Which Spud’s For You?

Choose the right potato for the job and enjoy a delicious dish with these tips, tricks, and recipes
Traditional Mashed Potatoes

Photo Kita Roberts, Idaho Potato Commission

The highlight of my Thanksgiving dinner plate? Mashed potatoes and gravy. It sounds like I have company in my love of the spuds. According to a survey by Crestline, which compiled a list of about every Thanksgiving food they could think of and then asked respondents to indicate their preferences, the most popular Thanksgiving foods in America include: 1. Mashed potatoes (94%); 2. Turkey (84%); 3. Gravy (84%). (See the full report and methods here.)

Well, what’s not to like? Not only are potatoes comforting and delicious, but they are also naturally free of gluten, fat, and cholesterol and a good source of complex carbohydrates, while loaded with nutrients including vitamins B6 and C, and more potassium than the average banana.

How you or your family prepare said potatoes might be a point of fierce loyalty to tradition when it comes to a holiday dinner. Maybe you always have classic mashed potatoes mixed with milk and butter. Or maybe it’s not turkey day without some garlic or peas mixed into the mash? I recalled the potato debate by the characters on an episode of “Friends” as they prepared for their “friendsgiving” feast (check it out here). Sometimes it just doesn’t seem right without your favorite potato dish at the table.

Whether you like the familiar traditional mashed or prefer add-ins, the key to making a delicious batch starts with choosing the best potato for the job and then following the tips below on making mashed potatoes like a pro.

Potato Varieties

Potatoes vary in starch levels and moisture content, and those two factors are the key to selecting the right spud to work best for different cooking methods and dishes, whether you’re mashing, roasting, or dicing for a casserole or soup.

  • High starch and low moisture content potatoes have a dry, mealy texture but become light and fluffy when cooked. The russet (often called Idaho) potato falls into this category. These brown-skinned spuds are great for baking, mashing, and making french fries. The specialty blue potatoes (which are really more purple in color) have similar texture to the russet and can also work well baked or mashed while adding a splash of color to a meal.
  • Low to medium starch and medium to high moisture content potatoes are often referred to as waxy. This category is best to use when you want potato pieces to keep their shape after cooking, whether they’re boiled, steamed, or braised. Use in casseroles, stews, salads, soups, and for scalloped or au gratin potatoes. You can mash waxy potatoes, but they will tend to be thick and slightly lumpy rather than smooth and creamy. This category includes long white, round white, round red, fingerling, Russian banana, and new potatoes. (New potatoes are actually not a variety of potatoes but are small potatoes of any variety that are harvested young and therefore have a crisp, waxy texture and thin skin—they’re great boiled or pan-roasted.)
  • Medium-starch and moisture all-purpose golden-skinned and fleshed potatoes had been common in Europe and South America, but were not widely available in the United States until the 1980s, when Canada introduced the Yukon gold. This spud has grown steadily in popularity, as it is excellent for baking, boiling, or roasting, and its moist, creamy texture and slight buttery flavor makes it a favorite for mashing.

Make Mashed Potatoes Like a Pro

The folks at the Idaho Potato Commission have perfected the art of creating fluffy mashed potato dishes. Here are their tips so you can, too. Whether you like them made with heavy cream and butter or on the lighter side, this will help make sure your taters aren’t too lumpy, creamy, or over-whipped.

  • To ensure your potatoes cook evenly, cut them into similar sizes (about 1 to 2 inches) and place in a pot of cold water, gradually bringing the water to a boil, then simmer.
  • Leave the potatoes in water until ready to use. Just add a little acidity, a tablespoon of white wine vinegar or lemon juice added to a gallon of water.
  • Salt the water you boil the potatoes in.
  • Drain the hot water from the cooked chunks of russets and put back on the stovetop to cook off any extra water. Stir occasionally to keep the bottom of the potatoes from sticking to the pan.
  • Always add warm or room temperature butter (never cold) first then the warm liquid slowly to the cooked mashed potatoes. Cold milk, cream, or butter will make the potatoes gummy.
  • Over-mashing will result in gluey and sticky potatoes. Use your food processor for something else—don’t whip the potatoes to mash; they will be overmixed and gummy as it breaks down the starch cells.


