Keys to a great potato salad

Memorable dish from the past starts with the right potatoes

click to enlarge Keys to a great potato salad
Photo by Ann Shaffer Glatz.
Dill pickle brine potato salad.

We all have nostalgic taste memories from our childhoods. It might be for things like our Mom's brownies or our grandmother's lemon meringue pie. Any discussion we might have about the best way to make a particular dish will ultimately be evaluated and compared against what you grew up with. If I were to tell you that my idea of the best potato salad was one made with Duke's Real Mayonnaise and potatoes that have been cooked until barely firm, but your nostalgic taste memory was all about your grandmother's fluffy potato salad dressed with Miracle Whip, who am I to preach? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

I love a good potato salad, so here's my take on the dish: a good potato salad starts with the right potato. Different types of potatoes have various levels of starch. Starchy potatoes like russets and Idahos (the kind you'd use for baked potatoes) break down faster in boiling water than waxy potatoes, such as Yukon Golds, fingerlings and red bliss. Waxy types carry less starch and cook up to a wetter texture. Their lower starch content means they hold their shape and can stand up to being tossed and dressed better than softer starchy ones, which can fall apart. That being said, many folks like their potato salad soft and fluffy and prefer starchy baking potatoes.

The second key to a good potato salad is to cut all the pieces to the same size. This ensures they'll cook at the same rate, avoiding undercooked crunchy or overcooked mushy potatoes. As they're peeled and cubed, they should be put into cold water. This prevents oxidation and helps remove excess starch.

The third key is to start the cooking process in cold, salted water. If you add them to water that is already boiling, the outsides will cook and turn mushy before the insides are cooked. Boiling is better than steaming because it allows the salt to penetrate the potato. Start in cold water, bring the pot to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Test for doneness by piercing a piece with a paring knife and lifting it straight up. An undercooked potato will hang onto your knife. A cooked potato will fall off the knife and back into the pot. Test your potatoes frequently; they can go from perfect doneness to mushy very quickly. Undercooked potatoes won't soak up the dressing. Overcooked potatoes will fall apart, resulting in a soupy potato salad. You want a potato that retains its bite, but not too much.

When the potatoes have reached an al dente state, drain them in a colander placed over a bowl to save some of the starchy cooking liquid. When combined with the mayonnaise, the potato starch in the cooking water will help create a silky-smooth dressing that clings to the potatoes.

A potato has a mild, earthy flavor that needs salt and acid to offset its blandness. My secret ingredient is pickle juice. The brine left over from a jar of good-quality dill pickles provides both salt and acidity. When sprinkled over still-warm, steaming potatoes, the pickle juice will seep into their centers, making them flavorful all the way through. If you wait until the potatoes have cooled down, the starch on the outside of the potato will harden and prevent the seasoning from reaching the center. I also like to amp up the flavor by adding minced shallots to the pickle juice.

The dressing should be prepared separately and gently folded into the cooled, marinated potatoes. Making the potato salad a day in advance allows the flavors to meld. I like to thin out mayonnaise with a couple of tablespoons of the starchy cooking liquid and a bit of mustard, and then add in diced celery, chopped cornichons or baby dill pickle, dill, scallions and chives.

I like my potato salad creamy, but I don't want it gloppy. I dress it with restraint, using about three-quarters of the dressing for mixing and saving the remainder to freshen the next day's leftovers. Before serving, I dust my salad with a bit of paprika to give it a bit of color, then top it with chopped hard-boiled egg and a sprinkling of fresh herbs.

Dill pickle brine potato salad
Serves 4

Ingredients:
2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and sliced into ½- to ¾-inch cubes or rounds
1 tablespoon kosher salt (for the boiling pot)
¼ cup good-quality dill pickle brine, strained
1 medium shallot, minced
¾ cup mayonnaise (I am partial to Duke's)
1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard
2 stalks celery, diced
1/4 cup chopped cornichons or baby dill pickles
4 scallions, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons of finely-sliced fresh chives, plus extra for garnish
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill, plus extra for garnish
1 teaspoon of kosher salt, plus more to taste
Several grinds of black pepper
A pinch of sweet paprika
2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped

Preparation:

Place the potatoes in a large pot with enough cold water to cover them by 1 inch and add one tablespoon of salt. Set the pan over high heat to bring to a boil, and then lower the heat, partially cover with a lid, and simmer gently until al dente. Test for doneness frequently by piercing with the tip of a small knife; the moment the potato is cooked enough to fall off the knife, drain the potatoes, but reserve some of the starchy cooking liquid. Depending on the size and type of potato, this can take anywhere from 8 to 15 minutes.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the pickle juice with the shallots. Add the drained, but still-hot potatoes and gently toss to coat. Cool in the pickle brine marinade for about 10 minutes, tossing occasionally. When the potatoes have cooled, pour off any remaining pickle brine and return the potato/shallot mixture to the mixing bowl.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, mustard, 2 tablespoons of the reserved starchy cooking liquid, celery, cornichons or baby dill pickles, scallions, chives, dill, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper.

Reserve 1/4 of the dressing to freshen any leftover potato salad the next day, then gently fold the remaining dressing into the potatoes, carefully avoiding breaking up the potatoes. Taste and, if necessary, season with more salt and pepper.

Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour to allow the flavors to meld.

When ready to serve, sprinkle with a little paprika, scatter the diced eggs and garnish with the extra chives and dill. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Peter Glatz

After the passing of his wife, Julianne (former Illinois Times food columnist), Peter Glatz decided to retire from a 40-year career as a dentist to reinvent himself as a chef at the age of 66. In his short culinary career, he has worked at Chicago’s Michelin-starred Elizabeth Restaurant, Oklahoma City’s Nonesuch...

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