The next round of my Thanksgiving Dinner Firehouse Challenge put real mashed potatoes vs. instant mashed potatoes. I understand the lure of instant mashed potatoes. You want comfort and you want it now. I love them so much that if food could be your spirit animal, mine would be mashed potatoes.
According to Wisegeek.com, a Canadian scientist developed instant mashed back in 1962. Nutritionally speaking, instant mashed potatoes offer roughly the same vitamins and minerals as the real mashed potatoes with the exception of Vitamin C.
To please palates, they tend to be higher in sodium, significantly higher than the amount of salt home cooks would add when making them at home from scratch. Like most brands, the instant mashed potatoes I used were based on Idaho potatoes. Here’s how the real thing stacked up to the packaged variety in our challenge.
In this challenge, I used my own recipe for Perfect Mashed Potatoes, based on the recipe I learned at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. The key to that recipe is using a food mill (one of my favorite kitchen gadgets), although you can certainly use a masher.
The lowdown on homemade mashed potatoes
At $3.99 for a five pound bag of Yukon Gold potatoes and 75 cents in butter and milk, homemade wins in the cost department. The standard serving size for mashed potatoes used by caterers is about 2/3 cup mashed potatoes per person.
However, packages for instant mashed potato list 1/2 cup as a serving, so I used that as a standard although one of my brothers would look at me as if I was punishing him if I served up only half a cup.
A pound of potatoes yields about two cups mashed or four servings. So, five pounds of potatoes yields 20 servings. Although they are not challenging, homemade mashed potatoes do take time. There’s peeling and mashing, plus you need a large pot, a strainer and at least a fork.
Process: Peel the potatoes, boil, mash with butter, milk, salt and pepper. (See my full recipe on making perfect mashed potatoes the French way.)
Active time: 18 minutes (peeling, mashing)
Total time: 38 minutes
Cost per serving: 23 cents
Ingredients: POTATOES, BUTTER, MILK, SALT, PEPPER
Instant Mashed Potatoes
In the bag, you get four ounces of powdered mashed potatoes flakes imbued with the other stuff listed below. The Idahoan package reads “with Buttery Homestyle flavored mashed potatoes, you’ll enjoy the superior taste of Idaho potatoes blended perfectly with real butter. They’re satisfyingly rich. They’re delightfully creamy. And the genuine buttery flavor is 100% irresistible.”
However, there is no actual butter listed in the ingredients, only a “butter powder” that includes sweet cream, salt and annatto coloring. But since butter is made from cream originally, this may be viewed as splitting hairs. An issue here is about the reliability of the serving size quoted. In the supermarket, I asked a woman buying this product how many servings a packet usually yields and she said two. “My husband and I usually split one.” She was buying six packets for Thanksgiving to feed seven guests. Each 1/2 cup serving contained a hearty 19% of daily sodium intake, so if you’re actually eating two servings, that 40% of your daily sodium in one cup of food. It is worth that after potatoes, the second ingredient is partially hydrogenated oil, a common additive used to extend shelf life that has can lead to elevated LDL cholesterol levels. (That’s the bad cholesterol.)
Process: Add pouch contents to boiling water. Remove from heat, let stand one minute. Fluff with fork.
Active time: 2 minutes
Total time: 4 minutes
Total Cost: $1.39 per packet
Cost per serving: 35 cents
Ingredients: IDAHO® POTATO SLICES (PRESERVED WITH SODIUM BISULFITE), PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED OIL* (CONTAINS ONE OR MORE OF THE FOLLOWING: SOYBEAN, COTTONSEED, SUNFLOWER), CORN SYRUP SOLIDS, SALT, MALTODEXTRIN, COCONUT OIL, NONFAT DRY MILK, SUGAR, WHEY POWDER, SODIUM CASEINATE, BUTTER POWDER (BUTTER: SWEET CREAM, SALT ANNATTO COLOR), NONFAT MILK SOLIDS, SODIUM CASEINATE AND DISODIUM PHOSPHATE, MONO & DIGLYCERIDES, CALCIUM STREARYL LACTYLATE, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVORS, SPICE, SODIUM ACID PYROPHOSPHATE (TO MAINTAIN FRESHNESS), SODIUM BISULFITE (TO MAINTAIN FRESHNESS), DIPOTASSIUM PHOSPHATE, LECITHIN, ARTIFICIAL COLOR, CITRIC ACID (TO MAINTAIN FRESHNESS), MIXED TOCOPHEROLS (VITAMIN E) (TO MAINTAIN FRESHNESS) AND LESS THAN 2% SILICON DIOXIDE ADDED AS AN ANTI-CAKING AGENT.
