Mashed potatoes—creamy, fluffy, and filled with buttery flavor—make a delightful side dish, whether for a holiday meal or weekday dinner. But despite good intentions, they can easily turn out gummy, heavy, and nearly inedible, making what is normally a fan-favorite into wasted food. If you follow a few tried and true tips and tricks, however, you can learn to make your mashed potatoes light and fluffy every time.
Start With the Proper Potato
Although you can make mashed potatoes with a variety of potatoes, what you choose to use does affect the final outcome of the dish. You want to avoid low-starch, high-moisture potatoes such as red bliss or white potatoes, which need more exuberant mashing to break them down, potentially overworking the starch and turning them gluey.
Russets, also called Idaho or baker potatoes, make the fluffiest mashed potatoes. The high starch content and low moisture result in a drier texture and lighter mash. Yukon Gold potatoes contain a medium level of starch and relatively low moisture, but with a thinner skin and a naturally creamier texture. Some cooks prefer to give up some of the fluffiness of russet in favor of the Yukon Gold's creamier texture, naturally buttery flavor, and an attractive yellow hue. For the best of both worlds, consider combining the two. Yukon Golds also make a good choice for those who prefer to keep the potato skins.
Prepare the Potato Correctly
An important part of making mashed potatoes is preparing and cooking the potato properly. The potatoes need to be cut into same-size pieces in order to cook evenly, and should be boiled for a certain amount of time to produce the ideal consistency.
If using russets, scrub, peel, and cut them into uniform 1- to 2-inch chunks; for Yukon Gold potatoes, simply scrub and cut—no peeling necessary. Place potato pieces in a pot and add cold water to cover; it is important you use cold water because warm or hot water would begin cooking the outside before the inside of the potatoes and result in unevenly cooked potato pieces. Bring the water to a full rolling boil, then reduce the heat slightly and keep them at a constant low boil for about 20 minutes or until you can insert a knife with no resistance.
Drain the potatoes thoroughly, then return them to the hot pot and gently move them around for a minute or two until all of the surface moisture evaporates. If you mash potatoes with some moisture still attached, your side dish can be watery.
Alternatively, you can bake scrubbed russets in their skins in a 400 F oven for about an hour, or until a knife slides in easily. Let them cool, then split them in half lengthwise and scoop out the flesh for mashing. This method eliminates the need to peel the potatoes, cutting the prep time significantly.
Use the Right Tool and Technique
With so many small appliances and pieces of kitchen equipment available to make cooking easier, it is tempting to use a blender, hand mixer, or food processor to save time and elbow grease when making mashed potatoes. But mashing potatoes with these types of tools break down the potato cells, releasing starch, and results in mashed potatoes with the consistency of wallpaper paste.
Better choices are a ricer, food mill, or hand masher, which pose less of a threat than those metal blades whirling at thousands of revolutions per minute. The ricer and food mill both yield a silkier texture than a hand masher, which may leave a few smallish lumps. (If you plan to use a food mill, you can skip the step of peeling the potatoes before you boil them.)
No matter which tool you use, you want to mash the potatoes as gently as possible. If you process them too much, you will essentially act as a blender or food processor and work them into a state of gumminess.
Add Warm Ingredients
No matter what you are cooking, when combining hot ingredients with cold there is often a reaction that can change the texture and consistency of the dish. So it is important that when you add the butter, milk or cream, or sour cream to the hot mashed potatoes that they are not straight from the fridge.
When adding butter, it is not only best that it isn't cold, but it should also be melted for the most cohesive combination. Keep the melted butter warm until it is time to add to the potatoes. Similarly, you should heat any milk or cream or sour cream before mixing into the potatoes while they are still warm.