Spice it UP: Potato Salad
Nothing is more of a wild card at a summer barbecue than potato salad. When done well, it’s a welcome addition aside burgers, brats, or brisket, but when done poorly, it’s nothing more than an anaemic mass of starchy, under-seasoned gloop. Thankfully, with even the smallest amount of care and attention to detail, it’s easy to avoid the latter. With these tips, your spiced up potato salad will be the recipe that everyone asks for this summer and all summers after that.
Choice of potato
The most obvious place to start when tweaking any potato salad recipe is with the humble potato itself. You’ve probably heard the terms “waxy” versus “starchy” when referring to potatoes and this distinction is something to keep in mind when choosing the perfect potato for your salad.
While waxy potatoes have higher water content and will hold their shape better when cooked, they aren’t as good at absorbing other liquids, say the dressing of your choice. On the other hand, starchy potatoes will break down more when cooked and are better at soaking up your choice of seasoning, however they will yield a more mashed potato salad.
Ultimately it comes down to your preference: do you want your potato salad to resemble chilled mashed potatoes, or would you rather be able to make out the distinct bites of potato? Maybe you land somewhere in the middle, in which case, making your potato salad with a mix of waxy and starchy potatoes will yield the best of both worlds. For example, you might want to go 50/50 Yukon Gold and Russet to maximize both flavour and texture. Just be sure to cook the two types of potatoes separately, as they will cook at different rates.
Keep in mind that potato-adjacent options will work well in “potato” salad too. Think sweet potatoes, yams, Jerusalem artichokes, or any other tuber of your choice.
Method of cooking potatoes
Once you’ve narrowed down your choice of potatoes, your next decision is to land on how you want to cook them. Usually, potato salad recipes call for boiled potatoes, but this isn’t your only option. When you boil them, they will absorb some of the water that they are cooked in, meaning that it will alter the texture and dilute the flavour of whatever you add later on. If you go the boiling route, be sure to boil your potatoes in large chunks (this goes for all potato applications), so they take in as little moisture as possible. Steaming them will also work.
But, if you want to do something a bit different, try roasting, grilling, or even smoking your potatoes before tossing them into salad. Think baked potato, but with a twist! These dry heat cooking methods will alter both the texture and taste of the finished salad, really concentrating that potato flavour. Yes, potatoes have flavour!
Choice of dressing
Similar to the “waxy” versus “starchy” dichotomy, potato salad dressing options usually fall into one of two camps: mayonnaise-based or vinaigrette-based. While the former may be a picnic classic, the latter is a pretty underappreciated way of enjoying this potato-based delight. German potato salad is a classic that comes to mind with a few simple ingredients, namely, bacon, oil, vinegar, and mustard (try adding finely chopped pickled cucumbers too!). Tossed together, it can be served hot or cold. Don’t be shy with that mustard either – a blend of Dijon and a healthy spoonful of grainy mustard adds some zip and great texture too. Julia Child also had a great hack of adding in a splash of the potato cooking water to the salad to aid in it’s creaminess without relying exclusively on added fat from oil or mayonnaise.
It’s also worth considering that virtually any dressing or vinaigrette that you like to use on green salad is probably a candidate for flavouring your potato salad. Potatoes really are nature’s blank slate when it comes to a food that excels at taking on an array of other flavours.
Herbs and other seasonal garnishes
The je ne sais quoi of your potato salad probably won’t be the dressing or even the potatoes themselves, but rather, the various garnishes that you choose to stir into the mix. In the heart of summer, take advantage of fresh herbs and don’t be afraid to throw them in by the handful. Parsley, cilantro, basil, dill, tarragon, and mint are all workable here. If you’re using them raw, opt for any fresh herb as the woodier ones (think rosemary, thyme, etc.) need to be cooked down.
Given that you can go in virtually any direction you want here, it is helpful to think in line with a theme, lest you end up with the kitchen sink of potato salads. Go Japanese-y with Kewpie mayo, wasabi, sesame oil, and a liberal amount of togarashi, a chili pepper-based spice blend.
Add cooked peas and carrots, ham, pickles, and eggs too if you like for a Russian Salad “Olivier”.
Turn Greek salad into potato salad with lemony vinaigrette, cucumbers, tomatoes, red onions, and lots of Kalamata olives.
Make it a meal with a Cobb potato salad, complete with the works. That’s right, load ‘er up with bacon, chopped eggs, shredded chicken, a chiffonade of lettuce, tomato, avocados, blue cheese, and you are good to go.
Potato salad pitfalls to avoid
Don’t skimp on the salt, potatoes need it, especially if served cold. If boiling, liberally season the cooking water, like you do with pasta, for best results.
Be mindful of your serving temperature, particularly if using a mayonnaise-based dressing (bacteria grow best between 40-140º F so keep your salad above or below that range).
Too much potato and not enough everything else – ideally you want a little bit of all the different ingredients in each and every bite!