How to Make a Great Potato Salad
On the Fourth of July, I am typically asked to make potato salad for our family gathering. It’s a classic for picnics and barbecues. I, like so many others, have my own special recipe for making the perfect potato salad, and I was going to share that here today. But then I thought that a better idea would be to discuss the technique of how to make a great potato salad instead. There are hundreds of potato salad recipes online, it seems, and many of them are very similar, with just a little bit of difference here and there. So when it comes down to it, the “best” potato salad is going to come down to personal preference. Rather than another potato salad recipe, then, here are some tips in making your best potato salad.
First, the potatoes. I have a secret. I am a lazy potato cooker. I don’t peel my potatoes, and I don’t boil them. For my potato salads, I always used steamed russet potatoes that have been cooled. It’s an easy process: heat the oven to 350*, wash your potatoes, wrap them up in foil and then place them directly on the middle rack. Bake for an hour, and cool off. Then chop and use in salads. The skin is full of vitamins, so I like leaving it on. And a steamed potato is not as flaky as a regular baked potato, so it holds its shape better.
However, purists will prefer a waxier potato. Red skinned potatoes are perfect for potato salads, and fingerling potatoes will cut down on chopping and peeling, since their skin is so thin. If you have Yukon Golds, you can expect a potato salad not so much full of chunks of potato, but of a bit more of a potato mash. Which still sounds delicious to me!
For a more unique potato salad, you could even add in a sweet potato as well.
HARD BOILED EGGS
I love hard boiled eggs in my potato salads, so these are a must for me. If you don’t like them, though, it certainly won’t take away from a delicious potato salad.
The classics are red onion, green pepper, and celery. You can alter these as much as you want, though. Red onion can be substituted with scallions, sautéed yellow onions, or omitted. You could add minced garlic to kick it up a bit. Green pepper can be swapped out with a sweeter red pepper, or you could even add some pickled jalapenos. Think of other vegetable additions that enhance flavors, such as black or green olives, or mild green chilies. Chopped pickles, either dill or sweet, can be a nice addition as well. Cucumbers add crunch, and avocado will add a creamier texture.
Other, less common ideas for veggies include peas, corn (or baby corn), and even steamed broccoli. Chopped and cooked beets go well with sweeter salads. Crunchy jicama and raw, peeled kohlrabi are two more delicious and exotic additions.
When you have the pre-dressing ingredients assembled, take a taste test. Do you prefer a crunchy, vegetable-heavy salad, or a creamy, egg/potato one? Balance the ingredients out so that you have what you’re looking for.
The dressing makes or breaks a potato salad! Typically your potato salad dressing starts with a base of mayonnaise and mustard. There’s a huge divide between those who like original mayonnaise and those who prefer Miracle Whip, so go with what you most enjoy. I never really measure my ratios, usually it’s about 6:1 mayo to mustard. But as with everything else, take a taste test. You’ll have a lot of variation on taste depending on if you’re using a grainy brown mustard, a yellow stadium mustard, or a spicy Dijon style.
TART vs SWEET
The next step I use to make the dressing is the addition of vinegar and sugar. What you’ll do here is add enough vinegar and/or sugar to make it as tart or as sweet as you want. I prefer a tangy dressing, so I go a little heavier on the vinegar, but if you overdo it, you can always use the other to balance it out. So if my dressing is too sweet, I’ll add more vinegar, and vice versa.
Again, you have variation here in the type of vinegar you use. Red wine vinegar will give a different flavor than distilled white vinegar. I like using apple cider vinegar, but balsamic or white wine vinegar are two other kinds that would give a distinctive and delicious flavor. There are also a plethora of infused vinegars that you could use as well. Be creative, and remember to taste test as you go along.
Once the four main dressing ingredients are combined, you’ll want to check to see if the consistency is appropriate. Again, a lot will depend here on your preference. Some like a very thick dressing, and others a thinner style. Add a little bit of milk if your dressing is too thick. A good way to thicken up a dressing is to add very well mashed hard boiled egg yolks or some softened cream cheese.
Next, flavor the dressing, if you’d like. Adding a little bit of pickle relish is standard, but you might want to add a drop or two of liquid smoke, or even Worcestershire sauce. Play around and keep taste testing!
For the final touch, add your seasonings. Start with a small amount. Remember you can always add more, but if you use too much, it’s a lot more work to even out. Salt and pepper are a basic starting point. Dill weed and celery seed are two more common seasonings in potato salad dressings. You could add a touch of thyme, garlic powder, or even a small bit of lemon peel. Paprika is always used here to dust to the top of potato salads, too. Fresh herbs are always ideal, and parsley is a classic addition.
When you’re happy with your dressing, combine it with your potato mixture, and the next step is to:
CHILL, CHILL, CHILL
Chilling the potato salad for a few hours really gives the dressing a chance to infuse with the potatoes and vegetables, so give yourself enough time!
After chilling, potato salads are ready to go, but you can add an additional topping to make it even more luxurious! French fried onions, bacon bits and roasted sunflower kernals make a delicious crunchy topping. You can line the perimeter of the serving dish with hard boiled egg halves or sliced olives for decoration, and dust the top with paprika.
Remember, the toppings go on right before serving so they don’t get all mushy.
So there you are, some tips that will hopefully help in how to make a great potato salad. Keep in mind, I approach cooking the same way I approach crochet – as an art, not a science. Strictly following recipes (or patterns) are a great way to learn something new, but the fun comes in modifying it so that it suits you perfectly. Have fun with cooking and remember, there’s no right or wrong way. Just your own preference.
What do you like to add to your potato salads?