What is the point of instant mashed potatoes?
The value proposition of a useful frozen or instant food is that it takes less time to prepare than its analogous regular food and tastes only a little worse. The bigger the ratio between the percentage of prep time saved and the percentage of flavor sacrificed, the better suited the food is for being frozen or deconstructed into powder.
The ideal meal of this type is, therefore, something like chicken nuggets. Preparing frozen chicken nuggets requires only shaking a bag onto a sheet pan. The resulting meal is usually closely comparable, if not frankly superior, to what an average home cook can achieve by chopping apart a chicken, rolling the pieces in a breadcrumb-egg mixture, and frying them—a process that not only requires a great deal of work but also creates a significant burden of dishwashing and surface-sterilizing.
Instant mashed potatoes, on the other hand, are hardly saving anyone any time at all, at great cost to the consumption experience. The instructions on the Idahoan website outline a four-step preparation process.
Combine water, salt, and margarine.
Heat to a boil.
Remove from heat and add milk.
Stir in “potatoes.”
This is as many steps as is required to make regular mashed potatoes:
Heat water and potatoes to a boil.
Remove from heat and mash.
Stir in butter, milk, sour cream, etc.
That’s it! It’s so simple and hard to screw up that it almost shouldn’t count as cooking. But let’s review some potential objections you might still have.
• “What about the time it takes to peel the potatoes?” If this is an issue, then don’t peel your potatoes. Once boiled and mashed, the skins taste fine, add character, and are, I assume, nutritious.
• “It takes longer to boil regular potatoes than to boil water for instant potatoes because you have to wait for the regular potatoes to soften in the boiling water.” This doesn’t sound like a problem to me. It sounds like an opportunity to get a beer from the garage—if not to savor that beer and engage family members in conversation about recent developments in their lives and what the outlook is like for their local sports teams.
• “Chopping raw potatoes and mashing the pieces once they’re cooked takes longer than opening a box of flakes and stirring them into hot water.” Not much longer for the latter activity, at least. This video suggests that stirring instant potato powder into water takes 40 seconds, and the resulting mixture still needs to sit for several minutes. Mashing takes about the same length of time, particularly if you like mashed potatoes that are a little lumpy, which is a sign of good character. And this is to say nothing of what you might call the tactile satisfaction gap between the act of mashing and the act of stirring. Smash, smash, smoosh, smush!
That said, it is true that chopping potatoes takes more time than opening a box of potato flakes. This is the only good point you’ve made.
• “I tend to overstate my affection for cheap, instant foods because I’m anxious on a barely conscious level about the level of material comfort that I enjoy as a resident of a prosperous developed country, and because our culture in general has, for decades, been engaged in a prolonged backlash against highbrow-lowbrow status distinctions.” Relatable, and also why we hear so much about Taylor Swift. But not germane to this discussion.
At best, then, we’ve seen that instant mashed potatoes save their users the amount of time it takes to chop several raw potatoes, which is not much time. Chopping potatoes is one of the easiest chopping jobs there is. The cubes can be large and uneven; you’re going to smash them later anyway. Meanwhile, it is evident from the number of articles online about how to make instant mashed potatoes taste better that their taste is less than satisfactory. Here’s a truly foolproof tip about how to avoid the problem of instant mashed potatoes that don’t taste good: Throw that box of instant mashed potatoes in the trash.