The 7 Biggest Mistakes You Make With Mashed Potatoes

No more messed up mashers!

Mashed potatoes are universally adored for their rich, creamy, buttery, fluffy texture. Unfortunately, mashed potatoes can also frustrate many cooks who have tried — and failed — to mimic the cloud-like texture of restaurant-quality mashed potatoes.

If you're tired of presenting a bowl of sticky spuds at your family get-togethers, you might be committing one of the 7 biggest mashed potato misdeeds.

a white ceramic serving bowl with creamy-looking mashed potatoes topped with a pat of melting butter and fresh ground pepper
Cynthia Ross

1. You Don't Wash Potatoes First

This may seem like a no-brainer — and also quite gross — but many cooks skip the step of washing and scrubbing potatoes. They're going into water, after all, so isn't that wash enough? No. During the cooking process, the dirt and grime on the potato skin will float off, and the potato pieces will absorb the flavors. It's hard to mask the flavor of dirt.

2. You Use Just One Type of Potato

Potatoes sit on a spectrum from starchy to waxy, and each type has preferred uses. Starchy types, like russet and Idaho, are ideal for baked potatoes and even fries. Waxy potatoes, such as new potatoes and Yukon Gold, have better flavor and hold their shape when cooked. They're ideal for roasted potatoes and potato salad.

For the best mashed potatoes, use a 50/50 combination. We like russets with Yukon Gold. When mashed, the russets will contribute a light and fluffy texture while the Yukon Golds lend flavor and a bit of creamy heft.

3. You Don't Season the Water

As with pasta water, there's a reason to liberally salt the water in which the potatoes will cook: As the starches in potatoes warm up, they open up and absorb water (and salt if you season the water). When they're finished cooking, the cells close off. That makes seasoning the center of the potato pieces more difficult.

Add about one tablespoon of salt for every pound of potatoes. When it's time to season the potatoes in the end, take a light hand. The mashed taters won't need nearly as much salt now that they were cooked in salty water.

4. You Add Potato Pieces to Boiling Water

If you first boil water and then add potato pieces, you'll have a less than ideal texture in the end. The sudden bath of boiling water will quickly cook the outside of the spuds while leaving the inside uncooked.

Instead, add all your potato cubes to a pot, and fill it with water just over the top of the potatoes. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. You do not want to leave the water boiling for long. The aggressive temperature and rolling bubbles will cause the potatoes to fall apart. Cook just until tender, and drain.

TIP: As the potatoes cook, they release a great deal of starch into the cooking water. What's left at the end of cooking potatoes is an almost viscous water that you can use in your potatoes. If you make your potatoes too sticky, pour a tablespoon of the potato water and stir until the spuds loosen back up.

5. You Use the Wrong Gadget to Mash the Potatoes

This is one of the few times you should have a special kitchen tool for a task — an Avocado slicer? Probably not — but mashed potatoes are better when you get an even, consistent mash.

With a fork or potato masher, you may get an inconsistent texture, overworking some bits and leaving others unsmashed. If you think a food processor will make everything uniform, you'll be surprised to know that's one of the best ways to make gluey potatoes. The fast speed and intense mixing process will release the potatoes' natural starch, which can quickly make them gluey or spongy.

Instead, use a food mill or ricer to squeeze and break down the cooked potatoes. These gadgets have uniform holes through which the potatoes are extruded. All you have to do is stir, season, and service.

6. You Only Use Butter

Butter is good. You need butter. But you actually need a lot more than you're likely using. Butter helps make the starchy texture of potatoes richer and eliminates that "cling" some potatoes get when they're freshly mashed.

You shouldn't let butter be the only dairy you use, however. Consider adding half-and-half or heavy cream and a bit of sour cream (even goat cheese) to get the best flavor and creamiest texture every time, like in these Best Mashed Potatoes.

TIP: You need to take one more step with the butter and dairy before you add them to your steaming spuds. Nothing should go in cold. Indeed, butter will mix better if it's at room temperature, so leave it out to warm up while the potatoes tenderize in the water. Milk or cream should be warmed to prevent them from seizing the potatoes if added immediately after the cooking process. Gently heat the cream or milk in a small saucepan. For added flavor, simmer with herbs like rosemary, thyme, sage, or black peppercorn. The heat will release flavors faster. Just be sure to scoop them out before adding to the potatoes.

7. You Make the Potatoes Too Soon

Cooking ahead is always a good idea when you're planning a menu for a dinner party or backyard barbecue. With potatoes, however, you need to think more last-minute. Potatoes do not like to sit around for too long. They'll seize up and may turn thick and sticky.

If you need to speed up prep so the mashies can happen faster, you can wash and dice the potatoes in advance. Just keep them covered in water so they don't brown. When you're ready to cook, drain the water, add fresh water, and bring to a boil. Follow your typical (and now improved) mashed potato steps at this point.

More: Get tips to make the fluffiest mashed potatoes.

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