Holiday Potatoes 101
While the turkey is the star of the holiday table, potatoes have an important supporting role. But good potatoes can go bad if you don’t know how to cook them, or if you choose the wrong variety at the wrong time. Our collection of proven holiday potato recipes starts with the basic mashed potato recipe, but includes show-stopper potatoes, potato casseroles, and cheesy potatoes that will feed a crowded holiday table.
All About Sweet Potatoes
Many grocery stores carry three varieties of sweet potatoes: Beauregards, Jewels, and Red Garnets. To see if we could detect any differences among the three, we tasted them in a simple mash as well as in our recipe for Sweet Potato Biscuits. Beauregards, the most common variety, made great biscuits—buttery-sweet and fluffy—and were tasty, albeit one-dimensionally sweet, as a plain mash. The flesh of the Jewels was less sweet than the Beauregards but with an equally firm texture. Red Garnets, decidedly more savory than the others, had an earthiness that tasters appreciated in the mash. Their loose, watery texture, however, made the biscuits slightly gummy.
Best for biscuits.
Less sweet, but fine for all applications.
Great on their own, but make for gummy biscuits.
Types of Potatoes
This popular high-starch potato, also called Idaho, cooks up tender. Russets are praised for being absorbent, which makes them perfect for some holiday side dishes.
This versatile medium-starch spud has a delicious, buttery flavor. It cooks up tender and holds its shape, but it also has just enough starch to contribute creaminess without becoming mushy. Its skin can be tough and papery, so we recommend peeling them first.
We prefer these sturdy, waxy potatoes in many dishes because they hold their shape so well. Peeling them before cooking also ensures they will absorb flavorings, but their fiber-rich skin can also be left on. In some recipes, we prefer this—the skin is not unpleasant to taste, and it adds nice color to what can be a monochromatic dish.
Most recipes for boiled potatoes call for starting the spuds in cold water so that they will come up to temperature slowly and cook evenly throughout. In an attempt to shorten the cooking time, we tried letting water boil before adding the potatoes. In a side-by-side test, tasters preferred the potatoes started in cold water for their uniformly creamy texture.
Since potatoes seem almost indestructible compared with other vegetables, little thought is generally given to their storage. But because various problems can result from inadequate storage conditions, we decided to find out how much difference storage really makes. We stored all-purpose potatoes in five environments: in a cool (50-60 degrees), dark place; in the refrigerator; in a basket near a sunlit window; in a warm (70-80 degrees), dark place; and in a drawer with some onions at room temperature. We checked all the potatoes after four weeks.
As expected, the potatoes stored in the cool, dark place were firm, had not sprouted, and were crisp and moist when cut. There were no negative marks on the potatoes stored in the refrigerator, either. Although some experts say that the sugar level dramatically increases in some potato varieties under these conditions, we could not see or taste any difference between these potatoes and the ones stored in the cool, dark but unrefrigerated environment.
Our last three storage tests produced unfavorable results. The potatoes stored in sunlight, in warm storage, and with onions ended up with a greenish tinge along the edges. When potatoes are stressed by improper storage, the level of naturally occurring toxins increases, causing the greenish tinge known as solanine. Because solanine is not destroyed by cooking, any part of the potato with this greenish coloring should be completely cut away before cooking. In addition, the skin of the potatoes stored in sunlight became gray and mottled, while the potatoes stored in a warm place and those stored with onions sprouted and became soft and wrinkled. Sprouts also contain increased levels of solanine and should be cut away before cooking.
Storing Potatoes with an Apple
To determine if we could achieve even better results by storing potatoes with an apple, we stored two 5-pound bags of russet potatoes, one with an apple and the other without, in a dry, dark, cool, well-ventilated spot and checked on both bags every other day for eight weeks. The potatoes in both bags looked fine until the three-week point, when one of the potatoes stored without the apple began to sprout. Two weeks later all but one of the potatoes stored without the apple had sprouted.
