Mistakes Everyone Makes When Making Mashed Potatoes

Mashed potatoes might just be the quintessential American food. Whether you like yours with or sans skins, loaded up with all the fixings or plain, there's a good chance that you have a huge soft spot for this humble but yummy root vegetable dish. According to the Buffalo News, Americans scarf down more than 20 servings of mashed potatoes per person per year. But, while there's nothing quite like tucking into a big old bowl of the good stuff, there are a few key mistakes that almost everyone makes when preparing this comfort food treat.

Mastering the fine art of making mashed potatoes means making simple swaps in preparation and timing. You can also add unconventional ingredients to achieve that velvety nirvana that we all crave and love. These easy but effective tricks can help you level up your spuds game and have a perfect, fluffy, buttery bowl of mashed potatoes every single time.

Using non-starchy potatoes

When it comes to whipping up the best bowl of mashed potatoes, the type of spud you select matters. Red Bliss potatoes might be delicious diced up into a hash, but they don't play well in mashed potatoes because of their waxy texture. So instead, savvy chefs know to reach for Yukon Gold or Russet potatoes. According to The Spruce Eats, Russets tend to get soft and starchy when you boil them, lending a smooth texture to the end product.

Similarly, Yukon Gold potatoes bring a lot to the table. These potatoes are naturally creamy and have a lot of robust potato flavor. They're also golden-hued and will lend a warm, buttery color to your mashed potatoes. For the best results, use a combination of the two. You'll get tons of texture from the Russets and a hefty dose of wonderful, rich potato flavor from the Yukon Golds.

Putting your potatoes in boiling water

Start your spuds in cold water for creamy mashed potatoes that never taste over-processed or gluey. According to Tasting Table, popping the potatoes into boiling water can cause them to cook unevenly, with the outsides heating up far more rapidly than the interiors. Doing this is counterintuitive for most people because usually, you cook most veggies in boiling water, not cold water. However, fighting the instinct to slide your spuds into a raging pot of water will pay off big time in terms of consistency and taste.

When you heat the water while your potatoes are in the pot, you promote even cooking. Since the inside and outsides get done simultaneously, you won't wind up with bits of undercooked or uncooked potato. It's also easier to check for doneness this way. This small step can make a world of difference and give you incredibly smooth, lump-free mashed potatoes.

Too-small or irregular dicing

Although dicing your potatoes super small might help them cook quicker, it's not the most effective way to make mashed potatoes. Too-small spuds can soak up lots of extra water, making them overly saturated and runny when mashed. According to Serious Eats, petite potatoes lose a lot of their starch and flavor. Plus, soggy spuds can have trouble drawing in butter, sour cream, milk, or any other goodness you might add to the mash later on.

Instead, cut your potatoes into about one-inch pieces. This size is the sweet spot; they'll cook relatively quickly but not soak in too much excess water. Also, it's important to remember to slice and dice your veggies to the same size. Different-sized pieces will cook unevenly, and you could wind up with some raw or overcooked bits. Ultimately, the more time you spend on your knife work, the more uniform your dish will be.

Not salting the water

Any good cook knows that you salt and season your end product, especially when it comes to mashed potatoes, but great cooks understand that salting the water is a huge key to cooking success. It makes logical sense to salt your water. After all, your potato chunks are soaking in all of the goodness as they cook, so why not give them a flavorful leg up by sprinkling in a pinch or two before boiling?

According to Bon Appetit, salting your potato water can transform your spuds from bland to briny and beautiful. Of course, the amount of salt you use is up to you, and you can always add a little bit more later on. So give your water a liberal sprinkle or three of salt. You can also add other herbs and spices, like bay leaves, dried rosemary, or freshly ground pepper, to the pot.

Forgetting to rinse your potatoes

The potatoes that you snag from the store will almost certainly be pre-washed, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't give them another rinse before doing your other prep work. According to Idaho Potato, washing off your spuds is a crucial way to get that excellent potato flavor without any additional add-ons that you might not want (you know, like dirt or sand). It's a good idea to wash your potatoes, even if you're peeling them, but especially if you're whipping the skins into your mashed.

Pay close attention to any bumps, ridges, or eyes in your potatoes. These places are where a lot of dirt can collect, and the initial pre-wash might have missed it. If you have a vegetable scrubby brush, use it to really get into those nooks and crannies. This extra prep work will pay off when you're dipping your spoon into a buttery bowl of fragrant and delicious mashed potatoes.

Not using a potato ricer

Although you can technically use a potato masher, or even a fork, to mash up your spuds, nothing does the job quite like a potato ricer. So if you want professional-grade potatoes, consider investing in one of these tools. Not only will a potato ricer shear your spuds into tiny strands, but it will also aerate them and minimize the amount of mixing that you have to do later on. Overmixing is one of the biggest contributors to gluey potatoes.

According to the Farmers Almanac, potato ricers are the key to uniform, fluffy, restaurant-style potatoes. They're also super simple to use. Simply squish your spuds through the ricer, and watch them come out in delicate strands on the other side. So if you make a lot of potatoes, or simply want to be a master in the kitchen, get your hands on a potato ricer.

