Potato

The Absolute Best—& Worst—Way to Mash Potatoes, According to So Many Tests

I spent 14 hours alone with only spuds, and I did it for you.

October 11, 2019
Photo by Bobbi Lin. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

In Absolute Best Tests, our writer Ella Quittner destroys the sanctity of her home kitchen in the name of the truth. She's boiled dozens of eggs, seared more Porterhouse steaks than she cares to recall, and tasted enough types of bacon to concern a cardiologist. Today, she tackles mashed potatoes.


The world's first potato moved from a pocket of dirt to a mouth sometime between 8,000 and 5,000 B.C.E., in Peru. Some millennia later, Spanish conquistadors brought the tubers back to Europe, resulting in the earliest recorded recipe for mashed ones. It came courtesy of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, written in 1747 by Hannah Glasse, and went something like this: Boil your potatoes, then peel, then mash within a saucepan. Add a pint of milk, some salt, stir—with attention to the layer at the pan's very bottom—and a quarter-pound of butter. Stir again. Serve.

Many have tried to hack the humble mashed potato since.

Take, for instance, Jeffrey Steingarten, who documented his attempts two-and-a-half centuries later in a 1997 essay called "Totally Mashed."

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I put the drained potatoes in, then room temperature or cold butter and break them up with a hand masher. Then, I put the paddle on, start mixing on slow and start adding just enough whole milk to get a good consistency. I get nice fluffy potatoes and the added bonus of the metal bowl keeping them nice and warm on their journey to the table. Yeah, and the Instant Pot? I love my Instant Pot, but not for mashed potatoes. It does a great job on red new potatoes, but not Russets - I'll stick with my boiling water for that, thank you.”
— Adrienne B.
Comment

"My mashed potatoes still get gummy on me. Sometimes they go cataclysmically wrong, turning sticky and gluey or doughy and pasty, bonding to my teeth and gums and the roof of my mouth," he writes, before sharing his breakthroughs in boiled potato manipulation. (More on that later.)

In 2010, the intrepid J. Kenji López-Alt over at Serious Eats broke down the science behind velvety purées, versus fleecier mounds. His findings? It all boils down to the starch. A few years later, Food52's own Sarah Jampel took to the lab (kitchen counter) to put a handful of masher-less mashing techniques to the test, and our Resident Genius, Kristen Miglore, scouted a clever trick for richer flavor: add the butter before the cream.

But the absolute best way to mash a potato? Out of every single way? I had to know for myself. So with the findings of all the potato pundits before me in hand, I set out to pit 11 cooking and mashing methods against one another. Which would yield a batch so fluffy one could use it as a pillow on the drive home from Thanksgiving dinner? Are creamy whipped potatoes without a trace of gumminess a myth?

And before you say that spending an entire day straight obsessively poking, peeling, and mashing potatoes sounds somewhat unhinged, well—actually, you're correct. I haven't had contact with a human since. All of my friends are potatoes now. Let's dive in.


Control Factors

"Mealy types fall apart into individual cells and small aggregates," writes food scientist Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, referring to Russets and the like, "so they offer a large surface area for coating by the added ingredients, and readily produce a fine, creamy consistency. Waxy potatoes require more mashing to obtain a smooth texture, exude more gelated starch, and don’t absorb enrichment as easily." Sold: All tests would feature Russet potatoes of a similar size.

"Rinsing the boiled potatoes of excess starch both before and after cooking was the key," found López-Alt when, in 2010, he engineered the fluffiest possible spuds. So to minimize excess starch, all potatoes—except the baked batch—would be peeled, quartered, and rinsed once before their cook method and once before their mash test.

After its initial rinse, each batch of peeled potato quarters (excluding the Instant Pot group, the Jeffrey Steingarten bunch, and that pesky baked one) would make its way into a large pot of cold, heavily salted water—one tablespoon kosher salt per quart of water—and cooked until tender all the way through. Once rinsed a second time, the potato pieces would return to a pot on the stovetop, where they'd be nudged around gently over a low flame to eliminate excess water.

