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Thanksgiving debates: Mashed or smashed potatoes, dry or wet brining

November 24, 2014

Start with baking potatoes to make the best creamy mashed potatoes.

Thanksgiving is a holiday when we all eat together in a spirit of warmth, kindness and loving togetherness. Unless, of course, someone mentions brining a turkey. Or brings up the matter of mashed versus "smashed" potatoes. Then things can get really ugly really quick.

Cooks and eaters have strong opinions and are not afraid to express them. The fact that one person has a big knife in his hand (and controls the flow of the food) is sometimes all that keeps dinner from dissolving into a riot.

What are these two particular controversies about?

The question of potatoes is purely one of taste. Or, perhaps more accurately, texture.

Classic mashed potatoes are silky, smooth and wonderfully rich. You can get this combination only with baking potatoes and copious amounts of butter and cream. The type of potato is important because these drier potatoes have a high percentage of starch, specifically of a type called amylose that dissolves during cooking. These potatoes crumble almost to flour after cooking, making them perfect for whipping into a light, smooth puree.

There are those who say that the recent popularity of so-called smashed potatoes is nothing more than nostalgia for what we used to call lumpy potatoes. Whatever. There are times when a velvet-smooth puree is not what you want, when you hunger for something a little more substantial. For these, you use what are usually called boiling potatoes. These contain more moisture than bakers and are higher in a starch called amylopectin, which holds them together after cooking.

Incidentally, it’s this amylopectin, which is also present albeit in smaller amounts in bakers, that turns potatoes pureed in a food processor into a gluey mess.

When it comes to turkeys, the argument is about the best way to brine: salting the meat so that the chemistry of the muscle changes, enabling it to retain moisture longer during the cooking process, preventing the meat from drying out.

The big question is whether it is better to brine a bird by sticking it in a bucket of salt water or by simply sprinkling it with salt. (Indeed, there are many out there who are already howling at calling the latter "brining" at all, since it doesn’t involve salted water. They were probably hall monitors in junior high. Pay them no mind.)

Having been a devoted member of both camps at different times in my cooking career, for the last several years I have come down firmly in the dry-brining camp. This is for reasons of both practicality and taste.

Practically speaking, dry-brining wins because you don’t need to keep a big icy bucket of bird in your refrigerator.

For many, that is reason enough by itself. But more important, I think, dry-brining makes a better turkey. With wet-brining, the bird absorbs so much moisture the meat feels spongy when you slice through it. With dry-brining, the meat stays moist but keeps a firm and muscular texture.

That is my preference. Other cooks I respect, notably chef Thomas Keller, disagree and still favor wet-brining. I prefer to think this is because they have not yet tried to do it my way, but I’m not going to fight about it. It’s Thanksgiving, after all.

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CREAMY MASHED POTATOES

30 minutes. Serves 4.

6 baking potatoes, unpeeled

Salt

1/2 to 3/4 cup hot milk, evaporated milk, half-and-half or whipping cream

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, softened

Pepper

Cream, optional

1. Cook the potatoes: To boil, in a heavy saucepan cook the potatoes in enough simmering, salted water to cover until fork-tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Check occasionally and add more water if necessary. To steam, place a wire rack on the bottom of a kettle or large saucepan, and add water to just below the level of the rack. Bring the water to boil, add the potatoes, cover tightly and cook until fork-tender, 30 to 45 minutes. If the lid is not tight-fitting, check occasionally to see if water should be added.

2. Peel the potatoes while they’re still hot.

3. Use a potato masher, electric mixer or ricer to mash the potatoes.

4. Beating with a mixer or wooden spoon, gradually add heated milk, evaporated milk, half-and-half or whipping cream, according to taste, until light and fluffy. Potatoes will be creamier and thinner if more liquid is used. Finish with softened butter to taste. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

5. Serve immediately or spoon into a buttered casserole and pour a light film of cream on top. Keep warm in a 250-degree oven, covered with a towel to absorb the steam.

EACH SERVING

Calories 514

Protein 9 g

Carbohydrates 92 g

Fiber 8 g

Fat 13 g

Saturated fat 8 g

Cholesterol 34 mg

Sugar 6 g

Sodium 42 mg

SMASHED POTATOES WITH CREME FRAÎCHE AND CHIVES

25 minutes. Serves 4.

1 1/4 pounds small fingerling potatoes

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick), cut into pieces

3/4 teaspoon fleur de sel

1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

6 tablespoons creme fraîche

1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

2 tablespoons sliced chives, 1 inch long

1. Place the potatoes in a medium pot and cover with cold water by at least 4 inches. Add 1 tablespoon kosher salt. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat and simmer gently for about 15 minutes, until the potatoes are tender when pierced. Drain the potatoes and set aside, reserving a cup of the potato water.

