Boiling potatoes is neither exciting or particularly sexy, as far as cooking skills go. But it is quite handy! All our favorite dishes from potato salad for a summer cookout to mashed potatoes for the Thanksgiving table start with — oh yes! — boiling a pot of potatoes.
Whether you're boiling your first potato tonight or wonder if you've been doing it right, here's a step-by-step guide showing you exactly how to boil potatoes.
Why Boil Potatoes?
Besides "because your recipe said so!" you might boil potatoes if you don't want them to dry out (as they do in the oven). Generally, you boil potatoes when you plan to mash them or toss them into a salad, though boiled potatoes can also make a quick side dish. Boiling also cooks potatoes very evenly all the way through and usually only takes 10 to 20 minutes.
Which Potatoes to Boil?
Waxy or all-purpose potatoes are the best candidates for boiling. They hold their shape when boiled and have a nice creamy texture once cooked. They are also usually smaller — usually no bigger than your fist — and thin-skinned, so they cook more quickly. Waxy and all-purpose potatoes might be red or golden or purple; take a look at this guide for Sixteen Kinds of Potatoes to see what kind you're dealing with.
You can also boil starchy potatoes like Russets — I have friends who swear by mashed potatoes made with Russets! Starchy potatoes tend to fall apart or become water-logged when boiled, so I recommend boiling them whole instead of cubed.
Whole Potatoes or Cubed? Skins On or Peeled?
You can boil potatoes either whole or cubed — both ways work fine. In either case, the key is to make sure the whole potatoes or cubed potatoes are roughly the same size. This way, they will all cook at the same rate. If you're boiling whole potatoes, you might need to remove small potatoes from the water a little sooner and let larger potatoes cook a little longer.
You can technically boil potatoes with their skins on or off, but I recommend leaving the skins on. They tend to cook better, without going mushy, if you leave the skins on. It's also very easy to peel off the skins after the potatoes are cooked.
Recipes with Boiled Potatoes
Try any any of these recipes to test out your potato boiling skills!
Scrub the potatoes clean.
How To Boil Potatoes
What You Need
Waxy or all-purpose potatoes
1 teaspoon salt
Chef's knife (optional)
- Prepare the potatoes: Scrub the potatoes clean. If desired, cut the potatoes into large, evenly-sized cubes.
- Transfer the potatoes to a saucepan and cover with cold water: Cover the potatoes with an inch or two of cold water. Starting the potatoes in cold water helps them cook more evenly.
- Stir in a teaspoon of salt: Stir the salt into the water so that it dissolves.
- Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer: Set the pan over medium-high heat and bring the water to a boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat to a bare simmer to cook the potatoes. Do not cover. (Covering changes the environment in the pot and can make the potatoes turn mushy.)
- Check the potatoes after 5 minutes: Cubed potatoes will cook more quickly than whole potatoes; smaller potatoes will cook more quickly than larger potatoes. Begin checking the potatoes after around 5 minutes of boiling; most potatoes will be done in 10 to 20 minutes.
- Potatoes are done when tender: The potatoes are done when they are tender all the way through. You can test this by poking the potato with a fork, paring knife, or skewer. If the utensil slides easily all the way to the center, the potatoes are done.
- Drain the potatoes: Drain cubed potatoes into a strainer or lift whole potatoes out with a slotted spoon. If you're recipe calls for cold potatoes, you can run the potatoes under cold water or dunk them in an ice water bath to cool them down more quickly.
This post has been updated. Originally published February 2010.
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(Image credits: Emma Christensen)