The Right Way to Boil Potatoes (Even if You Think You Already Know How)

This'll come in handy whether you're making buttery mashed potatoes, creamy potato salad, or crispy fries.

August  6, 2020
Photo by Emily Dryden

I admit that, despite being a fairly accomplished cook, I have found myself on multiple occasions googling “how to boil potatoes.” I know there are only so many moving parts here, but still I find myself staring down the pile of misshapen tubers on my counter, totally paralyzed. Should I peel? Should I slice? Did I pick the right potatoes? To add to my growing panic, my wife, who is Irish, has opinions. One does not, for example, mash potatoes with cream, or with chives. One certainly does not purée potatoes. There is a right sort of potato to mash, but when I text her to ask what the right sort are called, she responds, “I think we call them potatoes.”

If you are facing a similar crisis: It doesn’t have to be like this. Together, we can figure out how to boil potatoes for mashed potatoes, potato salad, homemade French fries, vichyssoise soup, and more spud-tacular recipes.

But first, what is a potato?

The potato is a starchy root vegetable native to the Andes region (in what’s now southern Peru and northwestern Bolivia), first cultivated between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago. After the Columbian Exchange, the crop quickly gained popularity among Europeans who just couldn’t stand to eat another rutabaga. We don’t blame them. Rutabagas are great, but they’re no match for the humble potato.

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Today, while potatoes remain central to the cuisines of their native Andean region (where around 4,000 varieties are currently in cultivation!), they're popular in other cuisines around the world. In culinary terms, the potato is beloved for its ability to absorb flavors and its wide textural range, from crisp latkes to creamy gratins, too. Some varieties are dense and waxy, while others are powdery and starchy, and these should be treated differently.

How to Boil Potatoes

Step 1: Choose the potato

In order to properly boil a potato, we have to first peer into the future and determine why we are boiling a potato. If we want fluffy mash, or in any situation where a crispy exterior and/or airy, well-seasoned interior are the primary goals, we need starchy russets. But for potato salad and other dishes that demand a firm spud not prone to mealiness, we want a waxy variety.

  • For mashed potatoes, roasted potatoes, french fries: russets are the best type of potatoes to cook with.
  • For potato salad or just plain boiled potatoes: Use Yukon Golds, Butterballs, Bintjes, red blisses, fingerlings, new potatoes

Step 2: Prepare the potato

My wife is a big biology nerd, and she likes to say that the answer to every question in biology is surface area. The same goes for boiling potatoes. Unless we’re dealing with little fingerlings or new potatoes, we should probably cube them, increasing the ratio of surface area to volume, and therefore shortening the cooking time. This is also a good idea if we are worried about uneven cooking (we are). If we just throw in big old potatoes whole, they’ll end up both overcooked (mealy and disintegrating) on the outside and undercooked (sticky or crunchy) on the inside. If we chop them randomly, we’ll end up with some pieces overcooked, some undercooked, and some both.

  • For potato salad, mashed potatoes, roasted potatoes, boiled potatoes: 1- to 2-inch cubes
  • For boiled new potatoes, fingerlings: whole or halved
  • For french fries: wedges, matchsticks, and the like

Peeled or unpeeled? Your path is your own. Of course, be sure to wash and (if you decide to go this route) peel the potatoes before you cut them. But if you make your mash with unpeeled potatoes, I’m afraid you’re not welcome at our place.

Step 3: Boil the potato

The big moment. So as to avoid the aforementioned overcooked and undercooked situation, we want to start the potatoes in cold water, so they heat up evenly throughout. We also want to salt heavily. This is really important, particularly when boiling denser, waxier potatoes that don’t absorb seasoning as easily. Potatoes are bland on their own so they need a lot (and we mean a LOT!) of salt both during and after cooking.

If we’re using russets, or if we shudder at the thought of mealy-edged pieces, we might take some advice from J. Kenji López-Alt’s book and add a dash of vinegar as well. Why, you ask? Have you ever noticed how the same vegetables that turn to absolute mush in a matter of minutes when simmered in soup happen to remain firm after hours of stewing in wine, beer, or tomato sauce? That’s because these acidic ingredients prevent pectin, the tough structure in plants’ cell walls, from breaking down. The same goes for potatoes.

Once the potatoes are in the pot, bring them to a boil and then simmer until tender. The waxier the potatoes, the larger the pieces, and the more vinegar, the longer they will take to cook. Test your potatoes by piercing with a paring knife. As soon as the knife slides in without resistance, the potatoes are done. Drain at once so as not to waterlog. Then, on to the next crisis.