By comparison, the potatoes stored with the apple remained firm and free of sprouts, though a great deal of condensation had built up in the bag. At the eight-week point the potatoes without the apple were largely soft, shriveled, and sad looking. The potatoes stored with the apple, on the other hand, were mostly firm (small soft spots had developed on two of them) and looked good.
Dr. Greg Porter, associate professor of agronomy, and Dr. Alfred Bushway, professor of food science and human nutrition, both at the University of Maine in Orono, concurred that the ripe apple gives off ethylene gas as it respires. Simply put, the ethylene gas, as well as other organic alcohols emitted by the apple, suppresses the elongation of the potatoes’ cells, which is what causes the sprouts to form.
The Right Tools for Holiday Potato Recipes
A heavy-bottomed Dutch oven with a capacity of at least 6 quarts makes for the ideal vessel to boil or steam potatoes for a crowd. Enameled cast iron does a good job of holding onto heat and cleans up easily, so it’s our first choice when we need to cook up our potato side dishes.
For silky-smooth mashed potatoes, the best tool is a potato ricer—a device that resembles an oversize garlic press. Cooked spuds are loaded into a hopper and squeezed (or “riced”) through a sieve-like disk. Brilliant idea, but solid design and ease of use make the difference between a great tool and an unusable one.
Mashing potatoes is not a glamorous task, but it can be made easier by using the right tool for the job: a potato masher. We tested a total of eight mashers to find those with the most comfortable grip and the most effective mashing mechanism.
As an all-purpose baking dish, Pyrex holds its own—it’s usually the first dish we turn to for baking our holiday potato gratin dishes. But it has one main drawback: Pyrex is not broiler-safe, a necessary feature for melting cheese on many favorite potato dishes. As alternatives to Pyrex, we tested broiler-safe baking dishes of similar size (around 3 quarts). We recommend porcelain models with large, easy-grip handles for trouble-free maneuvering from the oven to the holiday table.
Key Ingredients for Holiday Potatoes
Butter is a key ingredient in most potato preparations. But not all brands are the same. Fat levels vary and some butters are cultured to give them a tangy flavor. What’s the best butter for potatoes and all your holiday cooking?
Cheddar cheese lends a buttery richness to many of our favorite potato side dishes. But not all cheddars are created equal, and there’s plenty of variation in flavor between cheddars. Fortunately good supermarket varieties are easy to find.
“Bad” bacon might not exist, but bacon does impart a salty, smoky flavor to many of our favorite holiday side dishes. Our testing of various supermarket bacons confirmed that tasters like smokiness—but not too much, as our only not recommended product proved.
Our Favorite Holiday Potato Recipes
Buttermilk mashed potatoes should be simultaneously tart and rich, like a baked potato drenched in butter and sour cream. But when we stirred buttermilk instead of the usual cream into our potatoes, the buttermilk flavor never showed up. To figure out how to add a lively tartness to our Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes, we had to head back to the kitchen.
Sometimes we want a luxurious mashed potato dish, one that is silky smooth and loaded with cream and butter. But there's a fine line between creamy and gluey. We wanted lush, creamy mashed potatoes, with so much richness and flavor they could stand on their own—no gravy necessary.
Infusing mashed potatoes with roasted garlic flavor is easy—if you have an extra hour to roast a head of garlic. We found that simmering the potatoes in butter and seasonings prevented the “washing away” of flavor that can come from boiling in just water.
In the test kitchen we know that too much stirring turns mashed potatoes into wallpaper paste. So when we took on whipped potatoes—a potato dish that achieves a fluffy, ethereal texture from several minutes of aggressive whipping—we weren’t expecting to make anything other than glue. And we certainly didn’t expect to discover a new favorite potato side dish.
When developing our recipe for Reduced-Fat Mashed Potatoes, we discovered that potato types varied only slightly in nutritional value, but Yukon Gold potatoes outshone other potato varieties for their buttery flavor and silky, light texture. Replacing some of the dairy with reserved potato cooking water cut calories, and a single tablespoon of butter was all that was necessary to impart a noticeable buttery taste to our reduced-fat potatoes.
