By Kemp Minifie, Gourmet
Potato salad is one of those summertime staples that is predictable, but rarely memorable. Yet there's no reason why it shouldn't be outstanding every time. Ten tips I've gleaned over years of trial and error in the kitchen will make the difference between ho-hum and "Wow, how'd you make this?"
1. You Say Potato and I Say Waxy:
- Texture is crucial. You want spuds that hold their shape when cooked, delivering a dense, waxy chew. Skip russet (baking) potatoes; they fall apart in a salad.
- My favorites are small white, yellow, or red thin-skinned potatoes (about 2 inches in diameter). And if they're newly dug, even better!
2. Keep Their Jackets On:
- Cook the potatoes whole, with their skins intact. By keeping them whole, you retain the natural moisture balance in the potato.
3. Don't Skimp on Salt for the Cooking Water:
-This single step will work magic on your salad. Cook potatoes in generously salted water to bring out their wonderfully earthy flavor. You won't taste the salt; you'll just taste potatoes to the max. Potatoes cooked in unsalted water and seasoned afterwards will taste of salt, but not of potato.
- Start potatoes in cold water, enough to cover them by about 1½ inches. And use about 1 tablespoon salt for every quart of water.
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4. Slow Down! Simmer, Don't Boil Potatoes:
- Start the potatoes in cold salted water and once it comes to a boil, turn the heat down to a simmer. Potatoes should cook peacefully, and not bash each other in a rolling boil!
- Small potatoes take about 12 to 18 minutes to cook. Don't walk away. Start testing the smallest potatoes with a wooden skewer at 12 minutes, and remove each potato just as it becomes tender enough for the skewer to slide through easily.
5. Wilt Onion While Potatoes are Cooking:
- Freshly chopped onion is a great addition, but temper it's raw side by wilting it slightly. While the potatoes simmer, toss the onion with salt, and let it sit.
- For 3 pounds potatoes, I use 1 cup chopped sweet onion with 1 teaspoon salt.
6. Peel and Cut Potatoes While They're Still Warm:
- Many cooks keep the potato skins on for salads, but I say peel 'em! I'm no fan of boiled potato skins, particularly because some can have an unpleasant acrid flavor. Peeling may sound tedious, but it actually goes pretty fast, especially if the potatoes are still warm. Just pinch the skin and pull it off in thin sheets.
- Once they're peeled, halve the smallest and quarter the others and toss with the wilted onions and a little white wine vinegar. For 3 pounds potatoes, I use 2 tablespoons vinegar.
7. Celery For Crunch:
- Freshly chopped celery adds a welcome crunch to your salad. For 3 pounds potatoes, use about 1 cup chopped. Include some of the celery leaves, too.
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8. Hard-Boiled Eggs:
- It's a matter of taste. Chopped hard-boiled eggs add yet another texture. Allow about 1 egg per pound of potatoes.
9. The All-Important Dressing:
- Use your favorite store-bought mayonnaise. Do-It-Yourself types will cry heresy that it's not homemade, but I'm more concerned with food safety. Commercial mayonnaise is made with powdered egg yolk, not fresh uncooked yolks.
- But don't stop with just mayonnaise. Jazz it up with some Dijon mustard and lemon juice. For 3 pounds potatoes, I recommend ½ cup mayonnaise, 2 or more teaspoons Dijon mustard, and 2 tablespoons lemon juice.
- Potatoes continue to absorb dressing, so if you salad starts to look a bit dry, stir in a tablespoon or more of water.
- Herbs give you color and flavor. Parsley and chives are the most common, but tarragon, mint, dill, cilantro, oregano, thyme, and marjoram all work well, too.
- Try mixing a couple of them. I use about ¼ cup chopped herbs for 3 pounds of potatoes, less if using a strongly flavored one, such as thyme or tarragon. Add the herbs in small batches and taste until it's just right for you!
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