I’m a big proponent of real foods, whole foods, minimally processed foods, etc. Or at least I’d like to think I am. I have to admit that I lurve me some bacon, and no matter how you slice it, bacon isn’t a minimally processed food. But I do cook most things from scratch and my policy generally is that if it comes from a box and isn’t pasta, I don’t buy it. And there are definitely some other things that bring out my inner food snob in a mad, mad way.
American cheese slices? They do not make me proud to be an American. Macaroni & cheese that has the word Kraft in front of it? No thank you. Totino’s Pizza Rolls? Oh hellz no, that’s not coming into my house!
Instant mashed potatoes have always been on my #FoodieOhHellNo list. I don’t think I’ve ever bought them before now. I love mashed potatoes but I usually forget to get them started in time to have with dinner. There is no denying that the washing, boiling, mashing process takes a little while. Plus, I hate touching raw potatoes. It grosses me out. I don’t know why.
So I was at the grocery store and wondered. What would it be like, just this once, to be able to pour flakes into a bowl with hot water and milk and have something to serve? I picked up a box and looked at the ingredients.
What are potato flakes?
To my great surprise, I discovered that potato flakes are just that: Dehydrated flakes of actual potatoes! Most do have added preservatives, but Bob’s Red Mill Potato Flakes have one ingredient: dehydrated potatoes. Alas, I couldn’t find Bob’s Flakes at any of the three grocery stores I visited, including my local co-op. I opted for Idahoan Original.
How are they made?
- Get some potatoes. Russets seem to be the potato of choice.
- Wash & peel the potatoes.
- Cook the potatoes.
- Mash the potatoes.
- Put the potatoes into a dehydrator or drum dryer.
- Break up and grind to the desired size flake.
Maybe instant mashed potatoes aren’t as much of a blasphemy as I’d thought. I decided to give it a go. I looked around to make sure no one else was on the aisle and carefully arranged the package under the other items in the cart. I avoided eye contact with the cashier as she scanned my items and cast a scornful eye on me.
Why add preservatives?
The Oregon Potato Company makes potato flakes for other companies. These are the preservatives a customer can ask for, and why they might ask for them. Please note that I am not advocating for any of them! I was just curious about why they would be added:
- Mono & diglycerides: Ties up free starch to reduce stickiness and to provide release from the drum dryers (Required by this company).
- Sodium bisulfite: Inhibits browning – color control
- Sodium and pyrophosphate: Inhibits greying – color control
- Citric acid: process aid for emulsions stability
- BHA, BHT: Inhibits oxidation – flavor preservation
- Color, spice and vitamins: Added as requested by the customer
I did a head-to-head comparison, using my husband and the 4-year-olds as the professionally trained taste-testers.
The time involved
- 7 minutes to wash, peel, cut 5 potatoes
- 15 min to boil the potatoes to desired tenderness
- 3 minutes to mash the potatoes and then stir in the butter and milk
- Total: About 25 minutes
- 5 minutes to boil water
- 3 minutes to stir everything together and wait for it to plump up
- Total: About 8 minutes
SCORE: Flakes 1, Scratch 0
Taste & texture
I employed a very scientific method for determining which version of mashed potatoes tasted better: I glopped some on a couple of plates and told everyone to try them. Hubby said mashed #1 (from scratch) had a slightly better flavor and that the texture was indistinguishable between the two. He declined to guess which was the homemade, saying he liked both.
The Littles had some on a blue plate and some on a green plate. At first I just had them taste some from each plate and then tell me which they liked better. It should have occurred to me that they would favor the potatoes that were on the plate they liked best (green for one of them, blue for the other). So I made them close their eyes while I fed them tastes. When I asked which they liked better they each pointed again to the plate in their favorite color. Neither seemed objectionable to either one of them, so I’d say it’s a draw.
SCORE: Flakes 0, Scratch .5
Using potato flakes is probably something I won’t do very often, so ordering a case of Bob’s Red Mill online would be overkill. That leaves the preserved-to-varying-degrees grocery store versions. I do try to avoid added preservatives, HFCS, and certainly artificial colors & flavors, but the flake potatoes don’t seem to have anything hugely objectionable if I’m only going to buy it once in a great while. But if I would only buy it once in a while, I would end up with a box sits on the shelf for a couple of months (or 12, like the box of Bisquick I buy once a year to make Christmas morning sausage balls). If I’m only planning to make mashed potatoes once a month, shouldn’t I just buck up and spend the extra time making them from scratch?
For me, the answer is yes. Yes I should. I thought the instant mashed potatoes would taste really, really gross. I was surprised that they compared so well to the homemade mashed potatoes. In fact, I was a little hurt when my husband thought the flavor of each was good enough that he didn’t want to hazard a guess at which was homemade! And I can’t deny the convenience. If one of the kids was dying for some mashed potatoes I could nuke 1 serving and have it on the table in under 3 minutes.
But the added preservatives…. We just don’t need them and don’t want them.
SCORE: Flakes 0, Scratch 1
The final score was much, much closer than I’d ever have guessed it would be.
Flakes 1, Scratch 1.5
In the end, it was the further-from-nature component that clinched it for me. Mashed potatoes (and potatoes in general) aren’t something we eat on a weekly basis, so the convenience factor, while undeniable, turned out not to be the most important.
If I could get over my disgust at the idea of touching raw potatoes we might have mashed potatoes more often.
Do you use boxed potato flakes? Did you grow up eating them? What do you think about using them?