Weeknight Cooking

How to Make Mashed Potatoes Without a Recipe

November 10, 2014

Here at Food52, we love recipes -- but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.

Today: Everyone has an opinion on the best mashed potatoes -- here's our favorite method, with plenty of room for expressing yourself.

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Mashed potatoes, we believe, were put on this planet to please. Happily taking on the supporting role in our most epic feasts, they remain innocuous and forgiving, spooned liberally onto our plates with a quiet plop. Chances are, you already have a family recipe. It’s memorized by now, the recipe card long lost or too stained to read, handed to you one sleepy Thanksgiving morning by Great Aunt Linda.

Maybe you boil a whole, peeled yellow onion along with your potatoes, or add cloves of garlic to a pot of hot cream. Maybe you roughly mash it all with a fork, or pass it carefully through a ricer. You might swear by white pepper, or no pepper. One thing is clear: Unlike a side of buttered pasta or rice, mashed potatoes are deceivingly versatile. They come creamy and runny like grits, or fluffy and high like buttercream frosting. It can get so complicated, so controversial, that entire chapters are written on it. Methods are created that seem both equal parts genius and excessive -- like Shirley Corriher’s twice-boiled method and Joël Robuchon’s half-butter potato purée. 

Here, we offer a foolproof version -- barebones but sturdy, the kind with both height and creaminess, without any pastiness. We like to think of it as the perfect middle ground, welcome to deviations, but perfectly content on its own. 

1. Start with your potatoes. Russet potatoes break down quickly, and become light and fluffy when mashed, but Yukon Golds would work just as well in a pinch.

In the meantime, prep your other ingredients: Take out your butter and cream to reach room temperature while you boil your potatoes, and thinly chop some chives.


2. Rinse, peel, and chop your potatoes into about 1 1/2-inch pieces (or quarter them, if they’re on the smaller side). Two pounds of potatoes will generously serve four people, so keep the 1:2 ratio in mind when shopping for dinner. Transfer your potatoes to a pot, add cold water and a pinch of salt -- don't season quite as aggressively as you would for pasta, since they'll be absorbing the salty water a bit longer and you'll have a chance to adjust seasoning later -- and bring to a boil. 


3. Boil your potatoes until tender –- start checking at fifteen minutes. They’re ready to be drained when they effortlessly break in half when speared with a knife. 

If you’re feeling fancy, now is your chance to infuse the milk or cream with extra flavor in a small saucepan over low heat. Smashed garlic cloves, black peppercorns, or sprigs of rosemary and thyme are all good bets.  


4. Drain your potatoes into a colander, then begin passing them through the food mill or ricer over the empty pot. If you’d prefer a few enticing chunks in your mashed potatoes, opt for a hand held masher or even a plain old fork. You’re the boss -- just refrain from over-mashing, which can release too much starch and result in a tougher, gummier consistency.  

More: Don't have a ricer? Try this instead.


5. Now switch to a spoon or spatula, and immediately add in your butter, slightly softened from hanging out on the counter. For every pound of potato, we like to use about two tablespoons of butter, but this is entirely up to you. No one will complain if your mashed potatoes are buttery. 


6. Time for your dairy: As the butter melts, start adding in your cream, milk, or buttermilk. Feeling fancy? Sour cream, crème fraîche, cream cheese, and even kefir all perform surprisingly well. Taste and season accordingly with salt and black pepper. 


7. To garnish, sprinkle your mashed potatoes with chopped chives. You could top it off with anything you like, though: fried and crisped up shallots, caramelized onions, bits of bacon, a sprinkling of freshly grated Parmesan, chopped herbs, or, of course, more butter

More: Potatoes have limitless potential. Check out this roundup to see what we mean.

