and continues throwing out new tubers. New potatoes are thin-skinned and don't travel well, so you won't find them in supermarkets. Look at farmers' markets from early to late summer. Perhaps find a grower and ask them to pick a bag for you.

At what shade of green should I throw out my potatoes? C. Earl

You were born with an amazing organ that has been protecting you every day of your life. Your tongue is armed with taste buds that detect bitterness. They detect the bitterness in alkaloids in plants that are poisonous to us, such as the alkaloids that develop in potatoes if they are exposed to light for an extended time. In light they also produce chlorophyll, which makes them green. Potatoes can produce alkaloids if they are badly handled, and in their shoots they start their process of reproduction, which is the potato's clever way of stopping us eating its baby-making bits. So if a potato tastes very bitter, peppery or burning, don't eat it. Most of the alkaloids are found in the first five millimetres, so if you have a slightly green potato, peel off the first half a centimetre. Really green potatoes will probably be old, slightly dehydrated and worth chucking anyway. Green-potato poisoning is not common but not unheard of. Err on the side of caution and turn very green ones into Martian Mr Potato Heads.

I was recently in northern Ireland and was eating a dish called "champ". What exactly is it and how do you make it? B. Sampson

Irish food is one of the most beautiful and honest cuisines on the planet - simple food, cooked well, and often involving potatoes. There's colcannon (potato and cabbage), boxty (a type of potato pancake), and coddle sausages baked with potato. Champ is basically mashed potatoes made with milk, butter and those long green onions that Victorians called "spring onions" and which New South Welshmen call "shallots". So, take a bunch of spring onions/shallots, top and tail them, chop them (not too finely) and add them to a saucepan with a cup of milk. Bring to the boil then remove from the heat. Meanwhile peel, chop and boil a kilogram of potatoes, with a pinch of salt, until soft. Drain and roughly mash the spuds then add the milk and steeped shallots with a good pinch of salt and white pepper and whip with a fork with three tablespoons of good butter. To give you an idea of the final consistency, "champ" is actually a Scottish word, which means to chop or mash. It also describes the consistency of ground trodden and mashed by the feet of farm animals.

Note: Recently we answered a query about the Irish dish "champ", potatoes mashed with milk infused with spring onions/shallots, prompting J. Scullion to write: "This took me back to my childhood in Ireland. [Champ] was a staple at our house. However, I think you may have missed a vital step in the preparation. My mother always loosely placed a clean tea towel on the potatoes for a few minutes when they had been cooked and drained. This seemed to increase the 'flouriness' of the spuds prior to mashing them."

My mum used to make lovely fish and potato stew that was thickened with the potatoes. I can't seem to make it the same. L. Milne

I was taught to make the wonderful Scottish soup Cullen Skink by a North Sea fisherman. It's a pottage of smoked haddock, milk, onion and potato and perfect with whisky, according to the fisherman. He also thought breakfast porridge was perfectly matched with a few whiskies, as well as trips to the supermarket. He didn't slice or cube the potatoes; instead he inserted the knife a third of the way into the potato, somewhere near the end, and used the blade to break off a haggard wedge. This method causes a lot more surface area of the potato to be exposed and allows more starch to enter the liquid. As the dish cooks the starch soaks up water, swells and causes the soup or stew to thicken. Try it next time you make a soup or even a potato salad.

What is the best way to cook vegetables in an outdoor wood-fired oven? F. Benson

Those ovens are funny beasts. Despite being made of brick, sand and concrete, they seem to have personalities of their own, with hot spots, cool zones and short windows of opportunities to cook certain dishes. Because of this, expecting to serve a variety of dishes from a wood-fired oven at the same time is asking for disappointment. My mate Adrian has great wood-fired afternoons over which a multitude of dishes are served, often into the night. When the oven is quite hot, consider cooking vegetables that are best cooked quickly, such as whole beans, flat mushrooms or asparagus. Preheat a heavy ovenproof dish in the oven, such as a cast-iron tray or a terracotta pot; toss the vegetables in some extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Place them in the dish and cook for a few minutes until the skin on the green vegetables scorches a little and blisters. At these high temperatures, try finely sliced potatoes brushed on either side with melted butter and cook laid flat on a heavy aluminium tray until golden. As the temperature drops a little, consider cooking medium-chopped harder vegetables, such as fennel, carrots and onion, in a deeper pot with a little water, wine, salt and herbs. If you mix sliced chorizo with some unevenly cut potatoes, the fat from the chorizo, perhaps, with a splash of white wine, will keep the potatoes moist while the exposed fine edges of the potato will crisp. As the oven cools, cook whole unpeeled beetroots directly on the hearth, or let a big covered pot of vegetables, such as eggplant, onion and tomatoes, stew slowly in the dying heat. Cooking in a wood-fired oven gets better as you learn how it can change with the wind and weather.

Gnocchi alla romana.

