Potato salad is buffet staple for loads of reasons; it’s easy to make in big batches, can be prepped ahead of time, and when cooked and seasoned the right way, it’ll be the first dish to empty. It’s the perfect canvas for a curious cook to experiment with flavors and textures. Your momma’s potato salad might be the talk of the town, but don’t think for a second you can’t come up with an original recipe that’ll be the star of your next cookout. It’s endlessly mutable, but for great flavor and that totally satisfying firm-but-plush texture, there a three main things to know.
Pick Your Potato
In my family, Grandma Olson swore by the Red Bliss for her famous potato salad, but you might be partial to fluffy Russets: the potato your salad is built on depends entirely on your preference. Let’s take a second to geek out on potato chemistry: Moisture content and starch type dictate a potato’s texture. Some potatoes (usually called baking potatoes) have a high amylose content, which means it has drier cells that swell up and fall away from each other when cooked—these create a fluffy texture. Other potatoes (usually called waxy potatoes) have more moisture and are higher in a starch called amylopectin; the added pectin keeps cells together when cooked, resulting in a firmer, denser, moister flesh.
If you’re looking for a dry, fluffy texture in your salad go with Russet (aka Idaho), Banana Fingerling, or Long White potatoes. Mixed with some cheese, scallions and dressed with a little bit of sour cream and mayo, these kinds make killer classic potato salads. Or, if you mix them a little more vigorously, they make what I call “smashed” salads: a cross between mashed potatoes and traditional potato salad.
If you’re looking for a chunky, creamy-textured potato, choose “waxy” Red, Round White or Yellow Finn potatoes. New potatoes fall into this category too; they really are new to the world, “babies” cut from green vines. They tend to be slightly sweeter and have higher moisture content. I find these potatoes are a good match for mayonnaise-based dressing since they can take a bit of a beating during mixing and still hold their shape.
Yukon Gold, “chef,” blue, and purple potatoes and are known as “all purpose” varieties. They’ll keep a relatively firm center, but the flesh near the skin will soften and fluff. (Sweet potatoes, which aren’t really potatoes, can be treated pretty much the same way.) I love these varieties for vinegar-based potato salads since their semi-soft texture seems to really absorb the dressing.
Boil them right
Unlike green vegetables, you want to start potatoes (whole or cut into pieces) in cold water and bring it up to a boil. Since the potato has hard, densely packed starch molecules, if you start cooking in boiling water, the outer layers will gel, cook too quickly and disintegrate into mush before the center is cooked. After the water comes up to a boil, turn it down to a simmer to cook them evenly.
Potatoes will absorb the water while they’re cooking, so use this chemistry as an opportunity to season your spuds at their core. Cook them in generously salted water with maybe a little bit of sugar into the water.
Dress them while hot
Be sure to give the potatoes some flavor love while they’re hot. Warm potatoes are like sponges and getting flavor into the potato instead of simply coating it makes all the difference. The other reason you want to coat the potatoes while they’re hot is because extra moisture will keep the starch in check when they’re cooling. Surrounding the starch molecules with moisture keeps them from locking together and getting stiff; it’ll prevent that repulsive cardboard-like texture you find in cold French fries.
If you’re using a creamy dressing, I recommend either giving the potatoes a pre-marinade in a little bit of oil and vinegar, or dressing with half of the dressing while hot, and then finishing with the rest of the dressing before serving.
Sweet Potato Pancetta Salad
I love this salad because it’s unusual, pretty, healthy and delicious. You can use white sweet potatoes that have a delicate nuttiness or bright orange sweet potatoes with a squash-like flavor, or a mix of both. Be sure to save the yogurt for dressing just before serving, to ensure each potato a creamy, tangy coating.
3 pounds sweet potatoes, cut into 1” chunks
Salt, as needed to taste
2 teaspoons sugar
1 large shallot, finely minced
½ cup champagne vinegar
2 tablespoons of spicy mustard
¼ cup olive oil
1 big bunch of basil leaves
½ pound green beans
4-8 ounces pancetta, cooked and drained of fat
Black pepper, to taste (I like a lot)
¾ cup of Greek yogurt
Cook the potatoes: Put the potatoes in a large pot of cold water. Turn the heat on high and bring to a boil. The sugar in root vegetables can leech out when you boil them, so we’re seasoning the water with salt and sugar so that the potatoes will absorb some flavor while cooking. As it heats up, add the sugar and enough salt to make the water taste almost like the sea. Once the water comes to a boil, turn down to a simmer and cook the potatoes cook until tender, about 8 minutes.
Make the vinaigrette: While the potatoes are cooking, mix together the shallot, vinegar, olive oil and spicy mustard. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Finely cut the basil leaves and stir into the vinaigrette.
Marinate the green beans: Cut the green beans into about 1” pieces. Toss them in the vinaigrette. If you want, you can let the green beans marinate in the vinaigrette for several hours before cooking the potatoes and they’ll soften a bit.
Dress the potatoes: When the potatoes are tender, drain them from the water and put in a large bowl. While still hot, fold in the green beans, vinaigrette and pancetta. (Preferably let it marinate in the dressing for several hours or overnight.) Before serving, fold in the Greek yogurt and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.