By Vaughn Vreeland, The New York Times
Mashed potatoes, while buttery and delicious, can also be a little uninspired. To me, they’ve always felt like filler on my Thanksgiving plate — an afterthought, more vehicle for gravy than anything else.
I wondered: How could I turn a “just fine” side dish into something more exciting?
The answer may be brown butter.
In the hopes of discovering my platonic ideal, I started testing reader suggestions accompanying a blueprint recipe from Julia Moskin (at nytcooking.com), playing with potato variety, cooking and mashing methods, and flavors.
I had a few essential findings: All cooks think their version is supreme (all were delicious!). How you mash is up to you (one reader suggests finding a teenager “with a strong arm and a good heart who loves hanging out in the kitchen”). And, at the end of the day, you can make just about anything taste good with enough butter and salt.
In the end, my favorite version emerged from a 2-year-old Thanksgiving memory. Stuck in a mid-pandemic slump and antsy to revive my culinary curiosities, I decided to bolster the potatoes with a little brown butter. I haven’t looked back since.
This dish infuses earthy russet potatoes with the toasty, nutty notes of brown butter and the aromas of garlic, rosemary and thyme, imparting a distinct flavor that makes them taste luxurious without much extra work or ingredients.
Browning butter may seem intimidating, but doing so is really quite simple. Its transformation is at once incremental and instantaneous. You may not think you’re browning it right, and then, all of a sudden, it happens.
As butter heats in a saucepan, the water content begins to evaporate, resulting in a vigorous boil. After about 5 or so minutes of bubbling, a hush falls. The liquid becomes more viscous, and the bubbles turn to foam. The milk solids underneath start to caramelize and turn chestnut brown. Be mindful, for butter can go from brown to burned very quickly. As soon as brown flecks rise to the surface, remove it from the heat and stir well, taking care to scrape the “fond” — the bits stuck on the bottom of the pan.
The result is a brilliant amber, a combination of toasted milk solids and clarified butter, with a nutty aroma reminiscent of a bakery in France. I tend to make a big batch of brown butter the day before Thanksgiving so that I can sneak it into desserts, the gravy and, of course, the mashed potatoes.
Recipe: Brown-Butter Mashed Potatoes
By Vaughn Vreeland
The simple act of browning butter takes this holiday mainstay from simple to superb in a matter of minutes. Russet potatoes are the perfect blank canvas for the toasty, nutty notes of the brown butter, which is lifted to a starring role as it permeates the potatoes and pools on top. Mashed potato purists may say that using a ricer or food mill is the only way to achieve a creamy texture, but a hand mixer or potato masher works just as well, as long as you don’t overmix and your potatoes stay hot. Make sure to create divots for the pools of brown butter that sit atop the dish, which make each spoonful feel extra luxe.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
Total time: 1 hour
- 1 cup/2 sticks unsalted butter
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 head of garlic, halved
- 4 thyme sprigs or 3 rosemary sprigs
- Kosher salt and black pepper
- 4 pounds russet potatoes (about 8 medium potatoes)
1. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Once it begins to bubble vigorously, cook for another 6 to 8 minutes, swirling occasionally, until the bubbles subside and turn into foam, and toasty brown flecks begin to float on the surface. Take off the heat and scrape the bottom of the pan. Pour the browned butter into a heatproof measuring cup and set aside to cool slightly. (Don’t clean the saucepan.)
2. Add the milk to the saucepan and heat over low. Give the brown butter a stir, then add all but a scant 1/4 cup into the milk. Add the garlic and herbs and steep over low for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil over high heat. Peel and quarter the potatoes (see Tip for make-ahead instructions). Boil the potatoes for 15 to 20 minutes, until a fork goes through them without resistance. Drain the potatoes and return them to the dry pot. Put over low heat and shake the potatoes to dry them out.
4. Strain the warm milk mixture over the potatoes (or just pluck out and discard the garlic and herbs) and mash with a potato masher or a hand mixer on low speed until your desired consistency is reached. Taste and season with salt and pepper. (If making ahead, turn off the heat and cover with a lid to keep warm for up to 30 minutes.)
5. Transfer to a large serving bowl. Make a few divots on the surface with the back of a spoon and pour the reserved brown butter on top.
You can peel and cut the potatoes up to 4 hours ahead; keep them in a bowl of cool water to keep them from discoloring.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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