Hone your skills before making everyone's favorite Thanksgiving side dish.

A bowl of creamy, buttery mashed potatoes is a welcome addition to any meal, whether a quick weeknight supper or the annual family get-together at Thanksgiving. Ask a group of Southerners to list their favorite comfort foods, and homemade mashed potatoes will undoubtedly rank high on every list. Is it your turn to make the mashed potatoes for the holiday potluck and you want to perfect your technique? Read on for six mistakes you may be making and how to correct them.  

Use the Right Potato

For creamy, fluffy mashed potatoes, use a potato high in starch. The thick-skinned Russets absorb seasonings, butter, and cream better than any other potato. Yukon Golds are also a good selection for mashed potatoes. Red skinned potatoes have low starch and absorb little water when cooked, so they remain firm and smooth. While they are not the ideal choice for a creamy mash, boil them with their skins on and “smash” them for a delicious and rustic chunky potato dish.

Start With Cold Water

Don’t add your cubed potatoes to a pot of boiling water; the outside of the potatoes will overcook before the inside gets tender. For even cooking, place the potatoes in a large pot, cover with cold water to about an inch above the spuds, put the pot on the stove and begin cooking. When the water reaches a rolling boil reduce the temperature to a nice simmer, which allows the potatoes can cook evenly and hold their shape. Keeping the water at a constant boil might cause the potatoes to loose their shape and get mushy.

Season the Water

Potatoes absorb the water they are cooked in, so go ahead and add salt to the water before you cook the potatoes, just as you do when cooking pasta. If you leave out the salt at this point you will get tasteless potatoes, and butter and sour cream simply can’t cover the taste of a flat potato. After you mash the potatoes and add your dairy stir-ins, you can season to taste with additional salt, pepper, garlic, herbs, etc.

Drain and Dry

Once the potatoes are fork tender, drain them over a colander and return the potatoes to the warm pot on low heat. Let them sit for about 5 minutes and gently turn the potatoes to make sure they are not sticking to the bottom of the pot. This will allow any excess water to dry off, further preventing soggy, watery mashed potatoes.

Whipped or Mashed, Just Don’t Overwork

Some people like the convenience and light texture that comes from whipping potatoes with an electric mixer, while others enjoy the different textures, i.e. creamy and chunky, you get when using a masher. Regardless of the technique, remember not to overwork the potatoes. Starch is released when potatoes are mashed, smashed, or whipped, and, if too much starch is released, the potatoes are gummy and unappealing. Limit the amount of time you handle the potatoes, mashing or whipping only until the potatoes reach the desired consistency.

Dairy Stir-Ins—Warm or Cold?

Do not add cold milk or cream to the pot of piping hot potatoes. Not only will this cool the dish down, the cold liquid will not absorb into the hot potatoes very well. Warm the liquid in a saucepan on the stovetop or in a glass-measuring cup in the microwave. Or simply let your dairy stir-ins (sour cream, buttermilk, cream cheese, butter, etc.) come to room temperature before adding them to the potatoes. The warmed dairy products are absorbed much easier by the hot potatoes, and you don’t have to work so much to blend them in. A word about butter: don’t melt butter before stirring it into the potatoes because the milk solids and fat will separate. You can add cold butter to your hot potatoes since the butter will melt as a whole and distribute the fat and milk solids evenly.