I've never met a potato salad that I didn't like. Use mayo or Greek yogurt, season it with dill or throw in some kalamata olives and sundried tomatoes — they're all good. And since no cookout, picnic, or backyard party is complete without a giant bowl of potato salad on the table, there are ample opportunities every summer to try them all.
Today, let's pare it down to the basics and talk about how to make an easy, classic, all-American potato salad. You can serve this one just as it is, or use the recipe as a jumping off point for the potato salad of your dreams.
The number one concern when making potato salad is picking and cooking the potatoes. This is potato salad after all! Waxy potatoes are really the best choice here — they hold their shape after cooking and have a soft, creamy texture. Red-skinned potatoes like Red Bliss are my stand-by for salads, but check out this list of 16 Kinds of Potatoes for some other ideas. For a slightly softer "mashed" texture in your salad, you can also try using any all-purpose potato; these have a good balance of waxy and starchy characteristics.
When it comes to cooking the potatoes, I take the traditional approach: chop them up and simmer them in water until tender. I usually leave the skins on when I make potato salad — I like the spots of color they add to the dish, plus they're thin enough that they're usually quite tender. If you'd prefer to peel your potatoes, it's easiest to boil them whole, then peel them and cut them into chunks.
→ For step-by-step instructions on this step, see How To Boil Potatoes
Classically, mayo and mustard are used to bind together those tender chunks, while celery and shallots add some crunch. Fresh herbs or diced scallions give the salad fresh flavor. Many traditional potato salad recipes also fold in some diced hard-cooked eggs; personally, I like to keep things focused on the potatoes here and save the eggs for egg salad, but the choice is yours. Of course, all these ingredients can be tweaked, riffed, or otherwise toyed with to your heart's content. This basic recipe and technique are yours to play with.
One last public safety note: If you're planning to serve potato salad at an outdoor gathering, keep it out of sunshine and don't leave it out for longer than 4 hours. Potato salad is notorious for giving hapless picnickers a bout of food poisoning! It's not actually the mayo that goes bad (mayonnaise is acidic enough to prevent bacteria from growing), but rather the potatoes themselves, which make a perfect medium for bacteria growth. Be safe, everyone!
Everyone has their own favorite take on this dish, to be sure. How do you like your potato salad? Do you like the traditional recipe, or do you go further afield for your potato salad fix?
For basic potato salad, you need the following: 2 pounds waxy potatoes, like red-skinned potatoes; 1/2 cup mayonnaise; 1 tablespoon mustard; 2 ribs celery, diced (about 3/4 cup); 1 large shallot or 1/4 small onion, minced (about 1/4 cup); 1/4 cup diced scallions, parsley, tarragon, or dill, plus extra to garnish; 3 large eggs, hard-cooked and diced (optional); Salt and pepper, to taste
How To Make Potato Salad
Serves 6 to 8 as a side dish (Makes about 7 cups)
What You Need
2 pounds waxy potatoes, like red-skinned potatoes
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon mustard
2 ribs celery, diced (about 3/4 cup)
1 large shallot or 1/4 small onion, minced (about 1/4 cup)
1/4 cup diced scallions, parsley, tarragon, or dill, plus extra to garnish
3 large eggs, hard-cooked and diced (optional)
Salt and pepper, to taste
Spatula or long-handled spoon
Cut the potatoes into chunks: Wash and scrub any grit from the potatoes. Cut them into large bite-sized chunks. (Alternatively, boil the potatoes whole, then peel and/or dice them after cooking.)
Prepare to cook the potatoes: Transfer the potatoes to a medium-sized pot. Cover with an inch of water and stir in a teaspoon of salt.
Cook the potatoes until tender: Bring the water to a simmer over medium-high heat; adjust the heat to keep the water at a gentle simmer. Cook until the potatoes are tender all the way through when pierced with a fork, 8 to 12 minutes. Exact cooking time depends on the size of your cubes and the type of potatoes. For full step-by-step instructions, see How To Boil Potatoes.
Drain and rinse the potatoes: Drain the potatoes and rinse them under cool water. Transfer them to a mixing bowl.
Mix the mayonnaise and mustard with the potatoes: Add the mayonnaise and the mustard to the potatoes. Mix well.
Mix the celery, shallots, scallions or herbs, and eggs into the potatoes: Add the celery, shallots, scallions (or herbs), and eggs (if using) to the bowl with the potatoes. Stir until thoroughly combined. Taste a bite of the salad; add salt and pepper to season and more of any of the other ingredients to taste. This recipe is a base template; add more or use less of anything to your taste.
Serve or refrigerate: Serve the salad while still warm, or cover and refrigerate for up to a day before serving.
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(Image credits: Emma Christensen)