When it came time to mash, each test group would receive (per pound of potatoes): three tablespoons of melted butter, first—based on Miglore's findings—then a quarter cup of warmed cream and a half teaspoon of kosher salt.


1. Hand Masher

Photo by Ella Quittner

Why It Should—or Shouldn't—Work:

The key to keeping mashed potatoes from going the way of glue is to separate their cells, while taking care to slash as few as possible. "The gooeyness develops when you break open the cooked potato cells and literally beat the starch out of them," McGee wrote in 2008, in response to a New York Times reader inquiry.

A hand masher should allow its user to separate the potatoes' cells—not as gently as, say, a ricer, but more gently than something fitted with a blade for slicing, or a paddle for bashing—and offers control over the intensity of cell separation and aggregate mashing relative to a motorized machine.

So, What Happened?

Hand-mashed potatoes are a lump lover's dream. Wielding the implement by hand—versus a stand mixer fitted with a paddle—did facilitate more textural fine-tuning. And the lack of brutal (sharp or mighty) cell separation made for a fairly fluffy batch. But it'd have been impossible to arrive at a perfectly silky batch with a pleasant texture using a hand masher, because one would inadvertently mash the same cells too many times (glue! glue! glue!) while seeking out unseparated ones.


2. Fork

Photo by Ella Quittner

Why It Should—or Shouldn't—Work:

The tines of a fork should mimic those of a masher, if on a much smaller scale.

So, What Happened?

Mashed potatoes by fork were neither inedible nor completely enjoyable. Due to the inefficiency of the fork's size—as in, very little ground could be covered by each oscillation of the utensil—patches of the potatoes began to get gluey more quickly, which meant putting an end to the mashing sooner. A lumpier lot was born. The tubers' cells also seemed to absorb less of the melted butter and cream, resulting in a slightly greasy mound of mashed potatoes. Not so greasy that they couldn't be proffered to wine-glutted Friendsgiving guests, but certainly not the best of the bunch.


3. Food Mill, 4. Ricer & 5. Tamis

Photo by Ella Quittner
Photo by Ella Quittner

Why They Should—or Shouldn't—Work:

A potato ricer, first patented in 1909, is essentially a large clamp with which one may extrude a boiled potato through tiny holes.

Food mills—developed around the same time by the Foley Manufacturing Company—force soft foods with the turn of a crank through a sieve-like bottom layer that catches any seeds or pulp too chunky to make it through.

The tamis is a round, drum-shaped utensil with a flat mesh bottom. "It dates to around the Middle Ages, and it's been used in professional kitchens pretty much since," reports the Los Angeles Times. Especially soft foods can be pressed through the fine holes of a tamis using a dough scraper.

In theory, all three contraptions should separate the boiled potatoes' cells more gently than anything from a stand mixer to a tool fit with a blade, and more consistently than something like a hand masher.

So, What Happened?

Each of the ricer, food mill, and tamis produced mashed potatoes with significantly different textures.

The airiest batch with the best flavor hailed from the food mill, which came with its own pros and cons. Let's start with the cons: It's unwieldy, difficult to clean, hard to store when you're not embroiled in an 11-method mashed potato face-off, and results in the loss of more boiled spud than a masher or tamis thanks to the thin, flat sheets that accumulate around the mill's inner edges while larger chunks pass through its bottom. And the pros? It produced an ethereal mash, and said mash had an inexplicably superior ability to absorb the flavor of the butter and the silkiness of the cream.

Mashed potatoes made by ricer and tamis were largely similar, in that both were somewhat denser than those from the mill, and less dense than those produced in a stand mixer. But the tamis-mashed potatoes were perceptibly smoother than the ricer-mashed potatoes, and despite their lineage from Russets, made for a credible pomme purée stand-in.


6. Stand Mixer

Photo by Ella Quittner

Why It Should—or Shouldn't—Work:

Some devotees of creamy mashed potatoes swear by stand mixers to get the job done. The general idea? Use the paddle attachment for a dual mash-and-whip, and cut the speed before things get too gluey.

So, What Happened?

Stand-mixer mashed potatoes went from fluffy to just-about-to-be-gluey more quickly than they went from chunky to smooth. Which is to say, the resulting mound of spuds retained some textural diversity. All in all, they were similar to the hand-masher batch, but a little bit creamier and a little bit stickier.


