Classic potato salads are fine and good (sometimes even wonderful)—but every once in a while (maybe for the start of barbecue season?), you want a chance to play, create, impress, and use up some of the items in your pantry, too.
Behold: our guide for building the potato salad of your dreams! Whether that dream is to make a fiercely spicy, harissa-red potato salad, or to clean out your fridge before vacation.
Start at the top, then wind your way through the chart, picking and choosing ingredients and flavors as you like. (Find the details for making the various components below.)
1. Cook those 'taters.
The method you use to cook the potato will play a large role in the salad's texture (and, if you season them, the flavor, too).
- For soft-all-over potatoes, boil.
- If you yearn for crispy edges, roast.
- And if roasted potatoes still aren't crispy enough for you, smash/squash. (Amanda Hesser does this in a frying pan, but we've also had success using an oven; once your potatoes have been pancaked, spread them out on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, season with salt, and bake at 450° F for 15 to 20 minutes, flipping once.)
- For potatoes with shriveled-up, salt-coated skins and tender insides, salt-crust.
- Are you a true adventurer? Try using pickled or smoked potatoes.
- Could you also add sweet potatoes? Or sunchokes? No one's stopping you!
No matter the method you choose, take care that your potatoes (or potato chunks) are all of similar size so that they'll cook at the same rate (I like to use small, waxy potatoes that can be left whole or sliced once.)
And you'll want to season the potatoes—the cooking water, if you're boiling; the potatoes themselves, if you're roasting or squashing—to build flavor early on.
2. Your dressing, your destiny
Here's where you ask yourself the important question:
What am I doing with my life? What do I want the character of my potato salad to be? If you want it light and peppy, whisk together a simple vinaigrette; if you'd like something creamy that slicks each potato piece, you'll want a heftier dressing that's dependent on mayo, yogurt, or the like. Here are a few ideas:
- Sharp and acidic: red wine vinaigrette, lemon juice + olive oil (aim for a 1:3 ratio, lemon juice to oil), maple syrup and Dijon vinaigrette, lemon caper dressing
- Creamy and lush: buttermilk ranch, mayonnaise + olive oil (aim for a 1:1 ratio), dill vinaigrette, lemon tahini, avocado dressing
- Herby: pesto (use store-bought or make your own), spicy cilantro vinaigrette
- Spicy: harissa (you can make your own or pick up a jar at the store), smoked paprika vinaigrette
- Wildcards: fish sauce vinaigrette, warm bacon vinaigrette, blue cheese dressing, turmeric-tahini dressing, miso dressing
The nature of your dressing will also determine what (and how much) other stuff you add. If you've chosen a simple vinaigrette, you might want to bulk up the salad with a lot of extra doodads; if you've gone for a more intense dressing (blue cheese, for example), you'll want to make sure the other ingredients are also happy to mingle with its funky creaminess.
3. Add some zing with acid.
Toss your potatoes with the dressing, taste one, then figure out how much acid you'll need (and what source makes most sense from a flavor perspective). If your dressing is perfectly seasoned, you may not need to add much of anything—but since potatoes are
bland blank canvases, you'll probably need that extra zing.
Maybe it's in the form of lemon juice, preserved lemon, vinegar of all kinds (white wine, apple cider, rice wine, sherry), pickle brine ( or pickles!), soy sauce, or capers.
4. And freshen with herbs.
Chop them, tear them, julienne them! We like adding fresh thyme, rosemary, dill, fennel fronds, basil, or mint. Or try finely minced lemongrass or Thai basil. And you can even use dried herbs from your spice cabinet.
Herbs have made your salad fresher; the allium family—garlic, chives, scallions, leeks, onions—will make it sharper and more finely-tuned. They don't have to stay raw, either: Garlic can get roasted; onions can get pickled, caramelized, or confited; and shallots can get fried.
6. Crunchy munchies.
Chopped toasted nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts, and pistachios are all particularly good), yes—but if you want to think beyond nuts, you could turn to toasted quinoa or double-toasted buckwheat crunch. Or use this opportunity to clean out your crisper: Add thinly sliced radishes, carrots, or snap peas.
You could even mix in potato chips! (My eternal gratitude to Andy Baraghani at Bon Appétit for this idea.)
7. The lush and the creamy.
You might not need any of these elements if you've used a super creamy dressing. But crumbled goat cheese or cubed avocado may come in handy if your salad is vinaigrette-based or if you need something mild and rich to cut some of the spice of a harissa-based salad.
8. Bonus points.
Entirely optional, entirely fun. These are the ingredients you may not have intended to add to your potato salad, but that call out to you from the door of the fridge—pitted olives, a dash of hot sauce, the sprouts you meant to eat yesterday, the hot sauce you eat with everything, toasted sesame, mustard, or nigella seeds.
How We Played
Springy Green Pesto Potato Salad
- The potatoes: boiled
- The dressing: pesto
- The acid: lemon juice
- The herbs: fresh basil and mint
- The alliums: chives
- The crunch: chopped toasted pistachios
- The bonus points: shaved asparagus, arugula
Crispy Smashed Potato Salad with Tahini and Chickpeas
- The potatoes: smashed
- The dressing: lemon-tahini
- The herb: dill
- The crunch: sliced radishes, chickpeas, toasted pine nuts
- The bonus spice: smoked paprika
Spicy Harissa Potato Salad
- The potatoes: roasted
- The dressing: harissa
- The acid: red wine vinegar
- The herb: fresh cilantro and dried oregano
- The lush and the creamy: chopped hard-boiled egg and grated ricotta salata
What's your favorite take on potato salad? Tell us in the comments below!