Cooks often get this simple dish very wrong on Thanksgiving, and it’s perplexing. Maybe they’re trying too hard, rushing, or simply don’t know the basics.
Here’s the FAQ on making perfect mashed potatoes.
Choose the right potato
Idaho Russets or Red Bliss are the most common choices for good mashing potatoes, but Yukon Golds work fine, too. Tiny new potatoes are not suitable.
- Rule: Do NOT store your potatoes in the refrigerator; the starch in them turns to sugar and makes them gummy – and there’s no help for that.
Peel or not, your choice; but cube them large
Should you peel the potatoes? It’s up to you entirely. If you don’t peel them, scrub them very well with a brush.
- Rule: Cut the cleaned or peeled potato into large even-sized chunks. Cutting them up evenly means they’ll all cook at the same time and you won’t have mushy or lumpy potatoes.
Use plenty of water, and cook till tender
Put the potatoes into cold water in a large pot – large enough to have 2 inches of water, minimum, covering the potatoes and room for them to cook. Add at least 2 tablespoons of salt – the water should taste like sea water. Bring the potatoes to a boil over medium to medium-high heat. You know your stove. Don’t cook on high since you want to boil these at a simmer these till done, not have them at a hard boil. Do not cover the pot. Lower the heat, if need, to gently boil the potatoes.
Cook 3 pounds of potatoes for about 25 minutes (add more time as needed for more than 3 pounds) and check with a fork by piercing one of the cubes to its center. The fork test shows if they’re done through – they should “crack” when pierced -not just have the fork go in easily.
- Rule: Use plenty of water to cover potatoes by at least 2 inches in the pot.
Drain and mash – over heat
When the potatoes are done, drain thoroughly into a colander. If you are making gravy, save some of the potato water to thin your gravy – it’s an old chef’s trick.
Put the drained potatoes back into the pot and set the heat to low. Mash the potatoes with a hand potato masher over low heat – this lets the excess water and the steam cook out, and prevents watery, runny potatoes. The potatoes should be fluffy. Scrape the bottom frequently to mash them evenly.
If you’re really up to it, and driven to extra labor, you can use a potato ricer. (To keep dinner from being a day late, I recommend this jumbo potato ricer that can handle a lot more than your granny’s old one.) Some chefs prefer this tool over a masher.
* DO AHEAD: At this point, the potatoes, once mashed, can be put into a covered bowl and refrigerated for up to 2 days, before finishing. Cover with plastic wrap that’s pressed evenly on the surface of the potatoes, sealing them.
Finish the potatoes with seasonings and butter
Here’s where you can get creative, or stay traditional: Use cream, milk, buttermilk, chicken or vegetable stock, sour cream, plain yogurt, butter, olive oil, roasted garlic, chives, or caramelized onion to cream and season your potatoes.
For the traditional: Use cream and butter, salt and pepper. (Use ground white pepper if you want pristine potatoes.)
Put the mashed potatoes in a pot over low heat. Add cream (warmed slightly in the microwave to take the chill off) slowly, using 1/4 cup at a time. Mash or whip with an electric hand-held mixer if you prefer. Add butter, salt and pepper to taste. Whip again and add a little more cream – the potatoes will thicken slightly as they stand.
For those who want extra flavor, add caramelized onions, roasted garlic, herbs or chives and stir well to blend. Use buttermilk (lowfat), yogurt or sour cream for a tangy result.
- Rule: Always measure the salt and pepper over a sheet of waxed paper or a garbage can – never measure seasonings over a pot. Spills happen!
* DO AHEAD: At this point, the potatoes can be placed in a baking pan and kept warm in an oven set at 220 degrees, tented with foil; they can be kept warm over a pot of simmering water, but take care that they don’t burn or scorch.
Mashed potatoes are best served as hot as you can get them – and to keep them hot while serving, put them in a deep bowl. Leftovers can be frozen.
Finally: How many to make?
If you’re cooking this for the big Thanksgiving Day dinner, there likely will be plenty of other food on the table. A 5-pound bag of potatoes should easily feed 12 to 16, depending on whether you have adults or kids. Scale your servings from that weight. If potatoes are your only other food besides a veg and a roast, they may only feed 10 to 12.