Outdoor Entertaining

Our Semi-Definitive Guide to Potato Salads

July  8, 2016

The Food Lover's Companion—the fat book we turn to when we want to know alternative spellings for chermoula (shermoola, sharmoula) or the history of stevia (it's been used for centuries in Central and South America)—defines potato salad as the following:

A salad of cooked, diced or cubed potatoes mixed with other ingredients such as chopped onion, green peppers, celery, hard-cooked eggs, seasonings and a mayonnaise- or sour cream-based dressing. German potato salad, often served hot, is bound with a vinegar-bacon fat dressing.

"Mixed with other ingredients" leaves a lot of room open for interpretation—and interpret we will! We've got a big family of potato salad recipes on the site (some classic and creamy, some sultry and smoky, some hiding sunchokes), which can make it hard to choose which one to make for the weekend's cookout or barbecue or pool party or solo dinner (a very good idea).

Here, we'll make that decision a bit easier for you based on your salad wants and needs. (Also recommended: Make one recipe per weekend and ride into fall on a potato boat.)

When you want a little fish:

Truly a side dish, this recipe is a few steps up from boiled potatoes with salt and butter—but with that same simple joy! Lemon-doused and herb-flecked, it's easy-going enough to accompany a brunch (but might get overshadowed by a big pile of burgers at a barbecue).

This second option is richer and creamier—with 2 tablespoons of sour cream plus the delightful dressing made from oil-packed tuna —and, with all the stuff involved (olives, tomatoes, red onions, and tuna, of course), could be your whole meal.

When you'd rather roast than boil:

On the left, we have a fiery, garlic-breath-for-days riff on patatas bravas (the potatoes are roasted, not fried; the mayonnaise is store-bought and doctored up). And on the right, we have a calmer and more diverse crew of ingredients—basil, walnuts, potatoes—all united in a dairy-free vinaigrette (yes, this recipe's vegan, too!). It's nighttime in Ibiza versus an afternoon picnic in... not Ibiza.

When you can't decide between potato salad, egg salad, and chicken salad:

Combine all three! Sdebrango's recipe combines mashed potatoes, shredded chicken, and hard-boiled eggs with mayonnaise, sliced cornichons, peas, and lemon juice. Serve it perched on a piece of bread with some arugula tucked underneath and you've got yourself dinner.

When you don't eat (or don't have!) dairy:

Avocado, mashed until smooth, stands in for mayonnaise as a creamy but dairy-free dressing. And despite that radical addition, the potato salad constants—dill, lemon juice, mustard, and green onions—are still there, making it familiar-tasting.

When you're trying to disguise sunchokes:

Or maybe you actually like sunchokes and you want to eat them (I don't know the feeling, but I can imagine having it). This salad's a bit of a project—the tubers are par-boiled, then roasted, which gives them pillowy insides and crisp edges; there's also asparagus, ramps, anchovies, tons of chopped herbs—but you'll come away with a dinner party-worthy, tablecloth-appropriate salad.

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And if ramps are no longer available in your neck of the woods (or your month of the year), sub in whatever allium suits you.

When you're planning to run around afterwards:

You want a salad with as many peas as potatoes! Here we have the opposite of mayo-slowed salad: It's got crunch from 4 cups (!) of sliced snow or snap peas and fragrance from lots of mint. It's dairy-free, too, which makes it a safe option for toting to a picnic (or storing in your bag and plucking with your fingers throughout the day).

When you've got leftover pickle brine and you've already taken a pickleback:

Your entire jar of pickle brine (once strained, of course) can go straight into this recipe. A 1/4 cup gets used to make the mayonnaise and the rest, crazily enough, is the potato boiling liquid.

Warning: For extreme dill pickle fans only!

When you just want the classic and the creamy, goshdarnit!:

Dill pickles? Check. Hellman's mayonnaise? Check. Grey Poupon mustard? Check. Recipe from a German grandmother? Check.

For something lighter, with less propensity towards gloppiness (maybe you like the glop! that's fine, too!), look to the recipe on the left: Thin the mayonnaise with buttermilk, then sharpen everything with horseradish.

Or, dial down the fire and add crunchy and cooling fennel instead (the recipe calls for fronds and seeds, but you can mix in some diced fennel bulb, as well).

Here, the mayonnaise is more of a light jacket than a heavy winter coat, and the accessories—red onion, cornichons, just a couple of eggs, herbs of your choosing—are helpful but subservient. It's an anything-goes sort of deal ("Potato salad’s beauty is not in its technique," writes Kenzi), but do be sure to let it chill and meld.

When you want a few tricks up your sleeves:

The tips on the left:

  • Toss the still-warm potatoes with a little rice vinegar, before adding the remainder of the vinaigrette. They'll absorb the vinegar quickly, the flavor going all the way through.
  • Then quickly add a handful of peppery greens, which will wilt under the residual heat and give you a dish that's as much salad as it is potato (maybe).

And from the right:

  • Roasting radishes softens their intensity and makes them perfect potato partners.
  • Fry cumin seeds and mustard seeds in olive oil to release their fragrance, then use that now-flavorful oil as the base of a dressing.

And, finally, when you want to take your fate in your own hands:

Describe your ideal potato salad in the comments below.

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