With the holiday season around the corner, finessing the perfect potato recipe can be the difference between getting all of the praise from your family (and endless requests for the recipe) and an embarrassing walk of shame as you leave the get-together with a container filled with untouched leftovers of your own dish.
To spare yourself any last-minute kitchen chaos, there’s one vital yet super easy cooking technique that can help you master this deceivingly complex spud in a matter of seconds. And it boils down to (literally) the temperature of the water you use to cook your potatoes. So, if you’re ready to transform your Russets and Yukon Golds into delicious—not mealy—nourishing potato dishes, listen up!
How to boil potatoes so they don’t get mealy
We’re just going to come right out and say it: Stop cooking potatoes as if they’re pasta. When making a batch of macaroni and cheese, you typically wait until a large pot of water has come to a rolling boil and then throw in your noodles—which might naturally seem like the right thing to do when it comes to potatoes, too. However, this isn’t the case. Instead, it’s a one-way ticket to mealy, mushy spuds.
The good news is that avoiding this grim destiny for one of our favorite gut-friendly veggies of all time is simple: Toss them into the pot of water while it’s still cold, and then bring it to a boil. Why? As the water slowly warms up, the hard potatoes can cook all the way through more evenly. If you add them once the water is already boiling, it’ll cook the outside surface much faster than the inside—which may be why you continuously need to add a few more minutes to the timer as you keep finding they’re too hard in the center when pierced with a knife (and slowly disintegrating on the outside).
The best types of potatoes for boiling
It’s also important to note that not all potatoes share the same characteristics—and some are better suited for making crispy roasted potatoes versus creamy mash than others. Generally speaking, there are three main categories of potatoes: starchy, waxy, and all-purpose. Starchy potatoes are like Russet or Japanese sweet potatoes, which are starchier on the inside, have low moisture content, and easily break down when cooked. These are ideal for frying and baking to prepare dishes like french fries, mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, or gnocchi.
The second type is waxy. Think: New potatoes, Red Bliss, pee wees, and fingerlings. They’re generally low in starch and high in moisture and have creamier flesh and waxy skin. They also tend to hold their shape better when cooked and are best suited for dishes like gratins, pommes anna, soups, or salads—where you want to keep their shape intact and not disintegrate upon touch.
Lastly, all-purpose potatoes like Yukon Gold, white, and blue (or purple) potatoes can pretty much do it all. These can be roasted, pan-fried, stewed, mashed; you name it. (BTW, Yukon Gold potatoes are usually the best for mashed potatoes due to their well-balanced starchiness and naturally buttery flavor.)
TL;DR? Of the three, waxy potatoes are best for boiling, as the low starch content and creamy interior help them maintain their shape as they cook down. On the flip side, starchy potatoes can easily be overcooked or waterlogged when boiled—so don’t expect them to make a rich and smooth mashed potato.
Should you salt the water when boiling potatoes?
Although the way you cook potatoes and pasta isn’t the same, they do share one thing in common: Salting the water is a must. When potatoes and pasta warm up, the starches in these foods can more easily absorb flavors in the cooking liquid than when raw or cooled down. This is why it’s also important to salt the water—salty like the sea—when you make potatoes, too. Unless you’re okay with under-seasoned mashed potatoes…which is a crime in my book.
BTW, the rule of thumb is about one to two tablespoons of salt per pound of potatoes. However, we won’t stop you from adding a bit more to guarantee they’re as flavorful as can be.
An RD shares the benefits of potatoes: