The real secret lies in your kitchen.

By | November 21, 2023

What’s the secret to great mashed potatoes? Some recipe writers will tell you it involves cream cheese, ranch dressing, or garlic. Maybe buttermilk is the key or salt and vinegar? A Reddit thread titled “What’s the Secret to the Best Mashed Potatoes?” offers suggestions for mayonnaise, crushed potato chips, English mustard, and Parmesan cheese—in addition to now-common practices like choosing the right potatoes and drying the cooked potatoes in a colander or add to a warm pot and use a rice press instead of a masher.

This month’s issue of Bon Appétit brings together a series of the magazine’s “greatest hits” for the holiday season, and pride of place goes to “The Best Mashed Potatoes We’ve Ever Made.” The recipe is “non-negotiable” for Thanksgiving, the magazine claims, and “has legions of fans among both staff and readers.” In fact, these “incredibly smooth, once-a-year rich” potatoes are absolutely delicious: silky, fluffy, and deep in flavor. I loved them when I tried the recipe recently.

But what makes them so good? A closer look at the recipe, which was developed six years ago by then Bon App editor Andy Baraghani, reveals this actually Secret of mashed potatoes. It is not a complicated cooking method or unusual ingredient. It’s fat. That’s it.

The Bon App recipe uses a incredible Amount of butter plus other added fats: To four pounds of potatoes (Yukon Golds, of course), Baraghani adds two full sticks of butter, 1 ½ cups whole milk and half a cup of cream. While I remember the various mashed potato recipes I’ve used on past Thanksgivings being rich, I don’t remember them being truly rich The rich. A look at my cookbooks confirmed it: I usually add a maximum of a piece of butter and a little buttermilk or a splash of cream.

Along with butter, cream, and milk, Bon App spuds deliver an astounding 62 grams of fat per pound of potatoes (or GFPPP, a statistic I just made up). In contrast, the potatoes I made last year, from Mark Bittman How to cook everything (3 tablespoons butter, ¾ cup milk), supplied only 21 GFPPP. And yeah, hey, big surprise – they didn’t taste that good.

In fact, I had a hard time finding it any Mashed potato recipes as luxurious as Baraghani’s. Chefs Illustrated? 32.5 GFPPP. The pioneer who tells you to add a whole pack of cream cheese to your potatoes? 49 GFPPP. Even damn Paula Deen couldn’t match the fat content of Bon App’s potatoes, coming in at just 51 GFPPP. I’ve found evidence that mashed potato recipes have followed – or perhaps paved the way – with the increasing decadence of American tastes. The 1946 Enjoy cooking (3 tablespoons butter, ⅓ cup cream) is a relatively lean 27.5 GFPPP. The Modern Edition adds more cream, bringing it to a total of 34.5 GFPPP. While The New York Times offers many, many mashed potato recipes (average: 40.7 GFPPP), a notable new one appeared on the site earlier this month: Vaughn Vreeland’s Brown-Butter Mashed Potatoes, a recipe that calls for more butter than butter most others come to the fore with a splash of the golden, nutty liquid. It’s a valiant attempt to keep up in the unctuous arms race and overtake the American potatoes at a whopping 52 GFPPP.

A graph showing that Bon Appetit has the most butter and is winning the mashed potato arms race.
Photo by robynmac/iStock/Getty Images Plus. Diagram from Slate.

Could it be that the only thing that counts in mashed potatoes is the fat? Could have saved me all those years of trying a million different flavor hacks (Rosemary cooked in milk! Raw onions! Fried garlic!) and just adding butter and cream to my potatoes until they just don’t have it anymore endured? It was time to talk to the expert.

When I asked former Bon Appétit editor Baraghani, his first book The chef you want to be, who recently won a James Beard Award, thought back to what his goal was in developing his mashed potato recipe. “I’ve read so many recipes that promise lump-free or fluffy mashed potatoes,” he finally said. “I thought people needed to experience the joy of very, very buttery, creamy French brasserie-style potatoes.” He was thinking of chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud, he recalled. “And I knew the trick was the enormous amount of butter, more than usual.”