Gnocchi alla romana. Photo: Emiko Davies

When I make gnocchi alla romana, the melted butter goes everywhere except on the gnocchi. G. Parker

Gnocchi is one of the first dishes I ever made. I was working at Channel Nine and the food in the canteen was notoriously bad. Maria, who worked on the till, was appalled and embarrassed at the gnocchi being served, so when I expressed an interest in how it was made, she offered to show me. She simmered whole potatoes in skins until just soft and placed them through a food ricer, not a masher. She added egg, flour and nutmeg when the potato was just warm. She hand-rolled them and shaped them with a fork. She dropped them into a pot of boiling water until they floated to the top, then placed them in a pan with butter and sage. She also made gnocchi alla romana by cooking semolina with milk and parmesan, which she made into a flat dough and cut flat rounds, which were brushed with melted butter, sprinkled with parmesan and baked. One little tip I learnt was to ditch the melted butter and simply grate the same amount of really cold butter over the gnocchi. It's a method I still prefer.

What happens if I add too much salt to my cooking? M. Kennedy

If you mean that you are consistently cooking and eating very salty food then you will probably die, most likely from cardiovascular disease. See your doctor. If you have accidentally over-seasoned a dish, however, then there is a way of remedying the situation. I remember my grandmother suffering from unsteady hands and her shaking sent a huge tablespoon of Saxa salt into her lamb chop stew. She placed a peeled potato into the stew claiming the potato would soak up the salt. As much as I loved my grandmother, she was gullible. This does not work. Salty food tastes salty because the ratio of salt to the rest of the food is too high. The only way to make the dish less salty is to add more food. It could be the addition of more unsalted stock to a soup, loads more vegetables to a stew or meat to a braise. In the case of the latter two, you might want to brown the chopped veg and cut meat before adding it. One way of avoiding over-seasoning food is to add salt as you go and constantly taste the dish. Remember that it is easy to over-season slow-cooked dishes because as they reduce in volume the ratio of salt to food increases - salt doesn't blow away with the steam.

We're going on a picnic with some coeliacs and want to make a quiche. Is there gluten-free pastry available? M. Miller

You can buy gluten-free pastry at the supermarket. The late great English food writer Elizabeth David gives us a recipe for la quiche aux pommes de terre in French Country Cooking. I have made it by exchanging wheat flour for rice flour and added an egg to bind. Cook four medium potatoes in their skins and cool. Peel and pass them through a sieve. Mix well with two tablespoons each of butter and rice flour, a pinch of salt and a lightly beaten egg to form a pastry. Roll out into a disc six millimetres thick and place into a greased and rice-floured flan tin. Press and prick all over with a fork. Chop two rashers of gluten-free bacon, sprinkle over the base and pour over 250 millilitres thick cream mixed with two eggs. Sprinkle with gruyere cheese and bake at 180C for 25 minutes. Allow to cool and transport to the picnic in the tin, as the pastry is brittle.

Potato cakes - or are they potato scallops?

Potato cakes - or are they potato scallops? Photo: Supplied


Why do Victorians call potato scallops "potato cakes"? N. Riordan

Why Victorians do many things differently, from their aerial code of football to their confusing and insufficient "pot" of beer, is a historical matter because of different waves of migration and the colonies' cultures developing separately from each other. Studies of Australian English show wonderful variations and idiosyncrasies, such as the rural Queensland expression for egg: chicken rock. On the potato scallop/potato cake divide I cannot find research as to why there is this dichotomy. What I will say is that scallop is a better culinary description because it comes from the French word escaloper, meaning to cut in fine slices. A potato cake is not, in fact, a cake. It would be best described as a potato fritter, as they do in South Australia.

Crinkle cut sweet potato chips.

Crinkle cut sweet potato chips. Photo: Simon Schluter

How do I get my sweet potatoes sweet? V. McIlroy

Sweet potatoes are like the Hemsworth boys. They start off all bland and starchy but put a little heat under them and they start to become more palatable. The cell walls in sweet potatoes, like all veg, are carbohydrate molecules made up of smaller sugar (glucose) molecules. When you heat sweet potatoes, an enzyme is released that breaks down the carbohydrate into maltose (two glucose molecules). This happens between 60C and 70C. If you put sweet potato slices straight into a hot oven they won't spend a lot of time at this temperature. Instead, peel and cut the sweet potato. Place in a saucepan of water and heat until the water is hot but not boiling. Keep on a low heat for an hour. Drain. Roast as usual. You can place sweet potatoes in a cold oven then turn the oven on to give a sweeter potato.

What is the best technique for roasting sweet potato without it becoming mushy? I. Emery

Try slicing peeled sweet potato into one-centimetre-thick discs, tossing in a little olive oil, sprinkling with salt and placing in a single layer on a baking tray and roasting at about 190 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes, turning and roasting for 10 minutes more. Crisp on the outside and soft and sweet on the inside. Watch them though because the heat causes enzymes to turn the starch to sugar that can caramelise and burn quickly.