Potato

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

I spent 14 hours alone with only potatoes, 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."

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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.
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"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 the absolute worst way to mash potatoes? Use a food processor.


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

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Ella Quittner

Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a a writer 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.

35 Comments

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.
 
Kevin P. October 13, 2019
I have been working on a best of all worlds version that is very low fuss: bake the potatoes. When done cut in half and put the cut side in a ricer. It goes fast and you just pull the peel out after extruding. Then butter, salt, milk or cream. The flavor is deeper yet very fluffy from the ricer — and no peeling, boiling or even a pot to clean.
 
Becky D. October 13, 2019
My method respects the delicate nature of a good mashed potato. Boil medium scrubbed Yukon Golds til tender. Remove from the pot, cut in half. Take the still hot pot, scrub out quickly under running hot water. Return to heat, add half-and-half and butter, heat til melted. Rice the steaming potatoes into the hot liquid, using a medium hole insert. This step removes the skin efficiently. Lightly fold the mixture together with salt and extra butter to taste. The results are an airy fluff. A mashed garlic clove may be added temporarily to the liquid while heating, and grated Pecorino or Parm are also excellent folded in with the final butter and salt.
 
Denae F. October 13, 2019
Slice thin, soak in a brine overnight. Sous vide in a bag with herbs, cream and butter. Gently mash. They will be as creamy or lumpy as you like with nary a watery, starchy goop in sight.
 
Frank October 13, 2019
I use a ricer because I can use less butter to make them creamy. Very rarely do I even need any milk or cream.
 
Kate October 13, 2019
Add freshly grated nutmeg, however you mash them. Delish!
 
AlexisT October 12, 2019
I've done these tests myself. I prefer a food mill because I like mine smooth. The Oxo food mill has a good design that can be turned backwards to scrape excess potato off the disc, and a wooden spoon fgets most of it off the sides. The medium disc is ideal for potatoes. Baked works but comes out denser and more compact, and you need to scoop hot potato out of the shells which results in more wastage than peeling them raw . Boiled needs to be dried out in the pot because they absorb more water, and you need to watch the pot; I like the convenience of walking away. I have honestly been fine with the instant pot, but you need to make sure they are fully cooked--if the potatoes are large, cut them smaller than quarters.

Also, my experience has been not to dray around--get those potatoes through the mill ASAP once cooked and get the butter (preferably softened) right in. My creamiest potatoes come from mashing in all the butter and only adding milk (my preference over cream) once the potatoes have fully absorbed all the butter. This means you add a minimum of milk, only enough to ensure a correct consistency.
 
Monika October 12, 2019
Another vote for using a hand mixer, which was not tested. I boil Russets with a peeled and halved onion (try it!) and salt until they are yielding, but not falling apart. I drain them, and then dry them out over medium heat in the pan. Add butter, salt and hot milk (hate the mouthfeel of cream). People swoon over my mashed potatoes. My grandma taught me to use old high starch potatoes for the best mash. Also, I use a Braun handmixer, which has very thin beaters, very wire-like. They beat in a lot of air, and are not brutal like paddles or a blender. A handmixer also gives you great control, more than the other methods (except for the fork). I used to make them with a ricer, but did not find them as fluffy, and on occasion, gluey.
 
vanda H. October 12, 2019
Sounds like the Omas know best. I’m going to try that onion trick tomorrow night when I make mash to go with my pot roast. And I agree regarding the shape of the blades on the hand mixers - it makes a difference - and the control.
 
reen October 13, 2019
My mom taught me to always add a peeled clove or more of garlic (depends on how many potatoes are being cooked) to the pot whenever I boil potatoes. Also, to make sure the water is salted well. I always hand mash, add butter, heated milk, salt & pepper and then use my hand mixer to whip them so they’re light & fluffy. I have used a ricer before but felt the extra work handling hot potatoes didn’t make enough of a difference for the extra work involved.
 
vanda H. October 13, 2019
Salted water is so important, too. I'm always surprised at how much salt a potato can take.
 
Patti P. October 13, 2019
Agree with the hand mash...with a masher that essentially “rices” the potatoes...after drying the potatoes over low burner first. Then mix in butter, salt and pepper first, add milk, finishing up with hand mixer. I add garlic when I remember, and will definitely try the onion idea!

 
John D. October 12, 2019
For the instant pot method, use a red or gold potato. Slice the potatoes into about 1/4" slices. Cover with water, pressure cook on manual for 10 minutes. I use a stand mixer with a whisk attachment to mash, you can adjust the time based on the desired texture. I never bother with peeling. Add some cream, butter, and salt - they're perfect every time!
 
greg T. October 14, 2019
I will never, ever make them any other way for the rest of time. Instant pot mashed potatoes are easy, fun, fast and utterly delicious every single time. The thought of using a ricer or blender and having to clean it makes me shiver. IP for the win.
 
vanda H. October 12, 2019
I've used a hand mixer for years and there's never any left over mashed potatoes in my house - no matter how much I make or how hard I tried to save the "leftovers" for potato soup. It's my mom's recipe: peeled russets boiled until a fork goes into them, drain the water, add a stick of butter and milk (whole, half & half, non-fat, it doesn't matter) and then whip them into a texture that you like. Sometimes they are stiffer (organic potatoes) and sometimes they are softer (when I left them get a little too cooked in the pot). But it's the same mixing technique every time. Nary a lump and no left overs. The kids fight to lick the beaters like they have frosting on them. We call them "Oma's Mashed Potatoes" in honor of my German mother.

