Potato Salad 101
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.