7. Food Processor & 8. Immersion Blender

Photo by Ella Quittner

Why They Should—or Shouldn't—Work:

The unremitting blades of a food processor—or, of its handheld counterpart: the immersion blender—rupture the potatoes' cells readily, releasing lots of sticky starch and a sense of impending doom.

So, What Happened?

Both batches were like glue that had been glued together with more glue. The immersion blender–mashed potatoes had the added flaw of many tiny pieces of unblended spud, floating throughout.

"Any cookbook that sanctions the use of a blender or food processor for mashing should be carefully shredded," writes Steingarten. Here, here.


9. Baked

Photo by Ella Quittner

Why It Should—or Shouldn't—Work:

"When you bake a potato, the starch granules absorb the moisture within the potato," says The Exploratorium. But less moisture is absorbed overall than would be by a boiled potato. So it's possible that baking potatoes whole, then hand-mashing their interiors with the same amounts of melted butter, warmed cream, and salt could bear the fluffiest, least-waterlogged mash yet.

Plus, McGee says that baked potatoes should deliver more depth: "The flavor of boiled potatoes is dominated by the intensified earthy and fatty, fruity, and flowery notes of the raw tuber," he writes in On Food and Cooking. "Baked potatoes develop another layer of flavor from the browning reactions, including malty and 'sweet' aromas (methylbutanal, methional)."

So, What Happened?

Baked mashed potatoes were pleasant and fluffy, almost snowflake-like. But because they skipped the initial round of seasoning enjoyed by most other test batches—the jaunt in a tub of salty water—they had a much more muted flavor, despite McGee's note.


10. Instant Pot

Photo by Ella Quittner

Why It Should—or Shouldn't—Work:

Instant Pot mashed potato recipes—in which an electronic pressure cooker is used to steam potatoes before they are mashed—have developed something of a cult following in recent years. (Search the term on Google, and you'll find over 5 million recipes.) The idea is that it's more efficient to soften the spuds at high pressure, before draining the vessel and mashing in the same pot with a hand masher or other preferred tool.

So, What Happened?

Steaming the potatoes on high pressure mode for 10 minutes produced potato quarters that were much tougher than fork-tender. Accordingly, the mash required more force to achieve any cohesion, and was riddled with lumps.


11. Hot-Cold-Hot ("The Steingarten")

Photo by Ella Quittner

Why It Should—or Shouldn't—Work:

"Years ago the instant mashed potato industry found that if you precook potatoes in 163-degree water for 20 minutes and cool them, the amount of free starch in the final mash will be reduced by half ... It appears to work like this," writes Steingarten. "Cooking a potato is a two-stage process. The starch swells and gelatinizes within the cells when the potato reaches 160 degrees; then, nearer to the boiling point, the pectic cement between the cells degrades, and the potato can be safely matched. Cooling the potato slices after the starch has gelled causes a process called retrogradation to take place; the starch molecules bond to one another and lose much of their ability to dissolve again in water or milk, even if you later rupture the cells."

Put more succinctly by McGee in On Food and Cooking, "[They] can be made firmer and more coherent, less prone to the 'sloughing' of outer layers when boiled, by treating them to the low-temperature precooking that strengthens cell walls."

So Steingarten suggests the following: Add potato quarters to water that's been brought to 175 degrees. Using cold water as needed, keep the water's temperature around 160 degrees for the next 20 to 30 minutes, until the potato pieces "become tough and resilient and lose their translucent appearance.” Drain the potatoes and transfer to a bowl—run cold tap water into the bowl until the potato pieces feel cool, then leave them there for 30 minutes. Proceed to the final cooking step, such as submerging the potato pieces in actively simmering water until tender. Then, mash, such as with a ricer or mill.

So, What Happened?

Unfortunately for perfectionists who also have day jobs, these fussy mashed potatoes are nearly perfect when paired with a ricer. They're equal parts fluff, creaminess, and flavor (thanks to salting the water in both simmering phases).


The Final Verdict

Photo by Bobbi Lin. Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Props: Brooke Deonarine.

