Science and mashed potatoes

It is Thanksgiving time – last year we talked about turkey & pumpkin pie… this year, mashed potatoes and gravy!

This is the latest article from Michigan State University Extension about science and the natural world that anyone can conduct with children. This can be done within a family, in a day-care setting, as part of school activities, a 4-H club or with any group working with young children.

Most people pile mashed potatoes on their plate during Thanksgiving; sometimes it is more popular than the turkey or pie. What makes good mashed potatoes? Try some experiments to see what the true answer is. You probably want to experiment before the big holiday dinner arrives; you don’t want grandma to have to eat mashed potatoes that taste and feel like library paste.

  1. Start by talking about how you like your potatoes. Do you like them to have the consistency of pudding so they slowly ooze across the plate in creamy goodness? Or do you like them to be thicker so you can stick your spoon in them it will stand up straight? Do you like chunks in them? What about skins? Should other flavorings in them, such as garlic, cheese, or herbs? What do you think leads to the difference in the final product?
  2. When you go to the farmer’s market or the store to buy your potatoes, notice how many types there are. Why do you think there are so many kinds of potatoes? Russets, Yukon gold, fingerling, red skinned, Peruvian purple potatoes, sweet potatoes and many more may show up in the store. Notice where they are grown. Are any grown in Michigan? Are the ones grown in Michigan different than the ones grown in other places? Why? Which do you think would be best for mashed potatoes? Baked potatoes? Potato salad?
  3. Before you cut open the potato, examine it. It is even better if you have more than one kind of potato to examine. Potatoes are called “root vegetables” but is it really a root? Compare a potato to a carrot or turnip or onion. How are they the same and different? (Potatoes are a modified stem, called a tuber, not a true root. But don’t tell kids that until they have had some time to make observations first.)
  4. Are there eyes on the potato? What are the eyes for? Would they grow if you planted them? If you cut into the potato, is it different under the eye than other places? If there are not eyes, can you guess where they would grow if you gave the potato more time? Is a potato more likely to sprout in the dark or on a windowsill?
  5. Cut into the potato and notice how it feels inside. Smell it too. If you have several types of potatoes, notice the differences. Try grating different types of potatoes and see if you get any differences in how they feel. Rub the cut end on a piece of paper and notice what happens. Do different potatoes put off different amounts of moisture?
  6. Next, try cooking the potatoes. What difference will it have if you peel them or not? Can you peel them after you cook them? Do they cook differently if you put them in cold water and let it heat up on the stove or if you wait and put the potatoes directly in boiling water. Are whole cooked potatoes different in flavor or texture than those that have been cut up first?
  7. How do you mash the potatoes? How does that change the final product? Can you mash them too much? Try using a standard potato masher, a potato ricer, a food processor, and/or a stand mixer and compare the results. What leads to the difference?
  8. Dairy is a common addition to mashed potatoes. In the form of milk, cream cheese, sour cream, cream, butter, buttermilk, cheese, or a combination of the above. Should the dairy be added before or after mashing? Will it make a difference? How do different forms of dairy change the final texture and flavor. Guess which your group will like the best, prepare them, and then have a taste-test.
  9. Are potatoes healthy for you? Does it matter what you add to them? Do different varieties of potatoes (or sweet potatoes) have different amounts of calories? What about the skins?

Have fun experimenting and try to make the ultimate mashed potatoes for your Thanksgiving meal.

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