Technique: How to cook potatoes perfectly for salad

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:

  1. Peel the potatoes if using russets or Yukon gold. Cut out any blemishes.
  2. Cut a uniform dice. I like ½-inch pieces (or slightly larger, but not smaller).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Pour into a colander immediately when you discover the potatoes are done.
  8. 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.

Tomorrow: Lebanese potato salad, the recipe. Think lemon, onion, and mint. I have a feeling it’s going to be on your picnic table all summer long.

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36 Responses to Technique: How to cook potatoes perfectly for salad

  1. Gregory Jarous, GA says:

    I am eating Lebanese potato sald while reading this, it was made with Yukon Gold, but as you know it taste’s better a few day’s later than the day it was made, it soaked up all the juice’s, it is wonderful. I so enjoy your writing and photo’s.

  2. Jerry Wakeen says:

    Great article, hardly knew anything you mentioned in it. Thanks.

    I have to mention that when young and living at home, when mom made potato salad we often ate right after it was prepared. Which means the salad was still warmish. To this day I prefer it that way, though with modern refrigeration it is often served cold.

  3. Neeshan says:

    I’m dying for the recipe!
    Your writing is as gorgeous as your photos, recipes and you!

  4. T says:

    I am using red potatoes….do I leave the skins on? (you said peel if using russet or yukon gold….)

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Yes, leave the red skins on. Red potatoes for salad typically have the skin on because it is tender, delicious, and pretty.

  5. Randy says:

    I make a “regular” potato salad that everyone loves. The only “differences” are that I use cucumbers instead of pickle relish and I add tomatoes. Over the years I’ve tried all the varieties of potatoes and russets are by far the best–I cut big ones in half or quarters to boil. That trait of russets to crumble around the edges makes the “sauce” real creamy and delicious. I laugh when I read recipes that say “don’t use russets”

  6. Malia says:

    Amazing directions! perfect! my first attempt ever at making potato salad was a success! Thank you!!!!

  7. Ralph says:

    Thank you Maureen. I never could find out how to do my potatoe salad with the USA potatoes.
    I am used to German potatoes. Helped a lot. I was finally able to do my home Bavarian potatoe salad. Thank you.

  8. Mykell says:

    Maureen-
    Thank you so very much for this fantastic and helpful technique! I am a not a novice at making potato salad but did enjoy reading your post outlining the difference in potatoes. It was definitely an educational read!

    When first attempting to make potato salad, I had a difficult time getting potato chunks and many times ended up with mashed potato salad…not very enticing, to say the least…although the taste was great. LOL Now I realize it was as simple as letting the potatoes cool before folding the other ingredients in. Our favorite potato salad is a tangy, mustardy, dill relishy version. I didn’t even realize there were sweet potato salads until I had my mother-in-law’s. While it is good, I still like my mustard & dill pickles (no celery, please)!

    Anyway, thank you again for a fantastic article and I pinned it to my Pinterest pin board to share with the world! Have a great day! :-)

    • Maureen Abood says:

      How fantastic! Your potato salad sounds wonderful…thank you for your lovely comment and for sharing the method of how to cook potatoes for potato salad!!

  9. Marghurita says:

    I love reading your tips & comments. I have been making potato salad for many years. Too numerous to mention. My mother-in-law shared her recipe with me and I get so many compliments when I serve it. The best compliment came from my father-in-law.. We had a family reunion one year and he was eating the potato salad and said to my mother-in-law: ” Mary, this is the best yet”. She winked at me and little did he know that I made it. We never told him. My recipe is very simple.. Either Yukon Gold or Russets. Salt to taste. Sweet pickle juice.. Rich egg Mayo..Tad, prepared mustard…Hard boiled eggs, chopped..Finely minced onion, white or yellow…When done, sprinkle paprika on top.

    • Patricia Trapani says:

      I’ve made my potato salad just as you described for years and I got the recipe from my Mother who always prepared it the same way. It is still the best I’ve ever had.

  10. Susan Kearney says:

    Ugh, I’ve already put my red potatoes in the pot and I didn’t cut them up. Was thinking this would help then not overcook. I will just keep checking them as you said and hopefully they will turn out well. My recipe calls for mayo, sour cream, chopped onions,horseradish and parsley. VERY yummy!

