Yukon do it! How to Make Potato Salad
What potato to use? Mashed or chunky? Extra mayo or extra light? Don’t be a hesi-tater — read this guide to learn the basic steps. Then use our tips and recipes to customize away.
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Like many cherished comfort foods, classic potato salad recipes can spark intense likes and dislikes. If your grandmother used mayonnaise, yellow mustard, and sweet relish in her homemade potato salad, then any recipe that lacks that sweet and sour tang might seem wrong to you on a fundamental level. If you are accustomed to hard-boiled eggs in your potato salad, then an eggless one will be sure to disappoint. But let’s step back a bit. What if you usually buy potato salad (or enjoy some made by other cooks), and you don’t really know how to create your own perfect potato salad recipe?
Well, in this potato salad guide, I'm here to help. Instead of glossing over different beliefs at each stage in potato salad instructions, I will walk you through the options, exploring the pros and cons and the myriad delicious styles that await.
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Potato salad Q&A
I don’t want to offend you by disagreeing with your granny, but there are many ways to make the perfect potato salad. Here are some tips to help you navigate the potato salad options.
What are the best potatoes for potato salad?
The choice of a potato salad potato is highly subjective. Potatoes come in relatively waxy versus starchy varieties.
Waxy potatoes. Red potatoes and white “thin-skinned potatoes” are on the waxier end of the spectrum, with thin digestible peels and dense flesh that holds its shape even after boiling. They tend not to dissolve during cooking and as a result, tend to make less creamy, mushy potato salad. I like them in a German-style vinegar/mustard dressing.
Starchy potatoes. Ones like russets are, for lack of a better word, starchier. Their peels tend to be thicker, so they’re usually removed before eating. These potatoes tend to fall apart while cooking, shedding starch into your dressing, creating a delightful (to some) substrate that gives the potato salad a creamier, velvety texture.
If you like toothsome potato salad with peel-on wedges of intact potato, go for a waxier variety. If you like potato salad that quivers on the edge of being creamy mashed potatoes, go for a starchier spud. If you can’t decide, try a Yukon Gold or another yellow potato in the middle of the waxy/starchy spectrum.
Should I cut my potatoes into cubes before boiling?
If you’re working with jumbos, you’ll want to cut them into bite-size pieces before putting them in the water — boiling whole giant potatoes adds needlessly to the cooking time. If your potatoes are more modestly proportioned, you’ll have to use your own judgment. Some recipes that call for peeled potatoes suggest you boil them whole and slip them out of their skins after cooking. If you do pre-cube your potatoes, make sure to keep an eye on the cooking time; smaller chunks will cook faster and may get overcooked if your attention lapses.
Do I need to peel my potatoes?
Not really! I like the jackets on even russet potatoes, but your personal preference should be your guide.
Should I start boiling the potatoes in cold water or hot?
Hot topic! Or is it cold? This one also comes down to personal preference. According to preeminent cooking science writer Harold McGee, potatoes (and other root vegetables) that cook gently are more likely to remain intact throughout cooking thanks to some cooking alchemy involving pectin and heat-activated enzymes. So if you prefer a firmer texture and a cleaner potato chunk, start your spuds in cold water; if you like the chaos of a creamy potato salad, dump your spuds in boiling water and go nuts.
Do I salt the cooking water?
Yes! Just like with pasta, you want to liberally salt the water in which you boil your potatoes. Most of the salt will be drained away with the water when you remove the potatoes, so you want enough salt to season your spuds.
How long do I boil potatoes for potato salad?
Potatoes for potato salad should be cooked just to the point of tenderness. Carry-over cooking will continue to soften them after they’re drained, so leave a little bite, especially if you use waxy potatoes that hold their shape. For little potatoes, that can mean 10-12 minutes of gentle cooking after the water comes to a boil; for larger ones or bigger chunks, it could take as long as 15-20 minutes total time.
How long can potato salad sit out?
Mayo or no, you should keep your potato salad chilled. You’ll be taking unnecessary risks with your health if you eat potato salad that’s been at room temp for more than a couple of hours. If it’s sitting outside at a barbecue on a hot summer afternoon, apply even more stringent restrictions — after an hour at 90°F, any potato salad is an incubator for microbes. Instead, keep it on ice or in a cooler or in the fridge.
How to store potato salad?
In an airtight container, potato salad can keep in the fridge for five days or so. In fact, most recipes say that potato salad tastes better after a day in the fridge — the flavors deepen and the texture improves after a period of rest.
Can you freeze potato salad?
You can, but I don’t recommend it. In particular, potato salad made with a mayonnaise-based dressing tends not to recover well from a stint in the freezer. Hot potato salads with non-dairy dressings reportedly reheat OK from the freezer after being thawed in the fridge.
