Potato salad was probably one of the first dishes I learned to make because it’s always been a family favorite. We loved my mother’s way of making it, she talked me through learning how to make it, and I stuck very closely to the recipe. It was perfection and you don’t mess with perfection.
I realize from looking at potato salad labels in the deli section at the grocery that my mother’s version is what is called “mustard potato salad” by the rest of the world. To us, that is the only potato salad. It’s mom-style!
Over the years my P.S. (Potato Salad addict/hubby) has tried to get me to add silly things like chopped celery, sliced radishes, etc, to the humble potato salad. That’s the way his mother makes it and I suppose we all want to stick to our mother’s versions. But that doesn’t happen at our house. I’m not his mom. I don’t make vegetable potato salad; it is just potato salad. By which I mean potatoes, boiled eggs, green onions, and a mustard/mayo dressing. Nothing else. Ok maybe a sprinkle of paprika on top to make it pretty.
Up in the North here, there are so very many potato farms and so potatoes are fairly inexpensive year-round. We have some amazing Red River Valley potatoes! A person could make potato salad in the winter but that’s just not right. It has to be hot out before we can eat potato salad. It’s a treat we only anticipate during the cold months. I think that makes the salad more dear and so we are zealous about our recipes when we actually make it.
There are many variables when making potato salad and they can make your head spin. When I set out to measure and write down my recipe for my family, it wasn’t as simple as I thought it would be. Now I know why my Mom just looked at me back then and said it’s all in the feel and taste of the dressing. And now I also know that something as minor as letting the boiled potatoes sit in hot water a few minutes too long after you shut the pot off can throw the whole feel of the salad off. There is an art to this salad!
Not only does sitting in water too long make the potatoes overcooked and falling apart soft, but it allows them to absorb more water. Then once they’re diced they’re not going to absorb as much of the dressing. The usual dressing amount I make is going to be too much and the final salad is going to be a bit more soupy. It’s the revolt of the potatoes!
Or there is the other end of that worst case scenario when I immediately drain the potatoes once they’re barely fork tender and dice them up hot, then mix with the dressing. Overnight the potatoes will absorb all of the dressing and the next day when I give it a final stir before serving, it’s so dry I have to add a glug of milk. You see there is a fine line when making this salad. The potatoes are cranky and must be treated just right.
Discussing this with other cooks, they’ve given me ideas that maybe the potatoes and types of potatoes themselves are sometimes the wild card. Some potatoes are drier, some are older or younger. I always use red potatoes for potato salad, but even those can vary within that category. As I said, the variables can make you crazy when making potato salad!
All this discussion serves to explain why my potato salad isn’t always perfect. I call it a lucky day when the final product has the right proportions of dressing to potatoes. That happens MOST of the time, but if not, we shrug and say it still tastes great!
I’ve tried different methods of peeling or not peeling before boiling the potatoes and prefer to peel them before boiling. The potatoes end up a bit darker and mottled with grey in places if they aren’t peeled and I like a clean looking salad. For a family gathering of 10-12, I peel up a 5# bag of red potatoes and cut them into 2” chunks, put them into salted water and boil until fork tender. We want barely tender, not falling apart tender.
On a good day I can get my P.S. (Peeler of Spuds) to do it for me, then I finish making the salad. But I’m faster at peeling so if I want it done quicker, I do the time with the peeler myself. Once they’re bubbling away in the boiling water I make up the dressing so it’s ready.
I start with a large measuring pitcher and measure a cup of milk into it. I then add enough mayo to the pitcher that it measures 3 cups. It’s my way of getting 2 cups of mayo without measuring each cup. I add the mustard, salt and pepper, then whisk it until it’s smooth. Finally I add the vinegar and whisk it until it thickens a bit. The vinegar is curdling the milk I think, hence the thickening. It isn’t in chunks, it remains smooth.
Once the potatoes are just fork tender, I drain them into a colander and let them cool just to the point where I don’t burn my hands dicing them. Yes, I dice the potatoes in my hand rather than on the cutting board. You can choose whichever you’re comfortable doing. I dice the potatoes into 1” chunks.
When I’m all organized and thinking clearly, I boil the eggs and have them cooled to room temp and diced while I’m waiting for the potatoes to be done. I put 4 or 5 eggs into cold water in a saucepan, covering them, and bring them to a boil. I boil them for 3 minutes, then shut the heat off and let them sit for another 5 minutes. After I drain the pan I run cold water over them for a minute or two then let them set in cold water for a few minutes. I just peel and dice finely from there and put them into my large mixing bowl.
I usually have thinly sliced green onions in my fridge so I either add ½ cup of green onions to the bowl or I slice up 8-10 green onions and add them to my salad. Once I have the potatoes done and diced, the eggs diced and the onions sliced, I add the dressing and stir. I put the salad into a container, cover it and refrigerate overnight. I like to stir it once or twice when I remember, to make sure it’s all melding and playing well together. I always make it at least a day in advance so it is all properly seasoned.
It’s a pretty simple recipe if you don’t get to fretting over whether it might be too dry or too wet or whatever. We’ve just learned it is the same delicious salad no matter the texture. With the right combo of mustard and vinegar, it is a nice pop if you’re a mustard potato salad fan!
5# red potatoes
5 boiled eggs; peeled and diced
½ cup green onions; thinly sliced
1 cup milk
2 cups mayo
¼ cup prepared mustard
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
1/8 cup white vinegar
Peel and boil potatoes in 2” chunks until just fork tender in salted water. Drain and cool briefly, then dice into 1” pieces.
While the potatoes are cooking, place 5 eggs into a saucepan and just cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over medium high heat. Boil for 3 minutes; turn off heat and let set for 5 minutes.
Whisk together the milk, mayo, mustard, salt and pepper until smooth. Add vinegar and whisk another minute or two until it is slightly thickened.
Drain water from eggs and place pan under cold running water for several minutes, then let eggs sit in cold water a few more minutes. Drain and peel, then finely dice into a large mixing bowl
When potatoes are cooled enough and diced, add them to the mixing bowl. Add the green onions.
Fold dressing into the potato mixture and store, covered, in the refrigerator overnight. Stir once or twice to meld the flavors.
Best made at least a day in advance.