We’ve all been there, and we’ve been miserable. Standing in the shade, red Solo cup in hand, chatting with a neighbor whose name you’re never able to remember. She brought potato salad to the party — or at least that’s what she calls it, but for some reason, it’s orange. “It’s garam masala!” she says in a cheerful tone, placing the dish at the end of the buffet table, directly in the sunlight where you can watch the mayonnaise start to bubble in the sweltering July heat.
Let’s all vow to not let this happen this summer. Instead, let’s heed the advice of a couple of our favorite area chefs and take control of our potato salad experiences this season by sticking to the classics.
“Potato salad is highly personal,” says chef Mike Moore of the new whole-hog barbecue joint Old Etowah Smokehouse, which opened this spring near the Etowah Valley Golf Club. “At any given family reunion or church homecoming you may see seven different variations.”
Moore shares the story of his two aunts who made potato salad for every Fourth of July family cookout. “One aunt used hard-boiled eggs, Duke’s mayo and sweet pickles. The other aunt used grain-mustard vinaigrette and a packet of Piggly Wiggly powdered ranch dressing. It was like war seeing whose casserole dish was empty by the end of the night with whispers in the ear, head-shaking and back-talking each other. Potato salad is as personal as barbecue, for unto these things you will be judged highly in the American southland,” Moore says, adding, “Don’t ever underestimate Piggly Wiggly powdered ranch dressing.”
All those variations can draw ire or lofty praise depending on numerous details. The hardest part about potato salad is that there are so many elements to screw up. Each step can be intimidating and result in errors.
“Salting your water is a good start,” says Adam Thome of 67 Biltmore. “It really starts with just cooking the potatoes right, and salting the water is a big part of that. Also, you don’t want to undercook them, but you also can’t hammer them to where they just fall apart either.” He recommends checking on them after about 10 minutes in boiling water.
Moore agrees. “There’s nothing worse than al dente potato salad. If this happens to you, you’ll be asked to bring the rolls to the next family reunion,” he says. Another suggestion he has for prepping that main ingredient just right is: “Always start your potatoes in cold water. This ensures even cooking and less starch.” Moore also recommends using Yukon, fingerling or red potatoes because other types can be too starchy to make a good salad.
“Occasionally we’ll roast potatoes and do a roasted potato salad,” says Thome, offering a variation he’s found to popular over the years at the café. “A boiled potato will absorb the dressing a little more, but the roasted ones just give you that nice, crunchy skin texture. You can even do a vinaigrette version for that dressing.
“Most of the time around here, in order to keep it more accessible, we use a Dijonnaise kind of dressing with some whole-grain mustard and mayo,” he adds. “We usually throw in a little apple cider vinegar and fresh thyme in there as well.”
If you’re trying to make a vegan option, Thome advises, “Try marinating it in an herb vinegarette. We don’t use a lot of veganaise and stuff like that. Instead of replicating a vegan version of something, it’s usually better to just go a different route and make something new.”
Beyond the potatoes, there’s also the onions to worry about. “The salad is best eaten the day it is made as the onion gets stronger and stronger as it sits,” says Moore. “In a restaurant, we’ll withhold the scallion or red onion until it’s served.” However, he says you can also soak the onion in salted water before adding to the salad to take away some of the bite.
Moore’s final technique is a crucial one. “Always mix your potato salad while the potatoes are still warm — not hot,” he advises. “You’ll get more flavor, and the ingredients meld better under temperature. Since the potatoes absorb the mayonnaise and seasonings while they cool, you’ll want to mix in more mayonnaise than you think is necessary at first.”
Thome also offers some advice about serving and food safety. “You probably want to keep it out of the sun. If there’s a buffet, don’t set it up in the hot July sun. Nobody likes that hot, oily mayonnaise,” he says. “Keep that potato salad in the shade. Nobody wants food poisoning.”