Mashed Potato Strategies

November 21, 2013

Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: Mashed potatoes are the glue that holds any feast together -- we'd just rather they didn't taste like glue.

Mashed Potato Strategies on Food52

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People have strong opinions about mashed potatoes. Why? Because they can go so terribly wrong -- and become a gummy, mortar-like substance. Jeffrey Steingarten even devotes an entire chapter in The Man Who Ate Everything to mashing the tuber, and Joël Robuchon won a Michelin star for his take on the traditional mash. You should approach potatoes with a clear and deliberate plan, depending on if you desire a fluffier or more rustic end result. After all, you've already got your pie dough down to a science! If smooth potatoes are the goal, then smooth potatoes you shall have. There will be no comments from that picky guest: "What's this? A lump I see in my mash?"  

Not all potatoes enter into the mashing race on equal footing: Which type should you use? The starch content varies depending on type of potato; we recommend going with Russets.   

Mashed Potato Strategies on Food52

The Science Behind the Mash

Think all the way back to your high school biology class, specifically the part where you learned about how cells break down. Jog your memory, now apply that information your potatoes -- it's all about the starch vs. water content. We need to strategically combat the potato's starchiness; both overcooking and undercooking will result in gummy potatoes.

Cooking Your Potatoes

The least labor-intensive strategy is cooking the potatoes with the skins on, as it prevents absorbtion of water by the starch molecules. (Just make sure to scrub the skins, first.) Instead of boiling, which allows the potatoes to absorb liquid, we steam the potatoes in an inch of water. The time will vary depending on the quantity of potatoes -- somewhere between 20 to 30 minutes. Test for doneness with a knife; it should slice through without difficulty, and the potatoes should remain intact. Now, peel the potatoes -- it will be easier than peeling when the potatoes are raw. After peeling, return potatoes to the warm pan and allow the remaining water to evaporate. 

If you are going to peel the potatoes before cooking, be sure to wash off the extra starch, evident when the stream is clear. 

Mashed Potato Strategies on Food52 Mashed Potato Strategies on Food52

Our biggest caveat after thorough research is to keep all electronic appliances away from your mashed potatoes. Old school is the way to go. 

The Easiest Route to Fluffy Potatoes 

Mashed Potato Strategies on Food52

Cook's Illustrated recommends using a ricer or a food mill in order to reach the top level of lightness. When using a ricer, simply push the potatoes through the ricer in small pieces and stir in your added ingredients. 

After using the ricer or food mill, keep the potatoes warm! Use warmed milk, cream, or half and half and tabs of butter. Add the milk slowly, and be careful not to overdo it. Now is the time to salt; you'd be surpised how much salt you can add before you start to taste it. 

For Slightly More Textured Potatoes

Mashed Potato Strategies on Food52

A handheld potato masher is the tool of choice for this; a masher that breaks the potatoes up into smaller chunks will work better than a traditional wire masher. Keep potatoes warm, add your warmed milk, chilled butter and salt, and get to mashing. Do not overdo it -- or you will enter the glue stage.

Reheating Strategies

A crock pot can serve as an excellent warming vehicle before your dinner. For reheating the next day, simply throw into a casserole dish, cover with foil, and reheat in a low oven until warm.

And of course, pour on gravy liberally.

Now, get on with your mashing: 
Mashed Potatoes with Caramelized Onions and Goat Cheese
Parsnip and Potato Mash
Mrs. L's Mashed Potatoes

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Stephanie
  • turnit
  • FischFood
  • Dorothy
  • carol morris
    carol morris
Lactose intolerant cheese lover, who will walk blocks for a good cup of coffee. Recently escaped the corporate world, after discovering her favorite part of the job was ordering catering.


