Potato salad is an American institution, and hardly seems difficult to throw together, but the right technique—and the right ingredients—make all the difference between creamy, fluffy potato salad (aka, the ultimate summer side dish) and gloppy, heavy, sad-making mush. The first question to consider is, what’s the best kind of potato for potato salad? Waxy or starchy? Naturally, opinions vary, but let’s see why both sides think they’re right.
Are they mealy—and is that actually a bad thing?
Starchy potatoes include your basic baking potato, russets, and Idahos. The most common complaint lodged against them (at least in relation to potato salad), is that they become mealy and fall apart too easily when boiled. However, as no less an authority than J. Kenji López-Alt has pointed out, that also makes them perfect for soaking up all the lovely dressing you’re going to toss them with; you want your potato chunks to absorb as much flavor as possible, and russets will do that handily. That said, it’s critical not to overcook them, or you will end up with a mess.
How to cook & handle them:
Whether you like to leave the skin on or peel it off, it’s absolutely worth taking the time to cut carefully, so all your potato pieces are about the same size—so they all cook evenly. You’ll want to start the potatoes in a pot of cold, seasoned water (never add them to an already boiling pot), and check often to ensure they don’t get too soft. Another trick: add not only salt, but a little vinegar to your cooking water, on the order of about a tablespoon per quart of water (use the same ratio for salting it). This helps flavor the potatoes all the way through (even before they get dressed), and it also helps prevent overcooking, thanks to the vinegar’s interaction with the potatoes’ pectin. The pieces should be easily pierced with a fork, neither still crunchy nor yet mushy. Pull them off the heat at the moment of perfection and drain.
Then, just don’t mix them too aggressively and there should be no issues with gluey, disintegrating potatoes, although a little fluffy-roughness around the edges is a good thing. While you may have heard it’s best to dress potatoes while they’re hot, this is only partly true. They will soak up more flavor when warm, but if too hot, they can also make mayonnaise melt and separate. So, feel free to toss warm potatoes with vinegar-based dressings, and if you’re going mayo-based, toss the warm spuds with all of the other non-mayonnaise ingredients while they’re warm, then fold in the mayo once they’ve cooled down a bit, say 30 minutes later.
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Firmer but less fluffy
The waxy potato pantheon is comprised of red-skinned, new potatoes, and fingerlings, and they keep close company with other varieties like Yukon Golds that aren’t true waxy potatoes, but still have much less starch than russets and baking potatoes. If you cut open a cooked waxy potato and a cooked starchy potato, you’ll see the waxy potato flesh is much smoother and less grainy. They’re often touted as the preferred potato salad star because they remain firmer even when fully cooked, and have a creamy rather than fluffy texture. They do make a fine picnic side dish, but they will never absorb quite as much seasoning as starchy potatoes; it’s just science. So which kind you should use is really a toss up as to whether flavor or texture matters more (and which specific texture you personally prefer).
How to cook & handle them:
The rules for dressing waxy potatoes are the same as for starchy: anything besides mayonnaise should be added while they’re still warm, and you should still use salt and vinegar in your cooking water too, to help inject as much flavor as possible into the potato pieces themselves. As with all foods that are served chilled, since cold temperatures tend to dull flavors, all potato salad should be fairly heavily seasoned in general, whether you use starchy or waxy spuds.
If you want to substitute starchy potatoes in place of waxy ones in any given recipe, just make sure you try the vinegar trick to prevent overcooking, and handle them gently so you don’t edge over into mashed potato territory.
Potato Salad Recipes
Our take on the classic creamy potato salad uses waxy spuds, but experiment with starchy if you’re intrigued. We like adding all sorts of aromatics and other texture- and flavor-boosting ingredients (see our pea and mint potato salad for proof), but here we stick mainly to the basics: eggs, celery, and pickles, plus capers, scallions, and parsley. Get our Basic Potato Salad recipe.
If you’re not a fan of mayo, this fresh, herb-packed potato salad relies on the waxy potatoes’ own creamy flesh for that smooth texture, plus olive oil, champagne vinegar, and Dijon mustard for extra flavor. Get our Herbed Potato Salad recipe.
Starchy russets anchor this potato salad, which otherwise is similar to our version above. You can add vinegar and salt to the cooking water and still toss the warm spuds in additional vinegar as called for here. Get the All-American Potato Salad recipe.
For a Korean twist on this American dish, add kimchi and a dash of gochujang to the dressing. It’s a perfect partner to fried chicken, or anything else you want to serve it with. Get our Kimchi Potato Salad recipe.
Related Reading: How to Host a Korean BBQ in Your Own Backyard
If you’re looking for something less spicy and more refreshing, try our executive editor Hana Asbrink’s favorite Japanese potato salad, which is definitely on the fluffy side (though it’s made with Yukon Gold potatoes) and studded with crunchy cucumbers, onions, and carrots. Get the Japanese Potato Salad recipe.
Related Reading: 11 International Potato Salad Recipes
Russet potato salad gets the baked potato treatment with the addition of shredded cheese, scallions, and crisp bacon. You can try it with waxy potatoes too, but it won’t be quite the same. Get the Loaded Baked Potato Salad recipe.
This is almost equal parts steak and potatoes, but no one’s going to complain about that. In another twist, the small new potatoes for this salad and baked rather than boiled, and everything is tossed in a tangy tomato-based vinaigrette. Celery leaves and parsley lend a fresh lift. Get our Steak and Potato Salad with Tomato Vinaigrette recipe.
With some similar flavor notes but none of the beef, this tangy, smoky, crunchy, creamy vegan potato salad recipe from Shannon Martinez and Mo Wyse of Smith & Daughters is vibrant in every way. The dressing is based on ajvar, a roasted red pepper dip or relish from the Balkans that you can find in Middle Easter markets or online. They call for kipler or fingerling potatoes, but this lively combo of ingredients will taste great with any variety you like. Get the Tangy Vegan Potato Salad recipe.
Related Reading: Summer Vegan & Vegetarian Recipes All Your Guests Will Love
These ultra-easy marinated potatoes count as a salad, we think. The garlic, vinegar, parsely, and queso fresco add bright sparks of flavor without drowning the earthy savor of purple potatoes, but again, the combo will taste delicious even with plainer spuds. Get the Purple Potato Salad recipe.
If you’d rather wash your hands of the whole waxy vs starchy debate, ditch potatoes entirely and make a mock potato salad with kohlrabi instead—it’s unexpected, delicious, and also happens to be a great low-carb option (key for keto BBQ guests, though you might want to cut out the honey for them). Get our Mock Potato Salad recipe.