Homemade mashed potatoes: 7
Instant mashed potatoes: 0
In my taste test with a group of firefighters, all seven not only favored the real mashed potatoes over the packaged variety, they picked them out right away. Among their comments:
- “The real mashed have a butter flavor. The instant ones taste like the butter salt on popcorn.”
- “The instant ones tasted like the kind that come in a TV dinner.”
- “The [instant potatoes] are really white, like they’ve been bleached.”
- “Compared to the real potatoes, [the instant ones] taste sort of flat and salty.”
- “I have to admit, I’m used to [the instant potatoes] since I eat a lot of frozen dinners. But the real ones are way better.”
- “The homemade potatoes have a rich, smooth texture. I could eat a ton of these.”
Conclusion: When it comes to real mashed potatoes vs. instant, people can tell the difference and often right away. Try this challenge yourself and you’ll find that side-by-side, they really don’t taste the same. If you’re going to try to pass them off in place of the real thing, your guests will know. I noticed that most of the firefighters ate all of the real mashed potatoes but had only a couple of bites of the instant version. Given these results and the high number of artificial ingredients, some of them with negative health implications, the time tradeoff is generally not worth it.
Update: Packaged Mashed Potatoes
After reader feedback, I decided to do a taste test on prepared mashed potatoes sold in supermarkets. Rather than the firefighters, due to the pandemic, I tried them on my family. Hardly a scientific sampling but given our varying Irish heritages, we are people who love and adore mashed potatoes at a genetic level. I prepared a pot of my own recipe for Perfect Mashed Potatoes to compare against Simply Potatoes Classic Mashed Potatoes. I chose this brand as it had the fewest artificial ingredients and the lowest sodium.
Process: Reheat by microwave or on the stove top.
Active time: 5 to 10 minutes
Total time: 5 minutes
Total Cost: $4.49 for 24 oz.
Cost per serving: 89 cents (1/2 cup); or $1.12 (2/3 cup)
Ingredients: POTATOES, DEXTROSE, CONTAINS 1/2% OR LESS OF FOLLOWING: DISODIUM PYROPHOSPHATE (ADDED TO MAINTAIN COLOR), POTASSIUM SORBATE AND SODIUM BISULFITE (ADDED TO MAINTAIN FRESHNESS)
Homemade mashed potatoes: 4
Packaged mashed potatoes: 0 – BUT a thumbs up with a few additions
Prepared mashed potatoes are a definite time saver. No boiling, no mashing, just heat and serve. In a disclosure moment, I confess that I sometimes buy them when short on time. Side by side with homemade, however, we agreed, that they lacked the rich flavor of real mashed potatoes and had a slightly metallic salt flavor.
HOWEVER…I took the same potatoes, heated them on the stove and added 1 tablespoon butter and a 1/4 cup of cream and a couple grinds of fresh ground pepper. This improved the flavor dramatically and seemed to offset the salt issue. While we could still pick out the homemade version, everyone finished their testing bowl.
Conclusion: If you’re going to go with prepared potatoes, I recommend looking for a brand with few ingredients and then heighten the flavor with a bit of added cream, butter and if desired, pepper and maybe even a bit of garlic powder. If you’re looking for a shortcut for a holiday dinner, this is a much better option than instant. With a bit of added richness, this is definitely a shortcut that could go undetected by guests.
Be sure to check out my complete Thanksgiving guide for more tips and recipes.
This is part of a story based on a taste test with seven Florida firefighters in 2013. This page has been updated. Main mashed photo by Foodio, the rest by Kathleen Flinn. This post may contain affiliate links.