Want to know how to make the best mashed potato recipe? Start by avoiding these common missteps. 

By Betty Gold and Dawn Perry
Updated December 04, 2019
Advertisement

For some—OK, most—winter holiday feasts wouldn’t be complete without a big bowl of luscious buttery mashed potatoes. Everybody holds dear their quintessential ideal and while you might not be able to please everybody, there are a handful of dos, and definite don’ts, to keep in mind. So just in time for Mashed Potato Season, we're revealing what you're doing wrong and what to do instead when it comes to everyone's favorite creamy spud-centric side.

1. You’re Only Using Russet Potatoes

To be clear, there are two types of potatoes. Not French fries and potato skins (although I’m willing to hear this argument), but starchy and waxy. There’s actually a starchy to waxy spectrum: ruddy-skinned russets and Idahos being on the very starchy end, and thin-skinned new potatoes and the like on the other. Russets cook up very light and fluffy, while waxier spuds hold their shape better, which makes them ideal for roasting and potato salad. My preference? A mix of russet potatoes and a nice middle-of-the-road potato, like my favorite, Yukon Gold. Mashed together, these potatoes are sturdy enough to handle a decent amount of dairy, but with enough airy volume to keep things from feeling too heavy.

2. You're Forgetting to Wash Them Before Simmering

Oof. It may sound obvious, but many of us typically forget this step—you're submerging them in water, after all. But potatoes grow underground, fam, and they're covered in dirt. When you simmer a dirty potato, the soil and other bits of grime will pull away from the skin and "flavor" the water, which then gets absorbed by that very potato. The result? Basically, a dirt-flavored spud.

3. You're Dropping the Potatoes in Boiling Water

When cooking starchy foods like potatoes, you have to be careful not to overcook the outside before the inside is sufficiently tender. By dropping raw potatoes right into a pot of boiling water, it's likely that their exterior will be completely mushy by the time the interior is considered edible. Instead, try to get everything in the pot to come to the same temperature at the same time: add potato pieces to the pot, cover them with water until they're just submerged, then turn on the stove. And rather than aggressively boiling them, keep them at a steady simmer for more even cooking.

4. You’re Under-Seasoning the Potatoes

Potatoes are, by nature, really starchy and starches require a decent amount of salt to taste good. Adding tons of salt to the water your potatoes boil in is necessary to get the seasoning inside the spuds. Under-seasoning means only the outside of your potatoes will taste like anything, which accounts for very little of the finished dish. Cooking your potatoes in very generously salted water—about a tablespoon of water per pound of potatoes—means the potatoes will be seasoned all the way through. Once mashed, they'll need a lot less salt on the back end.

5. You're Using the Wrong Mashing Tool

A food mill or potato ricer is the way to go here. Pummeling your cooked spuds in a food processor is a surefire way to end up with a way-too-gluey texture; forks and handheld potato mashers are inconsistent, leaving you with some overly mashed bits and other untouched clumps. A mill or ricer is the best balance of mechanical and physical. Their holes will extrude the potatoes evenly, consistently, and with little effort.

6. You’re Not Using Enough Butter

If there’s a time and a place to submit to the extra stick, Thanksgiving or Christmas Day is it. Some fancy French mashies call for more than a stick of butter for every pound of potatoes. You don’t have to go crazy, but don’t skimp.

7. You’re Using Butter Alone

That said, I think potatoes need more than just butter to be truly delicious. Whether you choose to cook them in half-and-half or milk or add heavy and/or sour cream at the end, a little extra dairy creates luscious texture and is an easy way to infuse other flavors into the dish.

8. You're Not Using Fresh Herbs

If you’re mashing your potatoes with a little (or a lot) of dairy, take advantage. Potatoes will mash easiest with warm liquid. To give that certain I-don’t-know-what to your taters, add a few sprigs of fresh rosemary, thyme, or sage to the milk before heating. Even a single bay leaf can add big flavor to humble spuds. While you're at it, add a teaspoon of black peppercorns (just don't forget to fish them out), a strip of lemon zest, or a few shavings of nutmeg.

9. You’re Not Saving Your Potato Water

To mash ahead or not to mash ahead, that is the question. The short answer: yes you CAN mash your potatoes ahead of time BUT only if you save some of your starchy potato cooking liquid. Even if your potatoes set up a bit, a glug of warm liquid will loosen them up just fine. Just be sure you add slowly—you can always add more, but you can’t take it out.

10. You’re Not Making Donuts With The Leftovers

Or quesadillas, or egg rolls, or waffles. Big mistake. Big. Huge! Here are 17 more mind-blowing ways to use up leftover mashed potatoes. Not that you’ll have any.