9 Mistakes You’re Probably Making When Cooking Potatoes
Professional chefs lay down the do's and don'ts of cooking potatoes at home.
There’s nothing quite like the classic potato—it goes well with meat, fish, vegetables, sandwiches, and more. Yet you can mess up your trusty potato with your cooking technique, leaving them partly raw, mushy, watery, soggy, or just plain bad. To make sure you’re getting crisp fries and fork-tender spuds, avoid these common mistakes when making potatoes at home.
You’re not cooking the right potato.
There are tons of different types of potatoes, and all work better for different cooking styles. “Russet potatoes are traditionally used for baking and steaming. Red potatoes and gold potatoes are more for roasting or sauteing. Don't steam, boil or overcook the reds or the golds and you will avoid the glue-like texture,” says Executive Chef Joseph Rizza of Prime and Provisions, a Chicago steakhouse.
And in general, a good old russet is perfect. “I like a traditional russet potato, they are consistent and always yield a great finished product. The red potato and Yukon Gold are very waxy and starchy, so if they are not properly cooked you will be eating something that may taste similar to glue,” he says.
You’re bringing potatoes to a full boil.
Don’t bring potatoes to a full boil unless you want to take a bite into a raw interior. “I see a lot of people boil potatoes at a full boil. Yes, it will cook them faster, but this is where you get the outside over cooked and the center of the potato still raw,” says Chef Kevin McAllister at Café Robey in Chicago.
To make them properly, simmer the potatoes in a pot of water, cut or uncut, for about 12-15 minutes. “The time varies on the size of the potato, and whether they're cut or uncut. There is not a specific temperature for boiling or simmering, it really depends on the stove, and the pots you own,” he says.
You will know when the potato is done when you can pierce it with a fork, and it’ll easily go through and slide off the fork. This is a great technique for mashed potatoes, or for cooking potatoes ahead of time for dinner or a potato salad, he says.
You’re cooking mashed potatoes on high heat.
Cook mashed potatoes low and slow to give them the perfect consistency. If you boil them fully, they will be watery and loose, says McAllister. And if you turn them off too soon, they will be raw.
Also avoid a masher and go for a ricer, instead. “Mashers can be pointless when making potatoes. They create big chunks of potatoes that do not get mixed in with all of the salt and buttery greatness in mashed potatoes. Instead, use a ricer; doing so will produce some smooth mashed potatoes to enjoy,” says Rizza.
What’s more, if your do mess up your potatoes, you can fix them with some tricks. “A good secret ingredient to keep tucked away in your pantry is instant potatoes (yes, I said instant),” says McAllister. Sneak a few tablespoons in while no one is looking. Instant potatoes are cooked and dehydrated flakes made from real potatoes. You can also use the instant potatoes if you add too much milk or cream, as they will help stiffen your potatoes up, he says.
“If you go the other way and undercook parts of your potatoes, use a tamis or sieve. To remove the undercooked potato bits, press your mashed potatoes though the sieve and only keep what comes out the bottom,” he says.
You’re not salting or seasoning properly.
“Salting the water not only seasons the potato, but it also allows it to boil to a hotter temperature. This in turn cooks the potatoes’ starch more thoroughly, resulting in a more creamy texture [for mashed potatoes],” says Sieger Bayer, Chef and Partner at The Heritage.
“Cooking potatoes in unseasoned water prevents the starch from cooking thoroughly and creates a bland dense finished product. I would say not salting the water is like gifting a pair of shoes without laces. Or like offering guacamole without chips. All in bad taste,” he says.
Adding different herbs and spices can take a good potato to a mind-blowing potato. Salt, black pepper, bay leaf, and thyme can really bump up the "potato" flavor in any potato dish, he says.
Love potatoes? Get inspired by these recipes:
You’re cooking fries from raw.
Give potatoes a little boil before placing them on a tray in the oven to get nice and crispy, rather than plopping them raw on a tray with seasonings to begin the cooking process. “Some people like to toss the raw potato with all sorts of seasonings and what not, then put them on a tray and cook them in the oven. We think par cooking russet potatoes in seasoned water is a better way to get a crispy evenly cooked steak fry,” says Bayer.
You're able to season the potato and create a fluffy inside with the prep. “After they've cooled you can cut, season and bake them off,” he says. Great steak fries need to be crispy on the outside and fluffy in the middle, so boiling them beforehand is the key to perfect steak fries.
You’re making your sweet potatoes too sweet.
Ditch the go-to sweet seasonings like marshmallow, pecans, honey, and brown sugar that often go atop sweet potatoes. They are already sweet, and all of those toppings add calories, fat, and sugar. Instead, get creative. “I'm guessing 99 percent of the time they're cooked with sweet seasonings and pecans,” says Bayer. “That sweet/char combo and chimichurri or Italian salsa verde style sauce is perfect. You could also serve them in a Turkish, smoky, tomato-style sauce,” he gives, for example.
You’re scorching your spuds.
If you are cooking them on a sheet pan or foil without salt, you might burn them. Yuck. “The process of cooking potatoes straight on the sheet is what causes the bottom to get overcooked,” says Bayer. Instead, add some salt and cook them atop a bed on the sheet pan. “The salt helps to ensure the potatoes cook evenly. The bed of salt prevents the potatoes from coming in direct contact with the baking sheet,” he says. To roast potatoes, use kosher salt (Diamond Crystal or Morton) and create a ¼- ½ inch layer on a baking sheet for a potato protector.
You’re not heating up your mix-ins.
No one wants to cool down their potato with cold ingredients after it’s cooked. “Heat your cream and butter together in a sauce pot while your potatoes are cooking until the butter is melted. Keep it hot until you are ready to mix it with the potatoes,” says Rizza. Using cold cream and cold butter will work, but it will also make your potatoes cold, so it’s best to heat them.
You’re not steaming them.
If you just can’t seem to get the boiling down, steam your taters instead. Steaming potatoes is super simple. “After washing your potato, place them whole either peeled or not in a steaming basket, you can buy that at any large grocery store in the cooking utensil aisle),” says Rizza.
In a pot large enough to fit the steamer basket, fill it with water, just enough to touch the bottom of the steamer basket. Cover the pot. Steam the potatoes on high heat until they are tender enough that a fork slides in and out. This will prevent your potatoes from sucking up too much water from over-boiling.