6 Mistakes That Ruin Mashed Potatoes (and How to Fix Them)
While they may not be the star of the show, mashed potatoes are an essential part of Thanksgiving dinner. Smooth and buttery, they help round out the bigger flavors; and perhaps even more importantly, they're easy to make when you've got other more labor-intensive parts of the meal to tend to. But even simple sides can take a turn south if you don't follow a few rules. We want you to have your best (and easiest) mashed potatoes yet, so here are six possible pitfalls and what you can do to avoid them.
Pictured recipe: Cheddar, Scallion & Bacon Mashed Potatoes
Mistake to Avoid #1: Poor Potato Prep
If your potatoes are less than perfect, it could be that you're missing a few steps at the beginning. It's always a good idea to scrub your potatoes even if you're planning to peel them. And if you're not peeling, then scrubbing the skin is an even more essential step to remove any dirt and debris that could be lingering. You'll also want to remove any "eyes" from the potatoes. These are the little brown or black bumpy spots on the skin where the potato would sprout if you were planting it. Cutting them out with the tip of a small knife is the best way to get rid of them. And if all or part of your potatoes are green? Toss them. Green potatoes may contain high levels of solanine—a chemical that not only tastes bad, but can also make you sick.
Mistake to Avoid #2: Gummy Mashed Potatoes
You want your mashed potatoes smooth and silky, not thick and chewy. If the latter is the case, you've got gummy potatoes. It's a less than ideal result, and it's pretty common. Why does it happen? You could be using the wrong potatoes. Potatoes are generally considered "waxy" or "starchy." Waxy potatoes (like white potatoes and red potatoes) are more prone to gumminess when mashed, as opposed to starchy potatoes (like Yukon Golds and russets). Choose starchy potatoes or a mixture of waxy and starchy potatoes. But be warned: even starchy potatoes can turn to a sticky paste if they're overworked. The lesson here? Don't overmix the potatoes! For mashed potatoes that are smooth without being gummy, a potato ricer is your best bet. It gently presses the potato into fine pieces so all that's left to do is add your liquid and a pat or two of butter. If you choose to use an electric mixer, add your butter and milk toward the beginning of the mixing, and mix gently, stopping as soon as the potatoes are smooth. You can also use a potato masher, but this will produce more rustic potatoes, not a smooth mash.
Pictured recipe: Sautéed Leek Mashed Potatoes
Mistake to Avoid #3: Lumpy Mashed Potatoes
Unwanted lumps are a result of mashing undercooked potato, so the key to avoiding lumps is cooking the potatoes correctly. Make sure that your potatoes are all cut roughly the same size so they cook at the same rate. And unlike pasta, potatoes should be started in cold water. If they're not, the outside cooks too quickly and the inside remains underdone and then, well, you've got lumps. If you've got lumps, don't panic. And also, don't keep mixing, because that could make your potatoes gummy as well. Instead, try putting the mashed potatoes through a potato ricer to try and break them up without overworking them. You could also jazz up your mashed potatoes with ingredients like chopped bacon or scallions that can mask the lumpy texture.
Pictured recipe: Bacon Mashed Potatoes
Mistake to Avoid #4: Soggy Potatoes
You wanted fluffy but you got soggy instead? It could be that you cooked the potatoes too long or that you cooked them too hard (i.e., in very rapidly boiling water). Potatoes cook best when they're boiled gently, not vigorously. Keep the lid off the pan when you're cooking them to monitor the boil. And when they're done, drain them well—extra liquid still clinging to the potatoes could make them soggy too. If your potatoes are soggy, what can you do? You can combine them with more potatoes to fix the texture or let them sit in the warm oven to dry them out. Remember: don't continue to stir them or they will become pasty.
Pictured recipe: Chive & Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes
Mistake to Avoid #5: Cold Potatoes
If you start with steaming-hot potatoes only to end up with a lukewarm mash, then your milk and butter is probably cold going in. Heat your butter and milk up together until the butter is melted and the milk is steaming. To reheat cold mashed potatoes, microwave them, put them (covered) in a warm oven or gently heat them on the stovetop (but don't overstir!)
Pictured recipe: Mashed Cauliflower & Yukon Golds
Mistake to Avoid #6: They're Too Salty
Plenty of people recommend salting the water you're using to cook your potatoes. We would advise against it. Potatoes suck in water and salt while cooking. It's hard to know how salty the end result will be and it's much easier to add salt than it is to take it away. Add salt while you're mixing and taste as you go. If you find your potatoes are too salty, adding more liquid, such as milk or buttermilk, or more potatoes can help tone it down. No more potatoes on hand? Try adding some mashed cauliflower or root vegetables to the mix.
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