  11. L:yle Luther says:

    I am 79 years young and recently widowed.
    My late wife made delicious potato salad
    I have never cooked
    I have been spoiled
    I made hard boiled eggs today for the first time in my life
    Will try your recipe for potato salad tomorrow

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Rest her soul! Good for you for stepping into the kitchen. Your salad will be delicious, and your wife would be proud!

  12. Shnay says:

    Is it better to boil the potatoes with the skin on? I’ve read so many different things. I’d prefer to boil with the skin off but seems as if they can overcook too easily. I think I’m going to try the above tips and peel them this time and just see if it works out better?

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Hi Shnay–I always peel the potatoes first and just monitor them closely while they cook, checking them often, to gauge doneness. I do cook sweet potatoes with the skins on, though!

  13. Shnay says:

    Is it better to boil with or without the skin? They fall apart when I boil without the skin but it seems easier to cut them up that way.

  14. Robyn says:

    Your link was at the top of the Google page list and after reading your column I decided to try it out. I just finished cooking the red potatoes as you suggested for a traditional potato salad. I usually use russet, but I bought a big bag of these and they needed to be used. They turned out perfectly. Usually, I am guilty of either over cooking or under cooking them, but this time I stood by the stove and checked with the tip of a thin steak knife. Wonderful! Everything is organic and I’m using homemade mayonnaise for the first time as well. I can hardly wait for dinner! Today, it’s all about patience. Thank you.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      That is so great Robyn, thank you! I wish I could have a nice big spoonful of your potato salad…it sounds delicious!

  15. Mary says:

    I’m so glad I found your posting about potato salad. I have to make a large batch for a party this Saturday & I was afraid I would overcook the potatoes as I have so many times before. I really think your information will help me tremendously. It is so very nice that you’ve shared this with others. Thank you…Mary

    • Maureen Abood says:

      How kind of you, Mary. Thanks so much and I know everyone will enjoy your potato salad at the party this weekend!

  16. Randy says:

    You are so right about russets making the best potato salad. I’ve tried every kind of potato for ever kind of potato salad and russets win, hands down, every time. I wait until they’re cooked to cut them up. The outside is “overcooked” by the time the inside is properly done but I discovered that makes the salad even better–the overdone part blends with the mayonnaise or what ever you use, making it creamier and smoother tasting.

  17. Kathy Way says:

    Your comments on how the different potatoes cook-up and recommendations on recipes to use each type of potatoe was very helpful. What I found extremely helpful was how to get the texture right for various potatoes and recipes. I never knew there was an exact science to it! Cover the potatoes just about a inch over with water, put lid on until they come to a boil, take lid off and cool 16 minutes (for red skin potatoes), testing for almost al dents and quickly pour them into a colander to drain (add: be careful of steam as you pour them into the colander, pour away from you) They came out perfectly! Thanks for sharing your expertise! I look forward to trying your recipes! Any help with low calorie, great tasting recipes would be gratefully appreciated!
    Thanks and Happy Cooking! God bless!

  18. Nancy @ Little Homestead in Boise says:

    Interesting- I’ve never heard of dicing them before you cook them. My Grandma taught me to cook them raw in 1/4s, dice after chilling…

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Nancy, I’m intrigued and will try your grandma’s method!

    • Patricia Trapani says:

      I too have always cooked my russet potatoes with the skin on and then diced. I’m making potato salad today so I think I’ll try peeling the potatoes first to see if there is any difference in the finished product.

  19. Peter says:

    Thanks Maureen for sharing! I followed your instructions, used Russet potatoes, and they came out great. My potato salad had the right amount of bite and softness, and it is the first time I got it right. Thanks to you! Clapclapclap, Peter

  20. Holly says:

    Needed cooking time on boiling potatoes. This is perfect. I have only made potato salad twice and I have roasted the potatoes. They come out delicious but making it for Mom’s 4th of July Birthday picnic tomorrow and she prefers the potatoes softer. When I ask her how to tell if the potatoes are boiled enough, she says “you just do”. Thank you for the information!

  21. Robert McEvoy says:

    Yellow mustard and eggs gave the pot salad yellowy appearance that some found unappealing..

    • Gary says:

      Robert – “some” need to close their eyes and let their taste buds rule the day. Nothing better “yellow” potato salad with that hint of mustard. If the eggs are chopped fine – like the onion – they’ll never know they are there. :-)

 

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