The appeal of a mashed potato casserole is considerable, with the promise of fluffy, buttery, creamy potatoes nestled under a savory golden crust. And with this recipe, all the mashing and mixing can be done a day in advance, making it a perfect convenience dish during the holiday season.
Come holiday time, the oven is prime real estate. So we asked another appliance to lend a hand. And though our Slow-Cooker Scalloped Potatoes required more than a simple dump-and-go approach, we cut corners by using the microwave to help guarantee our potatoes cooked evenly.
Sure, au gratin potatoes sound great. But what you actually get can range from curdled cream and unevenly cooked spuds, to cheese that's barely there and slices that fall into sloppy heaps. To perfect our recipe for Cheesy au Gratin Potatoes, we had to carefully consider our choices for cheeses and the other dairy ingredients.
Originally made to order in restaurants, this dish is an ultra-creamy potato casserole that features an extra-crunchy potato topping. But too often the casserole turns heavy and gluey when cooked for a crowd at home. To recreate the perfect contrast that made this dish so popular, we turned to an unconventional ingredient—frozen, shredded hash browns.
This gooey, cheesy casserole classic is typically made with convenience products. We wanted to keep the convenience of original funeral potatoes recipes but inject some “from scratch” flavor. We pitted frozen hash browns against fresh potatoes and determined that the former made for less starchy, gloppy potatoes, while chicken broth obviated the need for the stodgy cream of chicken soup that we found in many recipes we tasted.
Our version of Chantilly Potatoes, a dish that dresses up mashed potatoes with whipped cream and cheese, features a cheesy whipped cream layer that floats above the mashed potatoes like billowy drifts of snow.
To ensure that the potato slices for our Caramelized Onion and Potato Gratin were all the same thickness, we used a mandoline instead of slicing them by hand. We also caramelized the onions quickly by adding brown sugar and cooking them over medium-high heat instead of low heat.
Sugar and spice may be nice for dessert, but we wanted a savory sweet potato casserole for our holiday table. Precooking the sweet potatoes in heavy cream and buttermilk made the potatoes soft and allowed them to absorb the rich flavor of the dairy. Bacon added salt and smoke flavor, cayenne pepper contributed kick, and cheddar cheese lent richness to our Spicy Sweet Potato and Bacon Casserole.
Boiling the sweet potatoes was a no-go—it washed out the flavor and made for a watery casserole. Roasting took too long, but simmering the sweet potatoes in butter and cream did the trick. Spices like ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon made our Sweet Potato Casserole taste more like dessert than a side dish, so we stuck with just salt and pepper.
While developing our Smokehouse Mashed Sweet Potatoes recipe, we found the best ways to add smoke and heat to conventional mashed sweet potatoes. And for perfect textured sweet potatoes, we thinly sliced them and cooked them covered, on low heat, which allowed the potatoes to release their liquid, producing the steam that cooked them.
Roasting usually brings out the natural sweetness of sweet potatoes. So why did a potato with sweet in its name turn watery and wan when roasted? We found that elevating our Roasted Sweet Potato Wedges on a wire rack helped to dry them out. Additional cooking on a preheated baking sheet helped crisp these sweet potatoes even more.
Duchess potatoes are a classic potato dish in which airy, light potatoes are piped into rosettes and baked until their outsides are crisp. To achieve this elusive texture, we parcooked the potatoes in the microwave and finished them in the oven on high heat. We also added the butter in stages, resulting in rich, buttery flavor throughout each delicate mound.
This stunning potato dish delivers a fluffy interior, a crisp exterior, and a cheesy bread crumb topping—if you can get the potatoes cooked right. For our Crispy Baked Potato Fans recipe, we found that using the right kind of potato was key. The russet, or Idaho, potato was the best choice because of its starchy flesh and fluffy texture.