How to make the perfect potato salad

Anna Marie Julyan
by Anna Marie Julyan  |  28 June 2011  |   12 comments

Potato salad with the new season's crop will be extra special if you follow these top tips.

How to make the perfect potato salad

Potato salad is most commonly known as the stodgy bit to accompany light summer salads and barbecued meats. How hard can it be? But, at the risk of going all Marks & Spencer here, I’m not just talking about any chilled chopped potato and Hellman’s, I’m talking about a dish delicious in its own right.

On my quest to discover the experts’ top tips I started, yet again where all culinary challenges logically begin, with cookery bible Larousse Gastronomique. Quel surprise, however, when I find listed under potato: salads not one, but 13 different versions, all from different countries and each containing a host of extra ingredients.

I go back to the drawing board and turn to Constance Spry. Described as the original domestic goddess, Spry invented coronation chicken for the Queen’s ascent to the throne in 1953. If anyone should know about potato salad, it is she.

Sure enough, Spry’s version comprises boiled new potatoes and home-made mayonnaise as well as a sharp French dressing with added mustard (three parts oil, one part wine vinegar and a good half teaspoon each of salt and freshly milled black pepper). She adds the dressing to the warm potatoes then chills before combining with mayonnaise.

It soon becomes clear that as many chefs have different versions as do the countries listed in Larousse. Taking all their advice on board, however, I learn there are a number of tips guaranteed to make your potato salad perfect.

Choose the right variety of potato

You don’t need me to say here that home-grown will always taste best, but the key rules to follow are to choose either salad potatoes or a waxy early variety.

Salad potatoes can be new or maincrop potatoes and include Charlotte and Pink Fir Apple. They have a slightly thicker skin than new potatoes, but share the same texture and full flavour. New potatoes are traditionally harvested in Spring and early Summer. Varieties perfect for potato salad include Maris Bard, Maris Peer, Rocket, Kipfler and Belle de Fontenay.

Store your potatoes correctly

The basic rule here is that new potatoes should be eaten within two or three days to prevent mould forming. In general, potatoes should be kept somewhere dark, dry and cool to prevent them from sprouting. A paper bag is good because it is breathable. The dampness of a cold fridge will make them sweaty and mouldy.

Steam or boil potatoes in their skins and don’t scrape them

Another doyenne of British cooking, Elizabeth David, insists that new potatoes should be placed direct into boiling water, not cold. It is a method followed by Nigella, Jamie, Delia and Nigel Slater. To find out why I look in a fantastic book called ‘Potato’ by Alex Barker and Sally Mansfield.

It explains that new potatoes have a higher Vitamin C content than maincrop varieties and so should not be left soaking to prevent the vitamin leaching out into the water.

Delia Smith recommends washing new potatoes, but not scraping them, as there is a lot of flavour in their delicate skins.

Add fresh mint to the boiling water along with your potatoes

This is a good hint if you’re trying to go easy on the butter, as it adds an extra and complimentary flavour.

Dress the potatoes while still warm and chop to maximise surface area

All the experts agree that adding dressing to warm potatoes will ensure they absorb the maximum amount of flavour, making for a tastier potato salad. This is one of Constance Spry’s two ‘points of importance’ for making potato salad.

Leaving skins on and chopping is more contentious; some, like Jamie Oliver, Nigel Slater and Constance Spry leave skins on. Others, like Elizabeth David, Simon Hopkinson peel and slice potatoes (while still warm)

Use some sort of sharp ingredient in your dressing

This is the second piece of advice from Constance Spry, and one that is backed up by Nigel Slater, who says he finds the buttery texture of a traditional salad spud too cloying once dressed with an oily mayo.

Constance recommends using capers, sliced gherkin or sliced pickled onions, and Nigel suggests a ‘bright, sassy sauce’ of oil, lemon, capers and parsley.

Serve at room temperature

No food tastes at its best when straight out of the fridge.

The ultimate potato salad recipe: one with a creamy sauce, one without

Simon Hopkinson’s simple new potato salad is, I think, lovely. He steams or simmers 700g of new potatoes and peels them when just cool enough to handle, slicing them into a bowl.

He makes a dressing by whizzing up two tablespoons each of smooth Dijon mustard, white wine vinegar and water into a blender, along with seasoning. He then adds 325ml sunflower oil in a thin stream, tastes and adds water to make the consistency of salad cream.

He sprinkles chopped chives or spring onions over the chopped potatoes and gently turns them in enough dressing to coat. [From Simon Hopkinson, The Vegetarian Option]

For Delia Smith’s lovely Warm Potato Salad with Lemon and Chive Vinaigrette, go here.

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