The absolute best way to mash potatoes depends entirely on how you prefer to eat them: If you like them fluffy and somewhat lumpy, use a hand masher. If you like them perfectly smooth and airy, use a food mill. If you like them velvety but not at all gluey, use a tamis. If you have all day or have invited me for dinner and are desperate to impress, use the Jeffrey Steingarten method.

And if you want to punish someone? Use a food processor.


Mashed Potato School, Part Two


How do you like your mashed potatoes? Let us know in the comments!
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Ella Quittner

Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a contributing writer and the Absolute Best Tests columnist at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.

71 Comments

Randy N. March 7, 2020
I like my mashed potatoes - usually with gravy, sometimes with butter but always, always when someone else makes them.
 
Kiernan M. December 13, 2019
I enjoyed this article but am surprised to see that it did not include a hand mixer method. That's what I grew up on, and how I see most people doing it. I just made them that way last night actually and was admiring how perfect they were. I also find that an absolutely crucial step is to dry the cooked potatoes out in the hot pan after draining. You really do evaporate a few tablespoons of water that way.
 
Sara W. December 13, 2019
I love to mix in sour cream, a little bit of shredded mozzarella and parmesan, salt and pepper, and butter. Mix it all in with your hand mixer and voila! Deliciousness!!
 
HS December 12, 2019
Steam 4 lbs Yukon golds whole in Instapot in two batches until tender--about 15-20 minutes, depending on the size of the potatoes. I kept the potatoes warm in cloth until each was ready to be put through the ricer into the mixing bowl. Pour in 1 stick of melted, hot butter, beat at lowest speed with the paddle attachment for just until the butter is absorbed. Add 1 pint of warmish sour cream and beat again at lowest speed until combined. Use just enough heavy cream to thin to desired consistency (2 tablespoons - 1/4 cup). Silky smooth, full of flavor, not gluey at all. I may try Russets next year, as so many are recommending them.
 
annette November 27, 2019
Don't make my mistake: bought a large capacity ricer, thinking it would make life smoother and easier. Hah! My aging hands can't squeeze it. Gave away my little old one, and then had to give away the fancy new one, too.
 
Eileen December 12, 2019
Annette- for your next ricer look for the one that has a triangle shaped "basket". You operate it with two hands. Not the cylinder type! I have CMC arthritis in both hands and my two-handed basket ricer is no problem.
 
Nancy K. November 25, 2019
Has anyone used the Steingarten method, doing the first simmer the day ahead, then cool, chill and the second day finish up with the second boil? Just wondering if that would work and save time on the day of....
 
Michael December 31, 2019
I actually do a large charity Thanksgiving dinner and in a social club smallish pro kitchen I cooked 150 lbs of potatoes the same way I learned to do them in a roadhouse restaurant decades ago. Bring unskinned potatoes to a boil in in salted water(talk about flavor leaving the skins on) drain them, dump them in dish tubs then take them to the walk in for a day. Peel the jackets with a butter knife the next day. Quarter (no more than 2.5X 2.5 inch chunks, into quarter pans, with a lb of butter and reheat on Turkey day in the oven, when a knife pulls thru remove from oven mash in butter with salt and pepper and add half and half until moist. Beautiful velvety potatoes every time. You can do this at home and they also make wonderful hash browns, home fried and cottage potatoes this method too. That's how we did it before everyone became pre-packaged pre prepped mass produced restaurant food.
A lot easier to control and more versatile there and in your home (let alone the cost savings!) and exactly how I'll do it if I ever get up to owning a restaurant.
 
Chris November 25, 2019
Boil the potatoes until soft. The soft potatoes keep the mash from being too lumpy. Drain well and let sit in the pan. Add lots of butter and when it starts to melt, mash a little to blend it. Next add whole milk. Add salt and pepper and mash away with a hand masher. The ones with the square holes work better than others. Add more milk (the potatoes get thicker as they cool) and salt, if needed. Everyone loves them, and there are never any left, no matter how much we make. Sometimes simple is better.
 
