No single ingredient ignites recipe culture wars quite like mayonnaise. As someone who happily licks it off the spoon, my “too much mayo” threshold is all but nonexistent — but the vast majority of people feel quite differently, especially when it comes to potato salad.
Even I can admit that too much mayo will tank an otherwise great potato salad. Unlike macaroni salad or coleslaw, there’s no built-in insurance for accidentally overdoing it: Cooked noodles will eventually absorb excess mayo and wilting cabbage will slowly dilute it, but potatoes will do neither — which means you have to totally nail the dressing. As it turns out, the secret to potato salad perfection isn’t extra mayo or a dollop of sour cream; it’s the potatoes themselves.
Whether you’re on Team Mayo or Team Keep That Shit Away From Me, Thanks, perfect potato salad requires an emulsified dressing that’s thick enough to cling to potato chunks and stable enough to resist splitting into its base components. Adding a little starch is an easy way to both thicken and stabilise an emulsion, particularly if that starch is cooked and fully hydrated — which, as luck would have it, is exactly what happens when you boil potatoes for potato salad. Here are two easy ways to use that starchy goodness to your advantage.
Add a splash of cooking liquid
Just like pasta water, the liquid left over from boiling potatoes is starchy, salty and ideal for adding body to sauces — and the late, great Julia Child figured out that a little potato water makes for an extra creamy salad without piles of mayo.
This recipe is for the potato salad maximalists out there: It calls for bacon, hard-boiled egg and chopped pickles in addition to the usual celery and onion, and the dressing features both mayo and sour cream. (Because I can’t leave well enough alone, I added some mustard, too.) Although Julia’s potato salad does the absolute most, the extra body you get from starchy potato water means you need way less mayo than you’d expect. Somehow, the end result is — and I can’t believe I’m saying this — light? (I know!)
To make it, you will need:
- 680g Yukon gold or red potatoes, peeled if you like
- 1/4 cup cider vinegar or pickle brine, plus more to taste
- 100g bacon, finely diced
- 2 eggs
- 2-3 stalks celery, finely sliced
- 1 large shallot or 1 small white onion, finely diced
- 1/2 cup cornichons or other pickles of your choice, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup mayonnaise, plus more to taste
- 1/4 cup sour cream or full-fat Greek yogurt, plus more to taste
- 3 tablespoons prepared yellow or Dijon mustard (I love Beaver brand Coney Island mustard), plus more to taste
- 1 bunch chives, finely sliced
- 1 bunch baby dill, finely chopped
- Salt and pepper, to taste
Cut the potatoes into roughly 4cm chunks and put them in a pot with enough cold water to barely cover them. Salt the water aggressively. Bring to a boil and cook until the edges of the cubes round off and the potatoes are falling apart, 15-20 minutes. Reserve a cup of the cooking water, then drain the potatoes.
Toss the hot potatoes with 1/4 cup each of the cooking water and vinegar (or pickle brine), plus plenty of cracked black pepper. Let the mixture sit at room temperature for at least 15 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the remaining ingredients: Crisp the bacon in a dry skillet over medium-low heat, boil the eggs to your desired doneness and chop the veg and herbs.
Drain the bacon well and peel and chop the hard-boiled eggs. Stir those into the potatoes along with the celery, shallot, pickles, mayo, sour cream and mustard. Season to taste with salt, pepper and additional vinegar or pickle brine, then add a touch more mayo and/or sour cream if desired.
Refrigerate the salad for at least an hour, folding in the herbs at the last minute. It tastes best the day it’s made, but leftovers will keep for 2-3 days in the fridge — assuming you have any.
Use puréed potatoes for a creamy dressing with zero mayo
As nifty as the potato water hack is, I don’t use it often because I pretty much always cook potatoes in the microwave. (When it’s hot outside, my path to potato salad must be as short and cool as possible; the microwave ticks both boxes.) Since adding a splash of cooking water is out, I purée some of the cooked potatoes with oil and vinegar to make a rich, creamy, extra potato-y dressing.
This technique works great with mayo-based recipes, but I think it really shines when applied to vinegary, German-style potato salad — which also happens to be vegan. (This version is, at least; traditional versions usually include bacon or speck.) It’s luscious and creamy without being heavy, and the potato flavour comes through loud and clear. If you’re a total mayo sceptic, this one’s for you.
You will need:
- 680g Yukon gold or fingerling potatoes, peeled or unpeeled
- 1/4 cup pickle brine or apple cider vinegar, plus more to taste
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil, plus more if needed
- 1/2 cup cornichons or pickles of your choice, finely chopped
- 1 large shallot or 1 small white onion, thinly sliced
- 2-3 stalks of celery, thinly sliced
- 1 bunch fresh dill, parsley, or cilantro, chopped
- Salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
Poke each potato a few times with a fork and place in a large microwave-safe bowl with an inch of water. Partially cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a microwave-safe plate and cook on high power in 5 minute increments, stirring and flipping the potatoes occasionally until they’re completely tender. Set aside until cool enough to handle.
Take 2 or 3 small potatoes (or half of a large one) and place in a large measuring cup or bowl along with 1/4 cup each of pickle brine (or cider vinegar) and vegetable oil. Purée with an immersion blender until thick and creamy.
You’re aiming for something roughly the same consistency as ranch dressing. If it’s too runny, add some more potato; if it’s too thick, add more brine. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more vinegar, oil, salt and pepper as needed.
Tear the remaining potatoes into chunks and toss with salt, pepper and a splash of brine or vinegar in a mixing bowl. Add the potato dressing, chopped pickles, shallot and celery. Mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper and refrigerate for at least an hour, folding in the herbs just before serving. This salad is delicious right off the bat, but even better on the second or third day.
So there you have it: Two polar-opposite takes on classic potato salad, each enhanced with the power of potato starch. Make them exactly as written — both recipes slap — or steal the hacks and use them to beef up your go-to recipe; it’s up to you. Either way, you’ll be in potato salad heaven.