The potato masher, a classic American kitchen implement, is a commonly-recognized tool with its sturdy wooden handle and trademark curvy, zig-zag wire head. Is it impossible to mash ‘taters without it? No. Is it loads faster and easier with it? Of course it is. And, while requiring a bit of elbow grease and wrist strength, using one produces a smooth, low-lump mash every time.
Like your potatoes chunky? No prob. Mash as hard or as soft, as quick or as thoroughly as you want, customizing your texture to your preferences and dish.
There are a few other versions, some round, some with a flat, hole-studded mashing plate, some stainless, some made entirely of silicone. These things take a good beating and lots of pressure and push, so I recommend going with good materials that will hold up over time. Williams Sonoma makes a fancy, swirly coiled kind, which seems like it’d work through the mash nicely, but I’m not too crazy about their plastic handle.
Aside from smashing potatoes, you can use mashers for other roots like yucca and carrots, squash, egg salad, grapes or fruits for jams, hummus, avocados, refried beans, and whatever other soft-but-solid mashing needs you might have.
You’ll generally need to roast or boil before mashing to get your ingredients nice and soft. If you’re having a hard time pushing through, try adding a bit of the cooking water—or broth, or butter, or cream, or any liquid(s) of your choice—to loosen it up.
I find that a bit of a twist in the wrist as you mash helps break down the body of your produce and keeps big globs from clumping onto the end. If you do end up wielding around a big wad of mash, just gently tap the masher onto the edge of your bowl or pan to release it.