Just Like Our Moms Made
For many of us in the United States, classic mayonnaise potato salad is the ultimate summer comfort food. We associate it with picnics, fried chicken, and barbeque. Hot dogs and hamburgers, too. Good times, good memories.
For a lot of us, though, the potato salad of memory has been replaced by deli fare. Either we (think) we don’t have the time to make the real thing or don’t know how.
If you’d like to recapture the taste of homemade, this post is for you.
Recipe: American Potato Salad
This classic potato salad recipe is adapted from one used by the grandmother of Mrs. Kitchen Riffs. It will serve 12 to 16 as a side dish, so you can serve it at a big summer get-together. It can easily be halved. I think it tastes better if refrigerated overnight.
- 5 pounds cooked warm potatoes cut into ¼-inch slices or ½-inch cubes (see Potato Salad Basics Recipe for note on what type of potatoes to use and how to cook them)
- 1½ to 2 cups diced yellow onion (may substitute red onion)
- 2 to 3 ribs celery, cleaned and diced
- ½ cup sweet pickle relish (may substitute finely diced dill pickle; if you do so, you may need to add a touch of sugar to the potato salad)
- ½ cup cider vinegar (white vinegar will work, but cider has better flavor; you may increase this amount somewhat if you wish)
- ¼ to ½ cup additional liquid (reserved potato cooking water, chicken stock, or vegetable stock)
- 1 to 2 teaspoons paprika (optional)
- 3 to 4 diced hard-boiled eggs (see my hard-boiled eggs post if you need instructions for this)
- ¾ to 1 cup mayonnaise (Hellmann’s – sold as Best brand in the western US – is my preferred commercial brand; Miracle Whip works well too, if you fancy that)
- 3 tablespoons minced parsley (Italian works best, although curly is fine)
- Cook potatoes using the Potato Salad Basics Recipe. Place warm potatoes in a large bowl (wider is better than deep). Add diced onion, celery, sweet pickle relish, cider vinegar, about half the additional liquid (add more if necessary once you mix everything together), salt, pepper, and paprika (if using). Gently mix everything together. You want the warm potatoes to absorb the liquids and the flavor of the onion, celery, and seasoning. This is the identical technique we used in making French Potato Salad.
- Let this mixture sit for about 10 minutes, tossing gently 2 or 3 times (gently because you don’t want to break up the potatoes). Ideally, the potatoes will absorb all of the liquid, though a small amount may remain at the bottom of the bowl.
- After 10 minutes, add the diced hard-boiled eggs, about ¾ cup of mayonnaise, and minced parsley. Gently mix, and taste. Adjust the quantity of mayonnaise to suit your taste. If mixture is too thick, you may thin with milk (I never bother with this). Add more salt, pepper, and (optional) paprika if necessary. Serve now, or refrigerate and serve later.
This is the fourth in our Potato Salad Fortnight series. The first was Potato Salad Basics Recipe, the second was French Potato Salad, and the third was a primer on how to hard-boil eggs (a necessity for American Potato Salad). Coming later this week will be German Potato Salad.
- In this classic recipe, you want the flavors of potato and mayonnaise to dominate. You also want the taste and crunch of onion and celery, but their flavors should be understated (so less is more). The hard-boiled egg pieces add a nice creaminess to the salad.
- The techniques for this recipe are basically the same as those used in French Potato Salad
- So how does this dish differ from French Potato Salad? In this American version, you use mayonnaise instead of olive oil in step 3 (while also adding eggs and sometimes other ingredients). In addition, in step 1, I don’t recommend using wine or dry vermouth as you would in French Potato Salad; the flavoring just doesn’t work.
- This recipe calls for adding cider vinegar and additional liquid (like potato cooking water) in step 1. Why? Because the warm potato slices will absorb it, and it will enhance their flavor.
- For the added liquid, why potato cooking water? Because you salted it well when cooking the potatoes and some of the potato starch leeched out into the water — giving it a mild, pleasant flavor. (I actually prefer chicken or vegetable stock for the additional liquid, but use potato cooking water if that’s all you have.)
- This recipe specifies potato slices or cubes. Both work well, though I tend to prefer cubes for this recipe.
- Which potato to use in this recipe? Any of the waxy potatoes we discussed in the Potato Salad Basics Recipe will work well, but for this recipe I favor Yukon Gold potatoes.
- For serving, I’m usually a dump-it-in-the-bowl-and-dish-it-up kinda guy. But maybe you want a fancier presentation for a special occasion. If so, you can mound the potato salad into a bowl, smooth the top, and spread a thin coat of mayonnaise on it. You can then decorate it with hard-boiled egg slices, bacon pieces, pimento — or anything else edible that strikes you as decorative and colorful.
- You can also add pimento or bacon to the potato salad itself. Say, ¾ cup canned pimento cut into pieces, or 4 to 5 strips of bacon cut into small pieces and crisply sautéed. (But if you want to use bacon in potato salad, I would strongly suggest making German Potato SaladGerman Potato Salad, which I’ll be posting about later this week.)
- You can use homemade mayonnaise in this recipe if you have it. But Hellmann’s (or Miracle Whip, if that’s your preference; see section below) offers the flavor most people remember from their past. I almost never use homemade mayo when I make potato salad.
- Mrs. Kitchen Riffs’ grandmother always added paprika to her potato salad, and it’s a nice touch. However, I prefer the appearance of the potato salad without the paprika, so I usually leave it out.
- Some people like a little ping of sweetness in their potato salad. The sweet pickle relish does add some sweetness, but if you want more, add sugar to taste.
Hellmann’s or Miracle Whip?
Miracle Whip was developed by Kraft during the Great Depression as a less expensive alternative to mayonnaise. It is technically a “salad dressing,” and it has a sweetish tang that many people like. Indeed, some people swear allegiance to Miracle Whip and despise mayonnaise such as Hellmann’s (and vice versa).
For American potato salad, I’m partial to Hellmann’s, while Mrs. Kitchen Riffs tends to prefer Miracle Whip. You might say we have a mixed marriage. But we’re reasonable sorts. Because we both prefer mayonnaise most of the time, Hellmann’s is what we generally buy (and thus generally use in our potato salad).
But occasionally, Mrs. K R gets a wistful look in her eye when we’re in the supermarket buying fixings for potato salad. Over the years, I’ve learned that’s a sign that maybe we should make our next batch with Miracle Whip.
After all, we crave a lot of foods not only because they’re good, but because of the memories they hold for us. Sometimes Miracle Whip is perfection.
You may also enjoy reading about:
Preparing Hard-Boiled Eggs
Potato Salad Basics
French Potato Salad
German Potato Salad