2. Return the potatoes to the pot over medium heat and smash them slightly with a hand masher.

3. Add the butter and fleur de sel. Stir to coat the potatoes with the butter.

4. Add about 3 tablespoons of the reserved potato water to help coat and glaze the potatoes. Adjust seasonings and stir in the parsley.

5. To serve, place one-half cup potatoes on a serving plate. Top with a generous tablespoon of creme fraîche, a pinch of cracked black pepper and chives.

EACH SERVING

Calories 245

Protein 3 g

Carbohydrates 25 g

Fiber 3 g

Fat 15 g

Saturated fat 9 g

Cholesterol 40 mg

Sugar 2 g

Sodium 737 mg

NOTE: Adapted from a recipe by Suzanne Goin of Lucques restaurant.

DRY-BRINED TURKEY WITH SAGE AND BAY SALT

3 hours, plus 3 days chilling. Serves 12 to 14.

1/4 cup kosher salt

10 dried bay leaves, crumbled

3/4 teaspoon ground sage

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 (12- to 16-pound) turkey

1. Pulse together the salt, bay leaves, ground sage and black pepper in a spice grinder or mash them with a mortar and pestle to make a fine powder. Makes 1/3 cup. The mixture can be stored in a tightly sealed jar for up to 2 weeks.

2. Wash the turkey inside and out, pat it dry and weigh it. Measure 1 tablespoon of salt mixture into a bowl for every 5 pounds the turkey weighs (for a 15-pound turkey, you’d have 3 tablespoons kosher salt).

3. Sprinkle the inside of the turkey lightly with salt. Place the turkey on its back and salt the breasts, concentrating the salt in the center, where the meat is thickest. You’ll probably use a little more than a tablespoon. It should look liberally seasoned but not oversalted. Turn the turkey on one side and sprinkle the entire side with salt, concentrating on the thigh. Use a little less than a tablespoon. Flip the turkey over and do the same with the other side.

5. Place the turkey in a 2 1/2-gallon sealable plastic bag, press out the air and seal tightly. Place the turkey breast-side up in the refrigerator. Chill for 3 days, leaving it in the bag but turning it and massaging the salt into the skin every day.

6. Remove the turkey from the bag. There should be no salt visible on the surface, and the skin should be moist but not wet. Wipe the turkey dry with a paper towel, place it breast-side up on a plate and refrigerate it uncovered for at least 8 hours.

7. On the day it is to be cooked, remove the turkey from the refrigerator and leave it at room temperature at least 1 hour. Heat the oven to 425 degrees.

8. Place the turkey on a roasting rack in a roasting pan; put it in the oven. After 30 minutes, reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees, and roast until a thermometer inserted in the deepest part of the thigh, but not touching the bone, reads 165 degrees, about 2 3/4 hours total roasting.

9. Remove the turkey from the oven, transfer it to a warm platter or carving board; tent loosely with foil. Let stand at least 30 minutes to let the juices redistribute through the meat. Carve and serve.

EACH OF 14 SERVINGS

Calories 472

Protein 64 g

Carbohydrates 0

Fiber 0

Fat 22 g

Saturated fat 6 g

Cholesterol 186 mg

Sugar 0

Sodium 643 mg

BASIC WET-BRINED TURKEY

3 hours, plus 12 hours chilling. Serves 12 to 14.

2/3 cup salt

1 gallon water

1 (12- to 16-pound) turkey

1. Combine the salt and water in a large pitcher and stir until the salt dissolves. Place the turkey in a pot just large enough to hold it and pour the saltwater over it. If the turkey is completely covered, don’t worry about using all the brine. Cover the top with foil and refrigerate 6 hours or overnight, turning 2 or 3 times to make sure the turkey is totally submerged.

2. Remove the turkey from the brine and pat it dry with paper towels. Return it to the pot and refrigerate it, uncovered, 6 hours or overnight to dry thoroughly.

3. Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Place the turkey on its side on a rack in a shallow roasting pan and roast 15 minutes. Turn the turkey to its other side and roast another 15 minutes. Finally turn it breast-side up and roast another 15 minutes.

4. Reduce the heat to 325 degrees and roast until a meat thermometer inserted in the center of the thickest part of the thigh registers 160 to 165 degrees, about 2 hours. Remove the turkey from the oven and set it aside for 20 minutes before carving.

EACH OF 14 SERVINGS

Calories 472

Protein 64 g

Carbohydrates 0

Fiber 0

Fat 22 g

Saturated fat 6 g

Cholesterol 186 mg

Sugar 0

Sodium 762 mg

 

 


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