How to Make Potato Salad
Potato salad is a summertime picnic classic, and potato salad’s main components—potatoes, mayonnaise, and seasonings—are about as basic as they come. But over the years we’ve gone beyond the basic potato salad recipe, and developed several other potato salad recipes in the test kitchen using different types of potatoes, dressings, and flavorings.
We’ll explain the best way to store potatoes and how to keep potato salad safe to eat. We’ll also tell you the best potatoes to use when making potato salads, and explain the general steps for cooking and dressing potato salads.
Types of Potatoes
This popular high-starch potato, also called Idaho, cooks up tender. It crumbles a bit when mixed in a potato salad recipe—but we’ve found that in some recipes, tasters find that quality charming, not alarming. Russets are also praised for being absorbent, which makes them perfect for some potato salad recipes.
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 making a potato salad mushy. Its skin can be tough and papery, so we recommend peeling them first.
We prefer these sturdy, waxy potatoes in many of our potato salad recipes because they hold their shape so well. Peeling them before cooking also ensures they will absorb more dressing, 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 salad.
Boiling Potatoes for Potato Salad
Here's the test kitchen's preferred method for boiling potatoes for potato salad.
Most recipes for boiled potatoes call for starting the spuds in cold, liberally salted water so that they will come up to temperature slowly and cook evenly throughout. They then instruct you to bring the potatoes to a boil and reduce the heat to a simmer, which ensures that the potatoes cook gently and minimizes the chances of blowouts. In an attempt to shorten the cooking time, we conducted a little experiment: We tried letting water boil before adding the potatoes. In a side-by-side test, we weren't surprised that tasters preferred the potatoes started in cold water for their uniformly creamy texture. And there was another surprising advantage: It took less time for the potatoes to cook through.
Our preferred method for determining when boiled potatoes are fully cooked is to poke them with a paring knife (a fork merely wedges the potatoes open, prompting water absorption). But after cooking dozens of pounds of potatoes for our potato salad recipes, we realized that this technique wasn't quite foolproof—sometimes the potatoes were slightly underdone, marring our potato salad with granular bits. Because our paring knives are so sharp, we mistook the lack of resistance for fully cooked spuds. We found that an even better test was to poke the potato and then try to lift it out of the water. If it clung to the knife even for a second, back into the pot it went.
Key Steps for Cooking and Dressing Potato Salad
Follow these steps for making the perfect potato salad.
1. COOK AND DRAIN
Be sure to scrub your potatoes thoroughly to remove any dirt (they do grow underground after all). Once the potatoes are washed, cut them into evenly sized pieces based on your potato salad recipe and cook them in simmering water (vigorous boiling almost guarantees blowouts, while simmering keeps them to a minimum) until the potatoes are just tender, usually about 10 minutes. Drain the potatoes in a colander but do not rinse them.
2. DRESS WHILE HOT
Making a vinaigrette-based potato salad? Hot potatoes will still absorb liquid, so it is essential that you dress your potatoes with the vinaigrette dressing while they are still warm. This allows the flavor of your dressing to penetrate deep into the spuds, leaving you with potato salad that contains flavor in every bite, all the way down to the core of each potato piece.
This technique also works in mayonnaise-based potato salads—but not with the mayonnaise. Adding a small quantity of vinegar to the potatoes while they’re still warm produces more flavorful potatoes, which means once the potatoes are fully cooled, you’re able to dress the salad with less mayonnaise, which saves the salad from becoming too heavy.
Keeping Potato Salad Safe
It’s not the mayonnaise you need to worry about—it’s the potatoes.
Though mayonnaise is often blamed for spoiled potato salads it is rarely the problem. In fact, it’s the potatoes that are more likely to go bad. The bacteria usually responsible for spoiled potato salad are found in soil and dust, and they thrive on starchy foods like potatoes. No matter what kind of dressing you use, don't leave any potato salad out for more than two hours (one hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees), and promptly refrigerate any leftovers in a covered container.
The Right Tools for Potato Salad Recipes
Almost all potato salad recipes require some knife work, especially cutting up chunky potatoes and mincing fresh herbs. A chef’s knife makes quick work of these tasks, helping you to get your potato salad to the table (or picnic) quicker. But some knives will make this easier than others. We recommend looking for an 8-inch chef’s knife made from high-carbon stainless steel, which will hold an edge well and have enough chopping power without becoming unwieldy.
Since all potato salad recipes start with cooking and draining potatoes, a colander is an essential piece of equipment. A well-designed colander should have a large-capacity bowl that is well perforated, sturdily constructed, and firm footed. Our favorite fit those requirements to a T, and even sat in the sink without tipping or sliding—a welcome perk when draining potatoes.