  • For fluffier mashed potatoes, add ½ teaspoon of baking power to the mixture while mashing. Allow the potatoes to sit a few minutes before serving.
  • Try mashing your potatoes with buttermilk instead of milk or cream. Buttermilk tastes like sour cream but has less fat and calories.
  • Add fresh herbs, spices, minced vegetables, or grated cheese to boost the flavor and color of your potatoes.
  • Add a bouillon cube to the boiling water. Save the liquid when you drain the potatoes and add some of it while mashing as a calorie-free flavor enhancer.
  • Add more milk and leave out the butter for reduced-fat mashed potatoes.

Traditional Mashed Potatoes

Makes 4 to 6 servings

Perfect the classic and make any tweaks with optional add-ins to taste.

2 pounds Idaho potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks (about 5 cups)
¾ cup hot milk (1%, 2%, or whole)
2 tablespoons butter
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper

Optional Add-Ins:
½ cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley or dill

  1. Place potatoes in a large pot and add enough cold water to cover the potatoes. Bring the water up to a boil, then simmer for 13 to 15 minutes or until very tender. Drain potatoes in a colander.
  2. Return cooked potatoes to pot and stir over medium heat, about 1 minute, until excess water has evaporated.
  1. With potato masher, mash in hot milk, butter, salt, and pepper. Beat with wooden spoon until potatoes are smooth and creamy. Stir in any optional add-ins, if desired.

Cook’s Notes:
• Be sure to warm up the container you are serving your mashed potatoes in before serving. This will help keep your potatoes hot.
• Add a little “crunch” on top of your mashed potatoes when serving, such as homemade Idaho potato chips, thinly sliced fried onions, or fried cheese crisps.
• Mix and match varieties in your mashed potatoes by using the Idaho russet potato as the base and then incorporating a percentage, say 10-25%, of fingerlings, reds, or yellow potatoes with the skins on.

Lemon Roasted Fingerling Potatoes with Garlic and Lemon Aioli

Photo: Danielle Kartes, Idaho Potato Commission

Lemon Roasted Fingerling Potatoes with Garlic and Lemon Aioli

Makes 4 Servings | Recipe by Danielle Kartes, Rustic Joyful Food, courtesy Idaho Potato Commission

Mashes potatoes not your thing or looking for a second potato dish? Try roasting and offering an aioli on the side.

2-3 pounds assorted fingerling potatoes
¼ cup olive oil
3-4 sprigs of rosemary, removed from the stem
2 lemons, one sliced very thinly, one halved
Salt and pepper, to taste

For the Garlic and Lemon Aioli
1 cup mayonnaise
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
1 small garlic clove, finely chopped and mashed into a paste
½ teaspoon cracked black pepper
¼ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
Salt, to taste

  1. Heat the oven to 350°F, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Slice potatoes in half lengthwise, and add them to the baking tray along with the olive oil and rosemary. Add thin lemon slices to the pan. Squeeze juice from halved lemon over the entire pan of potatoes. Season generously with salt and pepper, and toss to coat the mixture evenly. Roast 40 to 60 minutes.
  3. While the potatoes are roasting, make the Garlic and Lemon Aioli: Mix all the ingredients together and serve alongside potatoes. If you would like to make the aioli ahead, it will keep 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator.
Mary Subialka is the editor of Real Food and Drinks magazines, covering the flavorful world of food, wine, and spirits. She rarely meets a chicken she doesn’t like, and hopes that her son, who used to eat beets and Indian food as a preschooler, will one day again think of real food as more than something you need to eat before dessert and be inspired by his younger brother, who is now into trying new foods.