Potato Salads

All-American and Classic French. Choose Your Favorite.

Potato Salads

All-American and Classic French. Choose Your Favorite.

There are two essential things to know about potato salads:

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 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.




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