Potato salad is the Great American Blank Canvas. Almost any ingredient you can imagine has been added to it, and usually with pretty great results. It's hard to mess up a potato salad.
But there's one simple trick that will make potato salad great. Dress the potatoes while they're still warm. Simple right? But it makes such a big difference.
Here's why: After the potatoes have cooled, the waxy starches on the surface won't absorb flavor nearly as readily as they will while they are still warm. If you want to know the science behind it, it's got to do with the same retrogradation of starch that stales bread and firms rice for stir-frying.
This is because as the starch on the outside of the potato cools, it hardens and keeps any seasoning from reaching the center. Season while the potatoes are still slightly steaming and they'll be flavorful all the way through.
What kind of dressing should you use? What have you got? It can be as simple as a sprinkling of vinegar, or it can be a bit of the same composed vinaigrette or compound mayonnaise you'll be using to finish the dish.
And don't be stingy with the acidity, whatever the dressing. Potatoes are naturally bland, but a good shot of vinegar will give them the flavor backbone they need to taste their best. Similarly, salt fairly aggressively, particularly if the salad is going to be served cold.
Need some ideas for potato salads? We've got four recipes that range from homespun to fairly fanciful. Here's one that's perfect for any picnic.
POTATO SALAD WITH CELERY AND RED ONION
Total time: 45 minutes, plus cooling time | Serves 6
2 pounds waxy potatoes, unpeeled
2 1/2 teaspoons shallots
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/3 cup oil
1 cup chopped celery (about 4 stalks)
1/3 cup diced red onion
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped parsley
1. Place the potatoes in a large saucepan, barely cover with water, add 1 tablespoon salt and bring to a simmer. Maintain a gentle simmer until the potatoes can be pierced easily with a paring knife, 20 to 30 minutes, depending on their size.
2. While the potatoes are cooking, prepare the vinaigrette. Place the shallots in a small bowl and cover with the vinegar. Let stand until the shallots have softened slightly, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the mustard, oil and 1/2 teaspoon salt until the mixture is smooth and creamy.
3. Drain the potatoes. As soon as they are barely cool enough to handle, cut them into bite-size pieces. If you prefer potatoes peeled, do this first -- the skins will pull away easily with a paring knife.
4. Place the potatoes in a large mixing bowl. While they are still very warm, pour over the vinaigrette and toss to combine. Set aside until cool.
5. When almost ready to serve, add the celery, onion and parsley and stir to combine. Salt to taste and serve.
Each of 6 servings:
220 calories; 3 grams protein; 26 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 12 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 2 grams sugar; 238 mg. sodium.