Kitchn Love Letters

My Grandma’s Been Making This Potato Salad for 50 Years and No Other Recipe Tops It

published Jul 19, 2020
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Credit: Kelli Foster

It’s impossible to even think about potato salad without my grandma’s version immediately coming to mind. It’s been a mainstay at nearly all family functions for as long as I can remember. Picnics and cookouts, lazy summer days by the pool, Easter dinner — you name it, potato salad was on the table. Since I have a big extended family, it wasn’t out of the question for my grandmother to make upwards of 10 pounds for these events. And she always tucked an extra container away in the back of the fridge for me to take home.

Her version is no-frills, with just the right balance of celery and onion for crunch and flavor, a couple of spoonfuls of spicy brown mustard for zip, and a dusting of paprika and dried parsley to make it look nice. It’s not far off from the thousands of other recipes out there for classic potato salad (in fact, Kitchn’s recipe is pretty close), and yet no others have ever quite matched up. My guess is because they’re missing the love and nostalgia that come with my family’s version.

I knew I needed to get the recipe, but it wasn’t as easy as simply copying it down — my grandma always made it from memory, eyeballing the ingredients and tasting as she went. Years went by without me mentioning anything, but over time, my grandma started to become a little forgetful, and then her memory got fuzzy, and eventually she entered the early stages of dementia.

Credit: Kelli Foster

In the larger scheme of things, potato salad seemed so trivial, and yet it was so much a part of her and something that connected us. I’d been eating it for well over 30 years (it became the marker for which I judged all other potato salads), and I was worried the recipe was forever lost. But last month, a miraculous thing happened: My mom decided to give her best shot at recreating it for my son’s first birthday, and my grandma came into the kitchen and more or less took over. Here’s the thing: While her short-term memory is poor, her long-term memory is sharp, and every so often she surprises us.

As she got to work, I paid very close attention — I wasn’t about to miss this opportunity to finally learn the ropes. I also finally learned the origins of the recipe: My grandma started making it more than 50 years ago when she and my grandfather owned and operated a deli!

How to Make My Grandma’s Potato Salad

Just like my mom, my grandma isn’t one for following recipes or measuring ingredients. She’s more of an “eyeball everything, toss it into the bowl, mix together, taste, and adjust as necessary” type of cook. Nailing down the recipe took a little bit of back and forth, with a lot of questions from me to flesh out specifics, like my grandma’s preference for cooking the potatoes whole because she feels like they hold too much water and get soggy when chopped first (I know there are plenty of recipes that say otherwise and that it’s faster to cube the potatoes first, but this is what my grandma prefers). Here’s how to make my grandma’s classic potato salad at home.

Place 5 pounds whole Yukon Gold potatoes in a large pot, cover with cold water, and simmer until tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Drain the potatoes. When cool enough to handle, peel them and chop them into bite-sized pieces. Place the chopped potatoes, 4 chopped celery stalks, 1 small chopped yellow onion, 2 cups mayonnaise, and 1/4 to 1/3 cup spicy brown mustard in a large bowl and mix together. Add kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to overnight before serving. Top with a sprinkle of sweet paprika and parsley (chopped fresh or dried) for serving.

At Kitchn, our editors develop and debut brand-new recipes on the site every single week. But at home, we also have our own tried-and-true dishes that we make over and over again — because quite simply? We love them. Kitchn Love Letters is a series that shares our favorite, over-and-over recipes.