And just for the record, I go to a relative's house for Thanksgiving every year. Everything is beyond perfect -- except the mash, which someone else prepares by using an immersion blender. It's a crime against humanity what an immersion blender does to mashed potatoes.
 
Nichole October 13, 2019
Hand mixer all the way here. I literally own one only for this purpose. They just come out better event compared to my kitchenaide.
 
delcecchi October 12, 2019
So, for the Steingarten method, sous vide at 165 for an hour or so, then chill and cook. Easy peasy.
 
Danuta G. October 12, 2019
Hand masher all the way! And I never have any lumps! Drain the taters, back into the pot to steam dry for a few minutes, a couple of slabs of unsalted butter, a huge dollop of sour cream, and then mash the *[email protected]% out of them. Works every time...now if I could get some help for removing lumps from my gravy, I'd be a happy camper!
 
Anne C. October 12, 2019
Use cornstarch in cold water in a jar. Shake it up and using a whisk, add it to your gravy slowly. Not too much because soon it will start to thicken. It will not lump like flour and is easier to work with. If it gets too thick, thin it with stock.
 
Christine B. October 12, 2019
Wondra flour for the gravy.
 
Suzy S. October 12, 2019
I, too, have no lumps with the hand masher. I will say that life got much easier when I switched to the round, flat kind with holes instead of the TV- antenna shape I grew up with.

For large amounts, I use the cook-in-milk-in-the-slow-cooker method. (You mash them right in the crock, and then they keep warm in the slow cooker.) The texture is lovely, and the flavor is a little richer as the milk can caramelize a bit.
 
Anne C. October 12, 2019
I like them fluffy and my masher has small square holes. That seems to be the secret of getting out the lumps. I certainly don’t rinse my hot boiling potatoes but after they’ve drained in the colander I pour the potatoes back into the hot pot leaving the heat on for a second and shake the pot to dry them out a little. Then I start mashing watching that I’ve covered all areas. At this point I can judge how much butter and cream I’ll need to incorporate with a wooden spoon and whether I rather put more butter on at the table than in the pot. Sometimes my preference is to see the visual melt on hot potatoes.
 
Bri L. October 12, 2019
Eye roll. Using pseudo science (cell separation??? you do know that plants have cell walls right? ) to bolster what could have been a helpful article makes it unreadable. (As a cell biologist who cooks, my eyes are still rolling... )
 
snuffcurry October 13, 2019
Good lord, this is a concept that has existed in food science for a dog’s age, and potatoes industrially processed and preserved in particular are a notable subject of such inquiries.
 
Stephanie B. October 13, 2019
I'm not a plant biologist, and while I understand that plant cell walls take a little bit more elbow grease, trying to break down larger structures into individual cells (single cell suspensions) and/or breaking open those cells (nucleic acid or protein extraction) is not an uncommon pursuit in a lab; it's not like it's an impossible task. Hell, school kids can use soap and salts to extract DNA from plants, so it's not like you need an advanced degree to break down plant cells, and in the absence of surfactants good ol' heat and agitation (aka cooking) are up the task as far as potatoes are concerned: https://edu.rsc.org/download?ac=15060. But have fun using your profession as a way to be condescending, if you try it again maybe just do a quick fact check.
 
judy October 12, 2019
Another masher here. My hand masher is one of those with a square grid. Same as when I was growing up in the 50's-70's. Mom, and Dad, always left lumps, and I still like the lumps. But they always piled the potatoes. I like the peel and leave the skin on while cooking. I cut them into medium dice, boil them in water with a little salt, or sometime in chicken broth. Rinse and mash, adding butter, pepper--lots and chives. Lately though I have been doing what I call micro mashed potatoes. cutting potatoes in chunks, micro cooking them, mashing or breaking them down roughly with a fork, and stirring in lots of chives and butter and pepper, with a little salt. Easy and delicious. AS a matter of fact, that was dinner last night! No water and no draining. Used Yukon gold, first of the season, delicious.
 
Adrienne B. October 12, 2019
I like to use the hand masher if I'm making colcannon so there are bits of potato to go along with bits of cabbage. It's just nicer.

I have always made potatoes the same way as stated above, and always used boiled Russets. I tried Yukons once based on recommendations and was very disappointed because they absorbed too much water and were just yellow glue. I do like using the big stand mixer. 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.
 
Kelly October 11, 2019
I used a food mill for years and then started using a ricer with the finest setting. I find the ease of using the ricer much more efficient and I can rice with the skins on and still have a bit of the skin get incorporated into the mash (more healthy, more flavorful, and less wasteful).
 
Cielkaye October 11, 2019
Buy a Masha!
 
Beth October 14, 2019
What's a Masha? Is it really a thing? When I Google Masha I get some kind of dolls! I'm not sure if I have a ricer or a tamis, It's a cylinder with 2 long handles that you squeeze together so the potato is pushed through the little holes in the bottom. I get skinny tubes of potato that I briefly mix with a fork and add butter and milk or cream. No lumps, not gluey, but a little hard on my wrists so I usually let hubby do it.
 
amanda R. October 11, 2019
This is my favorite kind of Food52 post! Fascinating and super geeky
 
epicharis October 11, 2019
Not sure where this belongs since there's apparently no way to contact the site owners but FIX THE RECIPE SEARCH FOR THE LOVE OF GOD