Making the fluffiest mashed potatoes is sometimes elusive – mashing with an old fashion potato masher or beating with a spoon can leave lumps, while employing a mixer can lead to a gluey consistency. For years professional chefs have known the trick to perfecting light and fluffy potatoes: they employ a simple device known as a ricer.
A ricer, or potato ricer, is an implement that resembles a large garlic press, and it works in much the same way. It has a large open chamber with a heavy fine mesh at one, opposite a heavy plunger. The chamber is often 3-4 inches across – large enough to hold several pieces of cooked potato. Using one is simplicity itself – just place pieces of cooked potato in the chamber and squeeze the handles. A ricer can also be used to squeeze water from grated, raw vegetables – helping create the crispiest texture for hashbrowns, vegetable pancakes or latkes.
A ricer results in fluffier, lighter potatoes because it does not break down the structure as other methods do. It gets its name from the appearance of the potatoes after they pass through the tiny holes in the mesh – the potatoes resemble small grains of rice. Ricers can also be used on any number of other foods. Most root vegetables, including carrot, parsnip, turnip and sweet potato can be used with a ricer, as well as any number of cooked fruits. Ricers can be used to process homemade baby foods as well, with the resulting food having a light, silky texture appropriate for infants.
In addition to processing simple foods, ricers can be used in the making of gnocchi (in Florence its called topini) and spaetzle. Gnocchi are an Italian dumpling, made of riced potatoes and flour, which are then boiled like pasta, and served with any number of sauces, or lightly sautéed. Spaetzle are a German egg noodle (the name means ‘little sparrow’) with a soft, light consistency, that are served traditionally with dishes with heavy sauces, such as sauerbraten, or sautéed simple with butter and onion. Both gnocchi and spaetzle are simple to prepare, and a wonderful addition to the starch lineup.
There are a few people who find the use of a potato ricer either cumbersome, because of its shape, or unnecessary, preferring tools that are more likely to be multi-taskers. In this case, much the same effect as a ricer can be obtain through the use of a heavy colander, or the larger, more expensive food mill, which has a wider application of uses. To use a colander, the food is manually pressed through the holes of the sieve.
If you wish to use a ricer (or one of the alternate methods) for mashed potatoes, the technique is easy. Boil russet potatoes, cut into chunks, in heavily salted water until fork tender. You may peel them first, or once cooked, let them rest on a cutting board and peel them once cool enough to handle. This might let them get too cool to retain heat if you wish to serve them immediately after ricing though. Another method is to place the cooked, unpeeled potatoes in the ricer and mash the handle – the skins will separate and remain in the chamber (this way saves a step, which makes it my favorite!). Once all the potato has passed through the ricer, proceed as you normally would with the mashed potatoes, adding whichever seasonings and butter you wish. One note – don’t mix too much once the potatoes are riced – over mixing can destroy the fluffy texture that the ricer gives you. Other vegetables and fruits can be treated in exactly the same manner.
If you wish to make gnocchi, then the dough is made with potatoes riced, but unseasoned. The potatoes are mixed with flour and egg, and then the small dumplings are made with the resulting dough. Spaetzle is made from a simple flour and egg batter, which is then passed through the ricer and into boiling water.
Most potato ricers are dishwasher safe, and are easy to clean in any case. If you wish to purchase one, concentrate on the simpler models. Look for a heavy chamber, and sturdy handles. A nice bonus is a padded grip on the handles. Although a few models from high-end manufacturers can run as much as $100, that’s the exception. Most quality ricers will range between $25-40, with a few simple models as low as $10-12. A good quality, serviceable ricer will set you back about $30.