Is it safe to say, I asked, that it really doesn’t matter what you do with mashed potatoes—that if you add enough butter, they’ll be good? “Well, and I would suggest a good amount of salt,” he remarked. “The truth is, it’s definitely harder to spoil a potato. It’s hard to have a bad potato.” Home cooks, he said, have a lot of unnecessary fear of the dish – Will mine be rubbery? What about the shell? – but the truth is that making good mashed potatoes isn’t all that difficult. But he added: “I don’t think my goal was just to make something Good Potato dish. I like to think this is a restaurant-quality potato dish for the home cook.”

Did Baraghani think he had reached the absolute ultimate level of buttery mashed potatoes, or were there new horizons in fat infusion that a future chef would not yet reach? “I would say this recipe pushes the boundaries. And while you can certainly add more butter, there comes a point where all you taste is fat and the dish is less balanced. So it’s not you tilt– it’s that I wouldn’t recommend it.”

I decided to put Baraghani’s recommendation to the test. I made the Bon App recipe, but this time divided the riced potatoes into three separate bowls: one with the correct amount of butter for the recipe, one with half as much butter, and one with twice so much butter. Of course, I topped each bowl with the last, extra stick of butter that the recipe, oddly enough, recommends.

Three bowls of mashed potatoes, graded from yellowish to whiter to whitest.  There is a piece of butter on each one.
From left to right: Half as much butter, just the right butter, double butter.
Photos by Dan Kois

The difference in consistency was noticeable: the “low butter” bowl (which, I must point out, still contained an insane amount of butter) was thick and a little lumpy, while the “high butter” bowl had the consistency of Grits, or the small pool of mashed potatoes that a fancy restaurant would put on a $27 order of short ribs. I brought my taste testers with me and asked them to try all three.

First of all, we all agreed that everyone had a great time. But my 16 year old daughter preferred the fattest version. “The consistency of the others is better, but this one just tastes really, really good.” My wife preferred the “low-butter” version. “Texture is important,” she said. “That’s like baby food over there.” And me? I found the standard potatoes to be the best. I agreed with Baraghani that if you added more butter, you’d soon end up tasting just butter – which, as my daughter noted, is really, really good, but perhaps not what you’d expect from a dish that’s supposedly made of potatoes . It seems possible to me that there is an upper limit to the amount of fat that mashed potatoes can hold – and Andy Baraghani, a genius, has figured it out.

However, Baraghani is not fixing his Bon App potatoes this year. “Maybe this is blasphemous, but this is not my favorite mashed potato recipe that I have developed,” he confessed. Instead, he makes a newer recipe that uses cream, butter, and labneh, as well as fried garlic and dill. (Don’t worry – it might sound a little picky, but it still comes out to an impressive 58 GFPPP.)

So even the man who has mastered mashed potatoes is still tinkering. It’s easy to see why we’re constantly trying to improve mashed potatoes. Because what are potatoes actually? Just bundles of starch wrapped in a bowl. Most often, they are a vehicle for other flavors and textures: the spicy satisfaction of salt, the crunchy crunch of a chip fried in oil, the ketchup you dip your French fries in, or the butter that activates the primal pleasure centers in our brains. There’s always another flavor we want to try that we think will finally give us something new and transcendent in an otherwise simple dish.

But I’m sticking with what I’ve learned on this journey. Because what about potatoes? himself offers pure comfort – the satisfying feeling when a warm, fatty meal fills every corner of your stomach, like blown-in insulation fills a wall. It’s the perfect meal for Thanksgiving, a holiday that’s all about abundance—not just a full belly, but also a full table and a full heart.

So you want to make the best mashed potatoes your family has ever eaten this Thanksgiving? Great news. You don’t need any special techniques or ingredients. All you need is butter. Toss butter into those potatoes one square at a time until the potatoes are begging for mercy. Worried you’ve used too much? Add something else. Also mix in some cream. And when you’re done, finish it off with one final tap. Why not? A long, cold winter expected.

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