All-American and Classic French. Choose Your Favorite.
There are two essential things to know about potato salads:
- Potatoes themselves have a very subtle flavor so the taste of any potato salad is entirely defined by its other ingredients.
- Potatoes are absorbent. Whatever you pour on them or toss them with will meld with the potatoes. This informs how -- and when -- the salads should be made, dressed and assembled.
Potato salads are a summer favorite, although some are also appealing year-round. Most are served cold or slightly chilled, making them a natural with other iconic summer foods -- cold chicken, barbequed ribs, burgers, hard-boiled eggs, charcuterie, and more.
They seem to fall into one of two categories -- what I would describe as either a classic French or a classic American. I'll explain.
Classic French are cooked potatoes that are dressed while still warm. The potatoes are simmered in salted water until tender, then drained and immediately tossed with white wine or chicken stock. The potatoes absorb the wine or stock, and then are dressed with vinaigrette made with wine vinegar, olive oil and mustard.
If you look up potato salad in Volume One of Julia Child's Mastering The Art of French Cooking, this is the type of recipe you will find.
Classic American potato salads are made with cooked but completely cooled potatoes dressed with a creamy, usually mayonnaise-based, dressing plus diced ingredients, such as red onion or celery or chives.
In both cases, the potatoes' absorbency is influencing the technique. In a French salad you want the potatoes to soak up the wine or stock to build flavor. In an American version, you want the mayonnaise dressing to stay creamy on the surface so you wait until the potatoes are completely cooled before adding the dressing; if you've ever added mayonnaise to warm potatoes you know it can either create glop or just the opposite -- the mayonnaise disappears and the potatoes become mushy.
I prefer cutting potatoes into chunks instead of slices because when you add the dressings, slices are prone to falling apart. I also like potatoes either completely peeled or partially peeled, the one exception being Roasted Potato Salad With Arugula.
When cooking the potatoes, watch them closely so to not over cook; overcooked potatoes get messy and fall apart. One way to make sure the potatoes are correctly cooked is to drain them while still a little bit firm, leaving them in the colander, still steaming, with a dish towel on top. The remaining steam will continue to cook the potatoes so that by the time they're cool enough to handle, they're perfectly tender.
I think the best potato salads are made with red bliss, Yukon Gold or fingerling potatoes. Not Russet or baking potatoes which are too grainy. But don't rule out sweet potatoes, which make excellent and complex salads.
Potato Salad Variations
These are some of my favorite things to add to either French or American style potato salads. Just don't add too many different ingredients at once or you'll lose the potatoes' dominance in the dish.
- Mayonnaise with sliced scallions and diced celery
- Half mayonnaise and half sour cream with several shots of hot sauce or Tabasco and sliced cornichons and capers
- Mustard vinaigrette made with white wine vinegar and extra virgin olive oil tossed with halved cherry tomatoes, or spears of blanched asparagus, or chunks of English cucumber added to the potatoes
- Mayonnaise slightly diluted with two or three tablespoons of mustard vinaigrette and tossed on completely cooled potatoes -- this combines the flavors of a classic French potato salad with the creamy surface of an American one
- Mayonnaise to which crumbled blue cheese and crumbled bits of crispy bacon are added before tossing with cooled cooked potatoes
- French potato salad, tossing still-warm potatoes with white wine, then when cooled and the wine is completely absorbed, dressed with white wine vinaigrette and tossed with salmon caviar and snips of fresh dill
- Chunks of cooked potato tossed with basil pesto and a handful of cooked haricots verts
- Chunks of cooked sweet potatoes, drained, slightly cooled, and tossed with white wine vinaigrette and sliced scallions (no mayonnaise)
- Roasted fingerling or small chunks of peeled Yukon gold potatoes, cooled, tossed with vinaigrette and served on a bed of fresh arugula; see our recipe
- German potato salad dressed with vinaigrette and diced bacon, served warm
Mayonnaise In the Summer and Food Safety
We've all heard how mayonnaise-dressed foods are vulnerable to spoilage. I believe it's always prudent to err on the side of extra care and not take any chances with handling and serving food in hot weather. But an article that appeared in Cook's Illustrated in 2002 explains how the risky culprit is not the mayonnaise after all. If you're planning on bringing potato salad -- or any food for that matter -- to a picnic soon, you may want to read this article. See the link below.