Avoid These Common Mashed Potato Mistakes

A food mill or ricer is the key to fluffy spuds.A food mill or ricer is the key to fluffy spuds.By Mary-Frances Heck, Bon Appétit

Po-TAY-to, po-TAH-to, right? Not when it comes to smooth, fluffy mashed ones. There are a lot of things that could go wrong: they're too lumpy, too gluey, too cold, too bland. We chatted with BA Test Kitchen director Mary-Frances Heck to find out where home cooks go wrong and how to avoid lackluster spuds on Thanksgiving. Her advice--plus some tips for heating up do-ahead potatoes--below.

1. Use One Kind of Potato
You want a 50/50 mix of waxy potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, and starchy potatoes, such as Russet and Idaho. Starch absorbs butter and cream while giving the potatoes a fluffy, whipped texture. Waxy potatoes have good flavor but can get wet and gluey if they're the only potato in the mash.

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2. Don't Wash Your Potatoes
It may sound obvious, but sometimes people just peel their potatoes without washing them first. POTATOES ARE DIRTY. Avoid getting specks of dirt in your spuds by thoroughly rinsing in cold water and scrubbing them first.

3. Start Off Hot
If you throw cubed potatoes into a boiling pot of water, the outside will overcook and the inside won't cook enough. You want everything in the pot to come to temperature at the same time. Put your cubes in a pot, cover them with cold water, THEN turn on your stove.

4. Don't Salt the Water
Like pasta, potatoes absorb both water and salt. Think of it as another opportunity to season.

5. Boil Your Potatoes
Potatoes can easily fall apart in a pot of aggressively bubbling water. Simmer them instead; that way they'll stay intact and cook more evenly.

6. Use Soggy Potatoes
Watery mashed potatoes. Gross. Drain and dry your spuds after simmering by either putting them back into the hot pot on low heat and stirring for a few minutes or dumping them onto a sheet pan and popping them into the oven. When the edges of the potatoes turn white, they're ready.

7. Use the Wrong Tool
If there's one specialized tool you buy for your kitchen, make it a food mill or ricer. There's no other way to get that fluffy consistency.

8. Use Cold Milk
Milk straight out of the fridge will cool down otherwise piping-hot potatoes. Warm the milk in a small saucepan before incorporating it into your mash.

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9. Use Hot Butter
When you melt butter on the stove, its milk solids and fat separate. Adding cold butter to your potatoes will allow the butter to melt as a whole and distribute the fat and milk solids evenly.

There are no better mashed potatoes than freshly prepared ones. We think you should make your potatoes when you're making your gravy: in the last hour of prep time. But if you have to make them ahead of time, keep them in a counter-top crock pot. They'll stay warm for hours without getting scorched. If you don't have a crock pot, reheat them in the microwave for a minute at a time, stirring between each minute. To revive dry potatoes, mix in a little more milk and butter until they're soft and creamy again.

Recipe for the Fluffiest Mashed Potatoes

4 pounds russet potatoes
1 pound Yukon Gold potatoes
3 tablespoons kosher salt plus more to finish
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
8 whole black peppercorns
3 sprigs thyme or 1 sprig rosemary
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cubed
Freshly ground black pepper

Special equipment
Using a food mill keeps spuds light and airy. If you have a ricer, that will work, too.

Fill a large pot halfway with cold water. Peel potatoes and cut into 2" pieces, adding to pot as they are cut. Add cold water to cover by 1" if needed. Stir in kosher salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and gently simmer until tender, 10-15 minutes. Drain potatoes and transfer to a baking sheet. Let dry, 5-10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat whole milk, heavy cream, peppercorns, thyme or rosemary, and bay leaves in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until mixture is very hot but not boiling, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let mixture infuse for 20 minutes; strain. This will add herbal flavor without coloring the liquid.

Pass potatoes through the smallest disk of a food mill along with butter into a large bowl. Stir in the hot cream mixture. Season generously to taste with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. To hold, press plastic wrap directly against the surface and set bowl over (not in) a large pot of simmering water for up to 2 hours.

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