Step-by-step instructions for your perfect potato salad
Learn these basic steps to create the potato salad of your dreams
Step 1: Visualize YOUR potato salad
By now, I hope you’ve started to come to terms with the wide variety of opinions out there about the perfect potato salad. So start your journey by picturing your destination. If you are fully committed to a family recipe, then picture your ancestral potato salad. If you are ready to strike out on your own, think through your own personal potato salad ambitions. Do you want perfectly intact al-dente wedges or ragged-edged starchy hunks? A thin and austere mustard vinaigrette or a creamy dressing that coalesces into a velvety mash? Served cold or warm? Crunchy or smooth? Eggy or no? Your personal goals will inform your approach to each step below.
Step 2: Pick your potatoes
Armed with knowledge about the relative merits and tendencies of waxy versus starchy potatoes, choose the spud that meets your needs. Waxy potatoes will stay intact and soak up dressing; starchier potatoes will disintegrate and combine with your dressing in a creamy/chunky chaotic mass.
Step 3: Peel (or don’t!) and cut and cook (or cook and cut) the potatoes
If your potato salad vision includes elegant peeled potato cubes, then peel away (or boil whole and then slide the jackets off). If you like a rustic country-style potato salad with peels and all, then skip that step and get right to boiling in a large pot. Start your spuds in cold water if you want a firmer cube, or hot water if you like softer corners. But don’t let them overcook!
Step 4: Mix your dressing
Most potato salad recipes follow one of two dressing themes: creamy mayo versus tart vinaigrette. But there’s no need to limit yourself to one cup mayonnaise or two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar. I’ve seen potato salads dressed in chimichurri. David Chang recently shared a recipe on TikTok for a chili-crisp green onion kewpie mayonnaise dressing for crunchy roasted potato salad that gave me serious potato salad FOMO. Follow your heart!
Step 5: Prep the add-ins
Most potato salads call for some chopped chives or parsley and diced dill pickles or diced red onions — a textural counterpoint to the cooked potatoes. So, use the potato cooking time wisely to prep the add-in ingredients that suit your potato salad ambitions.
Step 6: Drain the cooked potatoes and mix it all together
Drain your fork-tender potatoes in a colander. Vinegar dressings are best added while your potatoes are hot for better flavor absorption. You may want to let your spuds cool slightly before adding mayo dressings. Add your mix-ins and fold gently together in a large bowl.
Step 7: Let it mingle
With a few notable exceptions (German hot potato salad, for one!), potato salads benefit from a rest in the fridge before serving. Let the flavors mingle for at least a few hours or as long as a couple days.
Step 8: Correct the seasoning
Before you serve, give your potato salad a taste and add salt and black pepper as needed. Even if it tasted great when you mixed it, the seasoning may need a zhuzh.
Step 9: Garnish with fresh herbs or other accoutrements
Crunchy ingredients, a handful of fresh herbs, or a sprinkle of paprika completes the potato salad picture; garnish with abandon!
Step 10: Serve and enjoy!
You did it! You made the potato salad of your dreams. Maybe it was a carbon copy of the potato salad you ate at every Fourth of July bbq you can remember. Maybe you’re a rebel and compulsively reject family tradition. Whatever it is, it’s your potato salad now, so dig in and enjoy!
A few potato salad recipes for inspiration
Here are a few proven potato salad recipes to spark your creativity. Who knows? Your great-great-grandkids a hundred years from now may keep a yellowed printout of these Yummly recipes wedged between antique cookbooks on their kitchen shelf — don’t deprive the future generations of a new heirloom recipe.
If you love a classic creamy mayo potato salad, try out this Yummly original recipe by Katie Workman. Semi-starchy Yukon Gold potatoes are peeled and cubed in advance, then covered with cold water and cooked (a la Harold McGee) until just tender. Onion and celery add crunch; fresh parsley adds freshness.
Ashley Strickland Freeman strikes in bold new potato salad directions in this Yummly original recipe. I love the fact that she embraces the salad in potato salad and mixes in peppery baby arugula just before serving. Nota bene: She starts whole gold potatoes in already boiling water, and cubes them with the peel on after cooking.
This unorthodox potato salad lets green beans share center stage with small waxy white potatoes. It’s a potato salad recipe that thumbs its nose at tradition while offering a delicious veggie-heavy potato side dish in a tasty Dijon mustard vinaigrette.
I first had hot German potato salad at a lush beer garden on Chicago’s Northwest side, and I’ll never forget the surprise and delight of warm slices of waxy potatoes dressed simply in white vinegar, bacon fat, and crispy bacon bits. If you’ve only had cold creamy potato salad, give this alternate approach a chance!
Speaking of alternate approaches, here’s a recipe for potato salad that inserts a roasting step after the potatoes are parboiled and smashed. This technique creates an unforgettable crust of shatteringly crisp roasted potato that stands up beautifully to the creamy mayo/Greek yogurt dressing. You might never go back to plain-old boiled potato salad.
Potato salad is a crowd pleaser. But there's a lot more you can make for a picnic or bbq. How about a cold noodle salad? Or check out the surprising things you can make with mayo besides potato salad!