Our Favorite Potato Recipes

Patricia Wells' Fake Frites

No, they’re not cut into the shape of dinosaurs or smiley faces, but we promise that your little ones will adore these homemade French fries as a side dish, and you’ll revel in the freedom from never having to buy the frozen variety again, right? Realistically, your kids will still want the smiley-face-shaped fries, but these French-style frites are seriously good.

Diane Morgan's Classic Mashed Potatoes

There are dozens, possibly hundreds, and maybe even thousands of ways to cook and flavor mashed potatoes. Want them really creamy? Add cream cheese, Boursin cheese, sour cream, and mascarpone cheese. Want something a little earthy? Infuse the milk or cream with fresh rosemary and garlic. But when you want old-fashioned, stick-to-your-ribs mashed potatoes, this side dish recipe is for you.

3-Ingredient Potato Leek Soup

If the word vichyssoise intimidates you, you’re not alone. I once worked for a chef who told me that when he was in culinary school, he misunderstood his instructor and thought it was strange that there was no seafood in the “fishy soup.” We’re making things a tad simpler by calling it what it is—a potato-leek soup. And we’re making it even easier by only using three ingredients—the aforementioned veggies, plus olive oil or butter.

Potato Salad With Celery & Hard-Boiled Eggs

“For me, potato salad is a very nostalgic food, evoking summertime, picnics, reunions, and large gatherings. In my family, a mayonnaise-based sauce is a given. Which isn’t meant to disrespect German-style potato salad, with no mayo and lots of bacon—I love that version, too. But if you ask me, this is the ultimate potato salad,” writes recipe developer Josh Cohen.

What's your favorite way to use boiled potatoes? Let us know in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Gene
  • Bruce Hamilton
    Bruce Hamilton
  • Susan Bompadre
    Susan Bompadre
  • Javier Cuevas
    Javier Cuevas
  • FrugalCat
Sam is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Find more of his work at arecipefordisaster.org.


Gene August 14, 2020
I’ve never boiled a potato in 50 years of cooking,- I STEAM them. No soggy potatoes, more nutritious, and faster than boiling. Use 1 inch of water in a large pot, and
a metal or silicon steamer rack. Then pile on the washed potatoes. Steam until a sharp knife slides in easily. The peels come off easily while hot, if needed. Steaming also works great for corn on the cob (8minutes) and hard “boiled” eggs (12 minutes)
Bruce H. August 14, 2020
Isn't there a quick method to peel potatoes by cooking first, then running a knife around the circumference and squeezing ? Wouldn't that fly in the face of the boiling ? Or would that method of peeling only apply to roasted potatoes ?
Bruce H. August 14, 2020
What is the guideline for cutting out potato eyes ? Only if they are green or blue, but brown eyes are okay ?
Susan B. August 14, 2020
I have to disagree about the type of potato for mashed...Yukon Gold for me. I only use Russet forbaked potato dishes and to make gnocchi.
Javier C. August 14, 2020
Like your writing. Keep it cool.
FrugalCat August 11, 2020
Cut them in half if they're big, boil, THEN peel. Everyone's got their method and this is mine.
Xela K. August 8, 2020
what about mayonnaise?
Millie J. August 17, 2020
I recommend not boiling the mayonnaise, but if you must, definitely don't peel the label off.
cpjc August 6, 2020
I'm a huge fan of using the instant pot to steam my potatoes. Especially in the summer when I want potato salad but don't want to tend a pot of boiling water in my un-air conditioned home.
Marilyn T. August 14, 2020
cpjc, can you expand on that, please? I haven't cooked and/or steamed potatoes in the instant pot but it sounds intriguing.
Damian R. August 6, 2020
Sam, you were on a roll there and then at the final gate you fell down. A boiled potato that has not been steamed is a disgrace to Ireland. Also it is better to cook all potatoes longer than necessary than peel, chop or otherwise dishonour the spud. Steaming involves taking out all but a small layer of water from almost done potatoes and letting them dry out a bit. Turns floury potatoes into clouds of celestial starch.
Sam S. August 6, 2020
And I'm cancelled already. I'll run this technique by my wife and see if it's part of the Corkonian culinary canon. If not, maybe it's regional??
Damian R. August 6, 2020
I can only speak for Galway and all decent folk anywhere on Earth. Seriously, whatever anyone says, steam your Potatoes and you will be a god among mortals.
wahini August 14, 2020
What is the recipe for mashed potatoes without cream?
Susan August 15, 2020
Indeed Damian, thank you! For nutritional value do not peel and do steam. With some exceptions that pretty much applies to all veg!