Cooking potatoes is the one of the first steps in making potato salad, and a large saucepan is the right tool for the job. These days, the majority of saucepans are known as “fully clad,” which is a style that ensures food cooks evenly and doesn’t burn. Our favorite was one of the first models to feature this composition. It will cook your potatoes uniformly and fit all the spuds you’ll need to make a large batch of potato salad—but it will also cost you a pretty penny. Fortunately, our runner-up performed just as well and costs less than half as much.
If you’re making potato salad, chances are you’ll be peeling potatoes in bulk. If you’re not using the right tool, hand strain can become a real problem. Luckily our favorite vegetable peeler is so remarkably sharp and light, you’ll never hesitate to make your favorite potato salad recipe again.
If you make a large batch of potato salad and have leftovers, you’ll need a good plastic food storage container to keep the potato salad fresh. After testing eight BPA-free products, we found many containers that failed to seal properly, absorbed odors, or succumbed to abuse testing. Fortunately, we did find one that performed well before taking more than 50 trips to the dishwasher—and performed perfectly afterward.
Key Ingredients for any Potato Salad
We like the coarse, crunchy texture and intense heat of course-grain mustard in many of our potato salads—unless we’ve chosen the wrong jar. Some coarse-grain mustards have superfluous ingredients such as xantham gum, artificial flavors, and dry herb powders, all of which our tasters disliked. But the most telling factor in our testing turned out to be salt. Mustards with a meager quantity ranked low, while our favorites contained roughly twice as much of this flavor amplifier.
Many potato salad recipes rely on the flavorful tang of yellow mustard. But not any mustard will do. Our favorite yellow mustard adds the perfect balance of heat and tang to potato salad recipes.
The difference between a great potato salad and a so-so potato salad may depend on what mayonnaise you use. But with so many options, and the recent surge in popularity of preservative-free, unsweetened, and “healthier” mayos, how do you choose? Let us help you narrow it down: We found two brands that our panel decided tasted like “what mayonnaise should taste like.”
Dijon mustard is often relied on to give potato salad a potent kick. Its balance of sweet, tangy and sharp flavors is a welcome addition in many of our favorite potato salad recipes.
Many classic potato salad recipes call for the saltiness and crunch of diced dill pickles. But we now know that not all dill pickles are created equal. Three of the five products we reviewed tasted watered-down and felt mushy—and can lend your potato salad recipe the same characteristics if you select the wrong brand.
Our Favorite Potato Salad Recipes
A backyard barbecue wouldn’t be complete without a big bowl of potato salad. Chances are, however, that potato salad isn’t what it could be. The potatoes might be mushy or the vinaigrette bland. With this recipe, you’ll make the perfect American-style potato salad.
The key to infusing this summer potato salad with flavor is dressing the potatoes and beans while they’re hot. You can make this potato salad in advance, but add the dressing and fresh parsley, chives and basil just before serving.
Bottled ranch dressing sounds like a quick way to dress up potato salad, but many versions are surprisingly dull and bland. For our Ranch Potato Salad, we whipped up our own ranch dressing using a potent trio of garlic, dill and cilantro.
Garlic, rosemary, roasted red peppers, and Parmesan put an Italian spin on classic summertime potato salad. Russets and Yukon Golds were too tender and mealy for this potato salad, but the sturdy, waxy texture of small red potatoes was ideal.
It’s easy to understand why Americans claimed German potato salad as their own. But with lively strong flavors like mustard and vinegar, the trick is getting the flavor balance just right.
A potato salad made with smoky grilled potatoes in a highly seasoned vinaigrette sounded good to us. But we found that flipping potatoes on the grill takes a lot of precision tong or spatula work. And working with skewers wasn’t any easier, as the potato slices would spin around or break off the skewers entirely. We found an easier approach to this grilled potato salad recipe.
This French-inspired potato salad, tossed with a flavorful vinaigrette, is lighter than its creamy American counterpart. The addition of green beans, fresh herbs and orange zest keeps this potato salad bright and fresh tasting.
This sweet potato salad combines two stars of South Carolina cooking—sweet potatoes and sesame seeds. A hefty dose of cayenne pepper and Tabasco sauce lent this potato salad a real kick—an intense spiciness characteristic of many South Carolina dishes.
Amish potato salad is distinct for its egg-enriched, creamy cooked dressing and its sweet-and-sour flavor that comes from vinegar and sugar. We modernized this traditional potato salad recipe, making it faster and easier by substituting a no-cook dressing that was just as creamy.