Homemade mashed potatoes are a classic, creamy, delicious side dish that complements so many entrees. If you make them right, at least. If not, you'll probably end up with something dry, lumpy, gummy, gooey or some other unappealing words. Success with this endeavor begins with choosing the right type of potatoes. Then, you need to know how long to boil them, how to handle them after boiling and what to add to them.
Choosing the Best Potatoes for Mashing
There are hundreds of types of potatoes, but they all fit into just three categories: starchy, waxy and all-purpose, which fall somewhere in the middle on the starchy-waxy spectrum. Starchy potatoes are best for mashed potatoes. They're low in moisture and absorbent; they turn out fluffy; and they fall apart easily after cooking. All-purpose potatoes have enough of these qualities also to be suitable for mashed potatoes.
Russets are the traditional starchy choice for baked and mashed potatoes. Yukon golds are a common all-purpose potato and good for mashing, too. If you want to get crazy, make mashed potatoes with a combination of these two types. Sweet potatoes with tan, copper or purple skin (as opposed to reddish or orange skin), like the Hannah and jewel varieties, are also dry, starchy and good for mashing.
Prepping the Potatoes
Three pounds of whole potatoes makes about eight servings of mashed potatoes. Scrub them under cold running water to remove any dirt. It's up to you whether or not to peel the potatoes. Some people love mashed potatoes with skin, others hate it. Hopefully there's a consensus in your home; if not, cater to the taste of whoever can make you the most miserable.
Boiling the Potatoes
Place the potatoes in a large pot and cover them with water. Salt the water lightly and bring it to a boil over high heat. Then, turn the heat down to maintain a gentle boil. If you're wondering which potatoes cook faster, there's really not a significant difference in cooking times between different types. Larger potatoes and those with heartier skins – if left on – typically take slightly longer.
If you combine russets and Yukon golds, it's fine to boil them for the same amount of time. The smaller, thinner-skinned Yukon golds need a bit less time, but since you'll be mashing them and adding ingredients to make them creamier, there won't be any textural issues.
Boil the potatoes until they're soft all the way through. You should be able to easily slide a fork through them. This generally takes about 16 to 20 minutes.
Turning Them Into Mashed Potatoes
Drain the potatoes and pat them dry with paper towels or a clean cloth. At the same time, place the empty pot over low heat for a minute or two to evaporate the remaining moisture. Water makes the finished product turn out gummy. Many people don't know this, and it's where a lot of homemade mashed potatoes go wrong.
Return the potatoes to the pot and use a potato masher to mash them up until they're smooth and lump-free.While you're mashing away, in a pan combine 1/4 cup of milk with one stick of butter per 3 pounds of potatoes in a pan. You can use less butter – significantly less, even – but why? More butter makes it more better. Heat over medium-low until the butter is melted, then pour it into the pot with the mashed potatoes and stir until it's fully incorporated and you achieve a creamy consistency.
Salt and pepper the mashed potatoes liberally. Add other seasonings if you like, such as crushed garlic, chive, rosemary or thyme. You can also add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of sour cream for more flavor and creaminess, or melt in some shredded cheddar cheese. And, there's always crumbled bacon, of course.
Eric Mohrman is a food and drink, lifestyle, and travel writer living in Orlando, Florida. He spent 10 years working front- and back-of-house in restaurants, adding professional experience to his love of eating and cooking. His stories on food and beverage topics have appeared in numerous print and web publications, including Visit Florida, Orlando Style Magazine, CrushBrew Magazine, Agent Magazine, Dollar Stretcher Magazine, The 863 Magazine and others.