Mashed potatoes are the perfect accompaniment to just about any meal. But they don't have to be served just as a side. You can toss in cabbage and bacon, ground beef, peas and carrots, or almost anything else to make them a little more filling and enjoy them as a meal on their own. And they seem so simple to make, don't they?
They truth is they are easy to make, but without knowing a few tricks and tips, fluffy and delicious mashed potatoes can quickly turn into a lumpy mess. Or they become gluey and gooey: not qualities most want in their mashed potatoes. Avoid making the mistakes outlined below, and you'll be well on your way to perfect mashed potatoes.
1. Not choosing the right potato
Did you know that you can sabotage your mashed potato efforts before you've even placed them in the pot? In fact, you can do that while you're still at the grocery store, and you'll do it simply by choosing the wrong type of potato.
Mashed potatoes need to be made from a good, starchy potato such as russets or Yukon Golds. Yukon Golds are often the preferred choice because they already have a rich, buttery flavor built right into them. And butter, no matter where the flavor comes from, always makes mashed potatoes better.
2. Not cutting potatoes into the right size
Of course, everyone knows that proper mashed potatoes call for the potatoes to be boiled before they're mashed. But knowing just how to cook them correctly is important, and it's all about the chopping. Boil potatoes whole and the outsides will become overcooked before the center even begins to soften. That will result in gooey and mushy potatoes.
Likewise, if the potatoes are chopped too small or too thinly, they'll fall apart and turn to complete mush. And, although many people quarter them, this results in the same problem as the thin ends will overcook before the thicker ends are fully cooked.
So what's the solution? It's to quarter them, but not by chopping them in half through the center and then chopping those pieces in half. Instead, they should be cut in half lengthwise and then those halves should be cut in half lengthwise again. The resulting pieces will look like large, chunky potato wedges but most importantly, they'll be similar sizes and won't overcook.
3. Not salting the water
Just like when boiling pasta, water used for boiling potatoes should also be salted generously. This will infuse that flavor into the potatoes even more than just salting them after they've been mashed. After salting the water and mashing the potatoes, it's important to taste them and, only if they need more salt at that point, to add it.
4. Starting with hot water and cold potatoes
Overcooking equals death to mashed potatoes, and this is too easy to do if a pot of water is brought to boiling and then potatoes are added. Just like not chopping them to a proper size, this results in the exterior of the potatoes being cooked before the center of the potatoes are fully cooked. By the time the center of the potatoes are fully cooked, the overcooked exterior will turn what could have been fluffy potatoes into gluey mashed potatoes.
5. Stirring in cold butter and cream
Everyone knows that butter and cream are the secret to getting the creamiest mashed potatoes possible, but they shouldn't be pulled out of the fridge and added right away to the pot of cooked potatoes. Adding cold butter and cream will lower the temperature of the potatoes and make them cold before they even hit the table. Instead, warm the butter and cream together in a small saucepan, and when the butter is fully melted and the cream is warm, stir the ingredients into the mashed potatoes.
6. Not evaporating excess water
Water in mashed potatoes is a sure-fire way to get a mushy result. And no matter how well you drain them, there's going to be residual water left over from the long time they've spent boiling in that water.
To combat this problem, drain the potatoes and place the pot back on the burner, making sure it has been turned off but is still warm. Place the potatoes back into the pot and shake them around for a bit before letting them sit like that for a minute or two. The heat will quickly evaporate any excess moisture, and you can continue to make fluffy and light mashed potatoes that don't carry a lot of excess moisture.
7. Not using the right tools
There's more than one way to mash a potato and it seems every household has its own preferred method. But there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. A ricer, which is a tool that looks like a very large garlic press, is the best way to mash potatoes because it breaks the potatoes up into long even strips that can then be stirred together to create a perfect mash.
For those who don't have ricers, a handheld potato masher works fairly well, too, although a bit more work will be needed to ensure the masher doesn't leave behind any lumps.
One tool that should never be used to mash potatoes is a hand mixer or stand mixer. Although it can be convenient and mash potatoes very quickly, mashing potatoes this way can also overwork the potatoes just as quickly. The result is gluey and gooey mashed potatoes.