My favorite part of Thanksgiving? A plate piled high with fluffy, rich mashed potatoes. (Truth be told, this is my favorite part of any meal, any day, any time of the year!) Unfortunately, we’ve all had that side of mashed potatoes that falls droopy and dull. Even worse? A gooey, gluey mess. Talk about disappointing!
Well, today is your lucky day. As a former restaurant chef, I’m an expert in making mashed potatoes. There’s no big secret to making this side dish shine. But there are mistakes to avoid.
Mistake 1: Using the Wrong Potato
There are two types of potatoes: waxy and starchy. Which makes the better masher? Starchy—100 percent of the time. Waxy varieties (like white- or red-skinned potatoes) can become gummy when mashed and don’t absorb as much buttery-cream flavor.
What to do instead: Use a starchy potato, like a russet or Yukon Gold. They’re low in moisture, high in starch and break down to become fluffy when cooked.
Mistake 2: Cutting Them Too Small (or Cutting Them Unevenly)
Small chunks may cook faster, but they take on too much water, preventing absorption of the butter and cream later on. Similarly, if your cuts are uneven (large and small chunks), the potatoes won’t cook at the same rate, leading to uncooked lumps in the mash.
What to do instead: Quarter your potatoes so they are all the same medium size. It will take a little bit longer for the potatoes to cook through, but trust me–it’s worth the wait.
Mistake 3: Starting Potatoes in Boiling Water
If you’re adding potatoes to boiling water, chances are good you’ll end up with lumpy mashed potatoes. They cook on the outside before cooking through on the inside.
What to do instead: Place the potatoes in the pot and cover them with cold water. Bring the mixture to a boil before reducing the heat to a rapid simmer.
Mistake 4: Not Salting the Water
Cooking potatoes in plain water makes, well, plain potatoes. Have you ever eaten a potato by itself? Pretty bland stuff. Waiting until the end to salt won’t coax the maximum amount of flavor from the potatoes, and you run the risk of overmixing (we’ll get to that in a minute).
What to do instead: Start with salted cooking water. The potatoes will absorb the salt as they cook and become seasoned, flavorful and delicious.
Mistake 5: Overcooking or Undercooking the Potatoes
Overcooked potatoes make mealy, watery mashers. Undercooked potatoes can be sad and chunky. Neither one whips up nicely.
What to do instead: Cook them until they are just cooked through. You know they’re done when a fork passes through the potato chunk without any resistance.
Mistake 6: Whipping in Cold Butter and Cream
Butter and cream are essential ingredients to making rich mashed potatoes. If you add them straight from the fridge, they cool down the mixture and prevent the potatoes’ starch molecules from fully absorbing all that creamy goodness.
What to do instead: Heat the butter and cream (separately; we’ll get to that in a minute) until the butter is melted and the cream just starts to steam. Gently heat them on the stovetop or pop them into the microwave.
Mistake 7: Adding Butter and Cream at the Same Time
Most people mix together butter and cream and add them at the same time. Don’t! Seriously, this small step is keeping you from the best mashed potatoes of your life.
What to do instead: For the butteriest, richest potatoes, add the melted butter separately. Give the potatoes a quick mash, then add the cream and whip ’em up. The result: rich flavor and creamy texture. Yum!
Mistake 8: Overmixing
If you overwork potatoes, too much starch is released. The mash becomes gummy, gluey and unappetizing. If you’re using a food processor or stand mixer, you’re probably whipping the life out of your potatoes.
What to do instead: Be gentle and mash by hand. A food mill makes the best mashed potatoes. If you don’t have one, an old-fashioned hand masher works well, too.
Mistake 9: Making Them Too Far in Advance
Mashed potatoes don’t store well. They can taste dry and lose their fluffy texture, becoming a little dull and dreary.
What to do instead: The best mashed potatoes are freshly prepared. Let the potatoes sit in their cooking water until you’re ready. Then whip ’em up last minute. If you have to make them ahead of time, hold them warm in a slow cooker or a heatproof bowl (covered with plastic wrap) over a pot of simmering water. Right before serving, fluff them up by whipping in a little warm cream.
Now you’re fully armed with the tools to make the best mashed potatoes you’ve ever had. Let’s get creative and turn those simple mashers into flavorful standouts.