Mixing in cold milk

Even novice cooks know that two of the top keys to rich, delicious mashed potatoes are butter and milk, but it's essential to get your temperatures right if you want to take your spuds from JV to varsity level. If you're putting cold milk into your mashed potatoes, you're cooling down the potatoes unnecessarily. Cooler potatoes require more stirring, leading to a gluey mashed potato consistency. Nobody wants that.

According to Martha Stewart, warm milk is the way to get creamy, cloud-like mashed potatoes every time. You can heat your milk and butter on the stove or even microwave it so that they're hot, but not boiling. Then, fold them gently into the potatoes without over-stirring. On the flip side, when you serve the mashed potatoes, you want to add any additional butter cold because it will melt over the hot potatoes, giving you that extra buttery flavor with each bite. 

Forgetting the baking powder

According to Wonder How To, a pinch of baking powder can give your potatoes a satiny texture and a delicious mouthfeel. Baking powder naturally helps dough rise, and it can do the same for your spuds if you add just a pinch or two before running your potatoes through a ricer. The result will be fluffier, tastier mashed potatoes. Just be careful not to add too much. You want it to work in the background, not show up on the front of the potatoes' taste profile.

The other way to make the most of this baking powder hack is to start with totally dry spuds. Drain — and save — your potato water, and let your potato pieces thoroughly dry before sprinkling the baking powder on. Otherwise, the baking powder will mix with the water. Of course, you can add potato water, milk, and butter to the bowl after you've finished mashing your taters.

Not adding sour cream

Although some potato purists might turn their nose up at adding a dollop of sour cream to their mashed, it really does give the end product a restaurant-quality feel and taste. In addition to milk, potato water, and butter, sour cream can help your potatoes come out silky smooth. It also gives the spuds a slightly tangy and deeper flavor. Also, when you think about it, sour cream and baked potatoes are already a tried-and-true match, so it makes sense that this dairy product would play well with the mashed variety.

Whisk It Real Gud suggests adding the sour cream as you mash the potatoes, making sure not to over-process the potatoes. You only need a few spoonfuls to get an excellent satin texture and a deeper taste. If you'd like, you can whip up your milk and sour cream together, then put both into the spuds at the same time.

Cooking them too early

One of the key mistakes that everyone makes when whipping up some taters is making them at the wrong time. Mashed potatoes are best when piping hot and fresh, and will quickly deteriorate if you leave them out for too long. This makes sense when you think about it because the key draw of this comfort food is its consistency. The best taters are the fluffiest and hottest ones. As anyone who's ever lived through the seventh grade and has been served a slab of room temperature mashed potatoes in the cafeteria knows, whipped up spuds age poorly.

As tricky as it is, it's vital to get your timing right. Cooking them too early can spell disaster, or at best, mediocre mashed taters. If you do find yourself in a position where you have to reheat your potatoes, make sure you do it right so that they can bounce back to their original glory.

Not mixing in potato water

If you're dumping out all your potato water before mashing up your spuds, you're making a tragic mistake. Potato water is a fantastic way to add starchy liquid to your taters and can help them achieve an airier, more delicious texture in the end. Add it in bit by bit so your potatoes don't get too runny, and you'll be amazed at the results. According to Little House Living, potato water has a whole host of culinary uses. For example, you can swap it in for cornstarch or use it to make soups and gravy.

In addition to the starch, your potato water has plenty of rich flavors, especially if you added fresh herbs, salt, pepper, or a bay leaf before cooking. So, add a teaspoon or two of potato water to your mashed potatoes, and save the rest for more culinary wizardry down the road.

Forgetting fresh herbs

By nature, mashed potatoes are a rich and decadent dish. Fresh herbs can brighten things up a bit and add extra flavor layers to your spuds. Although you can pop some fresh or dried herbs into your cooking water to amp up the flavor, you can add them at the end, too. Mashed potatoes are super versatile, and you can customize the herbs you use to match your main dish. 

According to eHow, several different types of fresh herbs play beautifully with a velvety bowl of buttery mashed, so you have a few options, including everything from basil to mint. You can mix in delicate fresh herbs at the end, sprinkle them on top, or infuse your butter with sage, basil, dill, or chives for a more subtle and delicate flavor. Herb butter has tons of other applications too. You can put it on steak or other vegetables or even slather it on dinner rolls for a fresh twist.

Not adding the nutmeg

Although you might associate nutmeg with warm, fall-themed baked goods and hot lattes, there's more to this sweetish spice than meets the eye. In fact, celebrity chef Michael Symon's classic mashed potatoes have the slightest hit of nutmeg for deep, rich flavor. The trick is not to overdo it. You don't want your mashed potatoes coming out tasting more like a coffee cake than piles of delicious, buttery goodness.

According to the Kitchn, nutmeg can add nuance and layers to your taters. As a secret weapon, it's second to none, but like all secret weapons, you need to be aware of its power and use it sparingly. A single pinch or two will do. Err on the side of caution because you can always stir and add a little bit more. A tiny bit of nutmeg will make your mashed potatoes wonderful, but too much will make them straight-up weird.