Anne C. November 24, 2019
Found ricer made Yukon gold pasty along with the difficulty of squeezing the potatoes through just never wanted to use it that apparatus again. My square-holed masher never left lumps behind and was fast and efficient no matter what size pot or how many potatoes for a large company or two people, they were always fluffy and delicious.
 
Eileen November 24, 2019
Just remember to spray the ricer with pan release! Perfect potatoes and easy clean up.
 
Ldedwards November 24, 2019
Grew up in a mashed tater household. Not fond of lumps. Here’s how I make them: red potatoes, quartered, boiled in salt water. Drain well. Butter and sour cream, hand mixer till no lumps, add warm cream till right consistency. Put in warmed bowl and cover with vented foil. Leave in warmed oven till ready. Always magnificent!!!
 
bamabob November 22, 2019
can you use sous vide to modify the Steingarten method to require less babysitting?
 
Pat H. March 1, 2020
I was wondering the same thing! I’m thinking about using the Anova (or whichever machine you use) to maintain a consistent temp in the pot. No need to put the potatoes in bags. I imagine start with an initial temp of 175, lower to 160 with cold water and cook for 20-30 min. Dry potatoes and mash (I use a ricer for mashed potatoes)!
 
Sarah J. November 18, 2019
Boil in water and drain?????? Please no!!!! You are removing the nutritional value. Steam the peeled potatoes OVER water in a steamer basket then use a hand masher. The more the potatoes are worker the gluey they get. Mash as little as possible.
 
Teresa November 17, 2019
So here’s the real deal...how do you make them ahead when lots of last minute chores the least of which should be mashing potatoes? Suzanne Goins (sp?) potatoes mousseline. Riced, hot butter. Whipped heavy cream folded in and can fridge for 2 days. Remove room temp. Pretty warm oven. The air trapped in the whipped cream fluffs the entire batch to paradise.
As an aside and as a long time country cook from the south, I have whipped potatoes with stand or hand held for 60 of my 68 yrs. Again super fluffy. But we don’t get gluey potatoes with russets and using the last of the cooking water where the great starches are just waiting for you.
Happy thanksgiving. Be thankful
 
Katie W. November 17, 2019
Super thorough and interesting!
 
AlwaysLookin November 16, 2019
You skipped a combo - start with a quick 'hand mash' and finish with a 'hand mixer' ... mostly fluffy but with some lumps. Yes, it's more work, but if you have LOTS of potatoes, in the end it's easier.... actually me Wife does it like this all the time.
 
AntoniaJames November 15, 2019
Or you can eat a Carolina heirloom rice (Anson Mills, Carolina Plantation), whose flavor is so much better than any mashed potato ever will be, is a cinch to make, and doesn't require any extra ingredients, other than a smidge of good butter and a touch of salt, to deliver showstopper flavor.

I challenge everyone here to put a bowl of heirloom Carolina rice out on your Thanksgiving sideboard, alongside your mashed potatoes if you must, and see what people think. (I'm from a rice-not-potatoes-with-turkey family, and grateful for that.) ;o)
 
john November 15, 2019
I like to use a 50-50 ratio of Russets and Yukon Golds, pass through a ricer, add my melted butter first and finish off with warm cream. When boiling, I start with room temperature water, potatoes, salt and a couple of bay leaves which adds a very subtle taste.
 
debwah November 15, 2019
I microwave whole Russets, the cut in halves or thirds without peeling them, then put them through a ricer. The ricer peels the potato for you! Couldn't be easier. Add butter to hot, riced potatoes so it will melt, then milk or cream and salt and pepper. Perfect every time and done in 10 minutes!
 
stephen F. October 16, 2019
I don't eat mashed potatoes all the time because of the way i make them. It has to be Yukon Golds boiled in salted water. Add cultered Butter use hand masher finish with wisk and heavy cream.
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. October 16, 2019
Cultured butter is the best!
 
elizabethk October 15, 2019
Yukon Golds, don't peel them,cut them into half then slice the halves into 1/2 inch pieces, rinse twice, boil until tender, drain, add lots of butter, a splash of milk, hand mash (we love lumps) salt and pepper to taste.
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. October 16, 2019
A love a fellow lump lover!