Photos by Mark Weinberg

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • shark37
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Writer, Fooder, Blogger. New Yorker turned Cape Coder.


shark37 February 2, 2015
Use Yukon Golds and just mash them in the pot with a little milk and cream. Yes, you do need to salt the water. That's all. People love to add their own butter (and pepper) at the table but whatever. You don't need a colander or a ricer.
Denise November 16, 2014
Sounds yummy but wasn't what we just read above a recipe?
Catie B. November 17, 2014
I thought so too, with variations! ;)
Lovish P. November 16, 2014
ur blog is as amazing as ever. Ur foods tips are amazing. Recently I saw a site which has some amazing tips on healthy food coz i think thats very important. hence i thought i ll share with u. I think u ll like it
Here it is

Catie B. November 12, 2014
I wonder if this tip might help you. Tear off a section of foil or parchment paper larger than the dish for your sheperd’s pie. Place it on a (for larger dishes) cookie sheet to make it easier for you. Butter one side generously. Spread your mashed potatoes evenly over the buttered paper or foil, to the size of your dish. Then, hold cookie sheet to side of dish. Lengthwise, and starting from one end to the other, roll the parchment , filling side down, over onto the filling to place the potato on top. Take away cookie sheet, letting potato rest on filling. If needed, as you peel back the paper or foil, use a spatula to help urge potato off the paper or foil to top the filling.
Although it sounds lengthy as I detailed the process, this is faster than trying to do it in blocks, I believe, and usually comes off in one whole sheet, so will save having to fill the block seams. I sometimes sprinkle a light layer of freshly grated Parmesan cheese on top to create a slight crunchy, golden topping. Yum!

I think of Shepard’s Pie as an ultimate comfort food. Potatoes are a favorite of mine. I think they are one of the most versatile foods too.
Best of luck!
Ecuacan November 12, 2014
I cook my potatoes in the pressure cooker as I find they retain their flavor better than when I boil them. I add extra salt when seasoning, though, because they don't absorb any as they're cooking. Another mashed potato trick: When I make shepherd's pie, I spread the mashed potatoes on a cutting board in roughly the same shape as the baking pan. I then cut large chunks of this potato layer and place it on top of the shepherd's pie filling. I smooth over any cracks between the chunks with more mashed potatoes. I just never figured out how to put spoonfuls on the filling and smooth into an even layer.
CarlaCooks November 12, 2014
I have a really sturdy pastry cutter that I inherited from my Grandmother which works perfectly for mashing a small amount of potatoes (I like my mashed potatoes chunky and with the skin). If I'm making a larger amount, I will use my stand mixer with the paddle attachment.

One trick I learned a few years ago: if you want to make mashed potatoes ahead of time, set a crock pot to the 'keep warm' setting, pour in bit of liquid (milk, cream, stock, whatever your weapon of choice is), then plop your mashed potatoes into the crock pot. Put a dab of butter on top, put the lid on, and the mashed potatoes will keep warm and ready for hours. Before serving, add more liquid as necessary (or mix in the liquid on the bottom of the crock pot).
Catherine L. November 10, 2014
Love the idea to add creme fraiche! Though I'm not sure anyone in my family will let me fool with the hallowed mashed potatoes...
AntoniaJames November 10, 2014
My mother always did what Pegeen suggests -- put the cooked potatoes back in the hot pot -- and always mashed with the milk in first, and then put the butter in. Someone told me last year test that the milk then butter order of operations is what Cooks Illustrated recommends, as well. ;o)
Pegeen November 10, 2014
p.s. I forgot the other thing my grandmother taught me: after you drain the potatoes, dump them back into the hot pot you boiled them in, over the lowest possible heat, so that any remaining water steams off them. (This only takes a minute or two.) Give the pot a vigorous shake every 20 seconds so the potatoes get redistributed. Take off the low heat after 2 minutes. Then mash them, and then add the warmed milk and softened butter.
Pegeen November 10, 2014
One tip I'd add, as a mashed potato addict, is that it's a very good idea to gently warm the milk (or half-and-half or cream) and softened butter in a saucepan, then add to the potatoes. Don't add them cold.