Perhaps the most vexing thing about making potato salad is cooking the potatoes properly. They are a little like pasta in this regard, but potatoes don’t have the same breaking point leeway that pasta has. Take them 30 seconds beyond just right, and here come the mashed potatoes.
As we discussed yesterday, different types of potatoes have varying levels of starch. This means that really starchy potatoes, like russet or Idaho (the ones used for baked potatoes), are going to break down more quickly in boiling water than low-starch Yukon gold or red/new potatoes.
Yet the very thing about russets—their desire to go for mush—is what makes them taste so good in Lebanese potato salad. They absorb flavor more readily than Yukon gold or red potatoes, which is key to making our super delicious, super healthy potato salad. I had never made it with anything but russets, so just to be sure we weren’t missing out on something special, I auditioned all three varieties of potatoes.
The Yukon gold were great in that they held their shape so well and had that buttery golden color, but they didn’t take on the flavor of the dressing as well as russets. As for the red potatoes…forget about it. They may be pretty, and God knows I love the pretty, but the Lebanese dressing fell to the bottom of the bowl and the potatoes tasted simply like insipid boiled potatoes. And I’m no Irishman, despite my first name.
To cook perfect potatoes for potato salad, whichever type you choose, the key is to stay close to the pot and check the potatoes frequently for doneness. Using a timer is helpful, but nothing replaces being there. Since the size of your dice may vary, and the amount of potatoes and the amount of water they’re cooked in will likely change a bit each time you make them, all of that adds up to variables that don’t always respond the same to a set cooking time. The solution is to stand in front of the stove and take care of your potatoes, and if you must multitask, as I often do, make sure it’s something that doesn’t move you away from that space.
Here’s the technique:
- Peel the potatoes if using russets or Yukon gold. Cut out any blemishes.
- Cut a uniform dice. I like ½-inch pieces (or slightly larger, but not smaller).
- Place the potatoes in a sauce pan and cover by about an inch with COLD water. Always start with cold water. If you boil the water first, the potatoes won’t cook as evenly (the exterior will cook too fast). I also salt my water with about a teaspoon of kosher salt.
- Cover the pan and bring the water to a boil. Then reduce the heat to medium and remove the lid so the water doesn’t boil over, and so you can keep a close eye on the potatoes.
- Pierce the potatoes with the tip of a paring knife every minute or so at this stage. Look for a little resistance. If the potato cracks apart or the knife slides right through rapidly, the potato is overcooked.
- Taste the potatoes each time you check them with the knife. Your sample should have some body to it, an al dente quality. It should seem slightly undercooked and should fully retain its shape still. Remember that the potatoes will keep cooking a bit from the residual heat even after the water is poured off of them.
- Pour into a colander immediately when you discover the potatoes are done.
- My russets cooked in 13 minutes. Yukon gold: 15 minutes. Red potatoes: 16 minutes.
Will perfectly cooked russets still get a little crumbly around the edges? Yes. Is this a problem? Not at all! In fact, the bit of crumble mixes with the dressing and makes for a kind of coating on the potatoes.