Most recipes for mashed potatoes and potato salad, begin the same way: “Start by boiling the potatoes.” But how you boil those potatoes can affect the final outcome. Do you want potatoes that turn silky smooth or ones that hold their shape? And how do you keep your boiled potatoes from tasting bland? It’s all in the details. And we love details. Two factors—how long to boil potatoes and how much salt to add to the pot—distinguish an okay-tasting potato side dish from a truly great one. We’re answering all your biggest and smallest spud-boiling questions, bringing you closer to perfect potatoes than you’ve ever been before. Let’s dive in.
How long should I boil potatoes?
Baked potatoes can take upwards of an hour to make. Boiled potatoes can be ready to mash, smash, or sauce after just 30 minutes. But if your mashed potato recipe says to “boil potatoes until fork-tender,” you may be left with some questions, like: How long does it take to get to fork-tender? And what does “fork-tender” even mean? Let’s start with the basics.
There are two main types of potatoes: floury and waxy potatoes. More on that in this potato primer, but for our purposes, here’s what you need to know: Floury potatoes (like russets or Idahoes) have a higher starch content and are more likely to fall apart when boiled. With the help of a ricer or food mill, boiled floury potatoes will break down to a silky, ultra-creamy purée, making them a top pick for mashed potatoes or soup. Waxy potatoes (like new potatoes, red potatoes, and fingerlings) will keep their shape in the pot, provided they aren’t overcooked—a quality befitting a niçoise or potato salad.
When boiling potatoes, you must consider their size. Drop a whole russet into the pot and by the time the outside has cooked through, the inside will still be raw. Larger potatoes should be cubed to ensure they cook evenly (peeled first if desired). Smaller potatoes tend to have thin skins and can be boiled whole, no peeling required. Need to cook a bushel of potatoes quickly? Cut them smaller. One word of warning: If overcooked, starchy potatoes like russets will practically disintegrate, so keep a close eye on them while they boil. Nobody likes mushy potatoes.
The cook time for your potatoes will vary based on the size of the spuds:
- Baby potatoes cook in 10–12 minutes
- Small potatoes cook in 15–20 minutes
- Larger cubed potatoes cook in 30–40 minutes
The level of doneness you’re looking for depends on the application: If you’re keeping the potatoes intact—say, for potato salad—you’ll want them to have a bit of bite to them, whereas fall-apart-tender potatoes make the silkiest mash. Test their doneness by piercing with a cake tester, fork, or butter knife: the potato should be soft all the way through and offer no resistance. The knife should slide in easily for potatoes you want intact, but should slide in and out easily for potatoes destined for mash or purée.
How much salt should I add to the potato water?
I’m sure you’ve heard about the whole “salt your pasta water until it’s salty like the sea” thing, but have you ever heard “salt your potato water ‘til it’s salty like the sea?” (To be fair, this is less of a thing than the pasta water thing, but that doesn’t make it any less true.) Think about it: Potatoes are large and dense. Salt has to penetrate a lot of mass in order to make it all the way through potatoes by the time they’ve finished cooking. The highest-impact way to avoid under-seasoned, taste-like-nothing potatoes is to thoroughly season the potato-cooking water.