Here's how to make the best mashed potatoes of your life

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

There are few chefs more qualified to lend advice about mashed potatoes than RJ Harvey.

Harvey is a registered dietitian and the culinary director of Potatoes USA. He's also a Johnson & Wales-trained chef with an impressive resume that includes Grant Achatz's Alinea and Thomas Keller's French Laundry.

RJ Harvey, culinary director Potatoes USA, is probably the most qualified chef in the US to dole out potato advice.

In his work with Potatoes USA, which represents more than 2,500 commercial farms in the nation, Harvey has been to 54 countries. U.S.-grown potatoes really get around. 

"Think about all of the quick-service restaurants all around the globe," Harvey said. "They all have some sort of potato dish on the menu."

How to select potatoes

In his professional life, Harvey helps those food service operations learn the best way to mash, fry and bake potatoes. But when asked which of the more than 200 varieties of American-grown spuds make the best mashers, Harvey demurs.

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"It comes down to what you like," he said. "If you want really creamy and rich mashed potatoes, you'll want to reach for yellow, red or the white potatoes with the really thin skin that's sort of alabaster."

But for light and fluffy mashed potatoes, the gold standard is the russet. Its lower moisture content produces a less dense mash than yellow potatoes such as Yukon Gold.

How to cook potatoes

If you're using russets, which have thick skins, it's a good idea to peel them before cooking. Skin or no skin is ultimately a personal preference. 

But when it comes to cooking, Harvey does not equivocate: Begin with cold water and simmer gently.

Perfect, fluffy mashed potatoes.

"I recommend you almost poach your potatoes," he said. "Start with cold water, add in your potatoes whether you choose to peel them or not, bring the water to a boil, add salt and reduce the temperature of the water so you're at a simmer."

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Boiling potatoes will break them down too quickly, while simmering them gently allows salt to penetrate the flesh. 

At the same time, take care not to undercook your potatoes. If they're not fork-tender when you go to mash them, the starch will not have had a chance to expand, which means you're looking at clumpy, gluey potatoes.

How to mash potatoes

Once the potatoes are soft, it's time to drain them well in a colander or strainer and let them steam off. "Potatoes are about 80% water, so you want to let that steam get away," Harvey said. 

The very best mashed potatoes start with a ricer, a relatively inexpensive piece of kitchen equipment that forces your cooked food through tiny holes. 

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"If you don't have a ricer, you could use a stand mixer, a hand mixer and you could even use a whisk if you've cooked your potatoes properly," Harvey said. "You could even use one of those outdated potato mashers everyone has in the kitchen drawer. That works, too."

A ricer or food mill will break the potatoes down into tiny parts with minimal contact, creating the lightest, creamiest mashers. The worst thing you can do is overwork potatoes into a gummy mess. 

Riced or mashed potatoes should be returned to the pot to continue to steam until they're reasonably dry.

Milk or cream? How hot should it be?

If it's fluffy potatoes you're after, you'll want to reach for half and half or whole milk over cream. 

"And if you want them to be creamier, use heavier dairy and of course you could always substitute plant-based milk," Harvey said. "But you need to add some sort of liquid, including vegetable or chicken stock because you need something for the starch to bind to. Added fat helps too, which is why we use butter."

It's absolutely crucial to heat your liquid and butter before adding it to your hot potatoes. Adding cold fat and milk is yet another way to end up with gluey potatoes.

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And yes, despite what you've heard, there is such a thing as too much butter, which will cause your potatoes to separate and ooze fat. 

Harvey recommends 3 tablespoons, or 1 1/2 ounces, of butter per pound of potatoes if you're using whole milk. Scale the butter back if you're using heavy cream, he advised. 

For four pounds of russets, the best formula is 2 cups of whole milk, 12 tablespoons of unsalted butter, then a generous shower of kosher or sea salt to taste. And while some people like white pepper, Harvey prefers the flavor of freshly ground black pepper.

"But to each their own," he said. 

Perfect Mashed Potatoes

Russet potatoes are gently folded together with milk and butter for perfect and comforting cloud-like mashed potatoes.

Ingredients

4 pounds russet potatoes

2 cups whole milk

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

Kosher salt, as needed

Freshly ground black pepper, as needed

Equipment:

Large bowl

Dutch oven or large stockpot

Colander

Potato ricer or food mill

Rubber spatula

Instructions

Peel the potatoes and cut them into 1-2-inch dices (the size of the pieces should be consistent for even cooking). Transfer the potatoes to a bowl of cold water and rinse them 2-3 times until the water runs clear, which helps remove excess starch.

In a large stockpot, bring 4 quarts of salt-seasoned water to a boil over high heat. Add the potatoes, reduce to a simmer, and cook them until they are completely tender. 

Drain the potatoes in a colander, rinse them quickly but thoroughly with hot water, and then allow them to continue to drain/release steam for about 1-2 minutes.

Place a ricer or food mill over another pot and pass the potatoes through it. 

Heat the milk and the butter, then add it to the potatoes and gently stir. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.

Keep the potatoes warm until ready to serve.

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Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South Region. She's the editor of Southern Kitchen and a correspondent for The American South.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com