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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 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.
Another way to spice up potato salad? Add smoky chipotle and jalapeño peppers, which work particularly well with starchy sweet potatoes. Try these with a rack of saucy, smoky, spicy ribs, and palate-cleansing grilled corn on the side. Get the recipe.
Yukon Gold potatoes join forces with bacon, capers, and golden-brown onions for a mayo-free potato salad that’s nonetheless pretty decadent. Get our Warm German Potato Salad with Bacon recipe.
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 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. Get our Mock Potato Salad recipe.
Related Video: Southern-Style Potato Salad
Header image courtesy of Jessica Gavin.