Stephanie November 29, 2013
I haven't made mashed potatoes yet--it'll be later this weekend that we make grandma's recipe. But I never added dairy of any sort to mashed potatoes. Grandma boiled potatoes and a large onion in a pot of salted water. Drain, reserving some of the water. Then mash, onion and all, with a hand masher.
Meanwhile, fry onions on the stove in oil (or shmaltz, but not for this vegetarian) until most are deep brown and 1 or 2 start to blacken. Transfer the potatoes into a casserole dish, stir in salt, pepper, a little cumin. Put an egg if you feel like it. Then gently swirl the onions through, along with the oil, putting some on top. Bake for a bit (I have no idea how long!)
turnit November 27, 2013
Very succinct article. It sparked great comments. And with your replies it became a knowledgeable forum. Instead of just a list of ingredients and procedures there was the science and logic that sealed the deal. We aren't being merchandised. We're sharing. That's called a holiday. Thanks to all.
FischFood November 25, 2013
Very important tip... be sure to add your butter first before adding the milk or cream. Little bit of science here, as the fat added before any liquid prevents the potato from becoming "pasty" or gummy. Once the potatoes are done with the boiling, drain water and put back the pot back on stove to "dry" any remaining moisture. Then add the fat, followed by the dairy liquid of choice.
Elana C. November 25, 2013
Great tip!
Dorothy November 25, 2013
Thx for your comments. Got a lot of great tips. HAPPY THANKSGIVING TO ALL!
carol M. November 25, 2013
I read this hoping to get some new info, but I have to politely disagree with a couple of things. First, since when do reheated potatoes taste as good? I have eaten my share of leftover potatoes (even cold for breakfast) and they are good, sure, but not the same as fresh. They can be kept for several hours in a crockpot or in whatever big bowl you're going to serve them in, placed over a big pot of simmering water. Second, yes, ricing and steaming is great, but I have 14 people coming for Thanksgiving and will be doing ten pounds of potatoes - I have never seen a ricer big enough to handle that quantity in a reasonable amount of time (or without the potatoes getting cold - and me getting very testy. Finally, I find that as long as you mash them (and I do use an electric mixer) first before you add milk or cream, you can ensure there will be no lumps. Once you add milk, lumps are permanent. I do add butter and salt first. Lots!
Elana C. November 25, 2013
Thank you for weighing in, Carol. That sounds like a solid plan for dealing with extra large batches of potatoes.
tastysweet November 24, 2013
I always seem to have questions. I like the idea of steaming. But if you are doing say 7 pounds of potatoes, do you have any tips on how to do this? Help please.
Elana C. November 24, 2013
That's a whole lot of potatoes. I would suggest steaming them in batches!
tastysweet November 24, 2013
That's what I thought. Thanks. Much appreciated.
Deborah November 26, 2013
@tastysweet in my house we regularly mash 10lbs of potatoes and effectively steam them by making the first layer of potatoes the support and keep the rest of the potatoes out of the water and steamed.
Dorothy November 24, 2013
Can I reheat them the next day with the crock pot? I am going to my sisters. Would like to make them the day before.
Elana C. November 24, 2013
Yes! See Diane Terry's comment below.
tastysweet November 25, 2013
Crock pot is a great idea. So if you make them the day before and have to bring them somewhere, how long to reheat? Hours?
Jeannine D. November 24, 2013
Thx Emcsull, what's the downside?
Elana C. November 24, 2013
No major downside. You just have to be careful that they don't dry out too much. I would add a few drops of water and cover them while nuking. You might need to add additional milk as well.
Jeannine D. November 24, 2013
Can you reheat mashed potatoes in the microwave?
emcsull November 24, 2013
I have. Don't tell anybody
kim November 24, 2013
Great tips! I'm going to do the crock pot warm thing this year, thanks Diane!
Lydia November 24, 2013
Loved your idea to steam the potatoes, rather than boiling them, but after all that, why pour 'gravy' on the potatoes? Won't the gravy be happier on the meat instead?
Elana C. November 24, 2013
Ha, yes. That's just what I do when I eat mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving. I always put a big spoonful of gravy on top.
Diane T. November 24, 2013
I mash my potatoes first, then take my $9 el cheapo crockpot used only for such occassions, line it with a healthy dollop of butter, throw in the mashed potatoes, finish with another dollop and voila, one last thing to worry about at the last minute. Keeps them perfect.
Cookie! November 21, 2013
Try mashing your potatoes with buttermilk instead of cream. A tasty swap made out of desperation when I ran out of cream.
Dharini November 21, 2013
I came across a great suggestion for reheating mash- using a double boiler! I was shocked at how well it worked.
Elana C. November 21, 2013
So smart -- thanks!
Nina L. November 21, 2013
Usually I go straight to the masher, but you have inspired me to use my ricer for my Thanksgiving mash. One thing, I usually melt my butter along with the milk/cream. Any reason not to?
Elana C. November 21, 2013
Glad to hear it! Adding cold butter allows the fat of the butter to distribute evenly in the potatoes.