Want to know how to make the best mashed potatoes? Start by avoiding these common missteps. 

By Dawn Perry
November 05, 2018
Greg DuPree

For some—okay, most—Thanksgiving wouldn’t be complete without a big bowl of luscious buttery mashed potatoes. Everybody holds dear their quintessential ideal and while you might not be able to please everybody, there are a handful of do's, and definite don’t's, to keep in mind. So just in time for Mashed Potato Season, we're revealing what you're doing wrong and what to do instead when it comes to making your mash.

1. You’re Only Using Russet Potatoes

To be clear, there are two types of potatoes. Not French fries and potato skins (although I’m willing to hear this argument), but starchy and waxy. There’s actually a starchy to waxy spectrum, ruddy-skinned russets and Idahos being on the very starchy end and thin-skinned new potatoes and the like on the other. Russets cook up very light and fluffy, while waxier spuds hold their shape better, which makes them ideal for roasting and potato salad. My preference? A mix of russet potatoes and a nice middle-of the road potato like my favorite, Yukon Gold. Mashed together, these potatoes are sturdy enough to handle a decent amount of dairy, but with enough airy volume to keep things from feeling too heavy.

2. You’re Under Seasoning the Potatoes

Potatoes are, by nature, really starchy and starches require a decent amount of salt to taste good. I talk about this a lot on Cooking School: Have you ever seen me season a pot of pasta water? One might say it's “aggressively”. But that’s what’s necessary to get the seasoning inside the noodles, or potato as the case may be. Under-seasoning means only the outside of your potatoes will taste like anything, which accounts for very little of the finished dish. Cooking your potatoes in very generously salted water—about a tablespoon of water per pound of potatoes—means the potatoes will be seasoned all the way through. Once mashed, they'll need a lot less salt on the backend.  

3. You’re Not Using Enough Butter

If there’s a time and a place to submit to the extra stick, Thanksgiving Day is it. Some fancy French mashies call for more than a stick of butter for every pound of potatoes. You don’t have to go crazy, but don’t skimp.

4. You’re Using Butter Alone

That said, I think potatoes need more than just butter to be truly delicious. Whether you choose to cook them in half-and-half or milk or add heavy and/or sour cream at the end, a little extra dairy creates luscious texture and is an easy way to infuse other flavors into the dish.

5. You're Not Using Fresh Herbs

If you’re mashing your potatoes with a little (or a lot) of dairy, take advantage. Potatoes will mash easiest with warm liquid. To give that certain I-don’t-know-what to your taters, add a few sprigs of fresh rosemary, thyme, or sage to the milk before heating. Even a single bay leaf can add big flavor to humble spuds. While you're at it, add a teaspoon of black peppercorns (just don't forget to fish them out), a strip of lemon zest, or a few shavings of nutmeg. 

6. You’re Not Saving Your Potato Water

To mash ahead, or not to mash ahead, that is the question. Wait—that’s not how it goes? Weird I’ve had it wrong all these years. The short answer is yes you CAN mash your potatoes ahead of time BUT only if you save some of your starchy potato cooking liquid. Even if your potatoes set up a bit, a glug of warm liquid will loosen them up just fine. Just be sure you add slowly—you can always add more, but you can’t take it out.

7. You’re Not Making Donuts With The Leftovers

Or quesadillas, or egg rolls, or waffles. Big mistake. Big. Huge! Here are 17 more mind-blowing ways to use up leftover mashed potatoes. Not that you’ll have any.