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:

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  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.

Also! For the very finest Lebanese ingredients, including my specialty peeled chickpeas, za’atar spice blend, and imported Lebanese olive oil and flower waters, click here!

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82 Comments

  1. Gregory Jarous, GA on June 6, 2012 at 12:10 PM

    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 on June 6, 2012 at 1:38 PM

    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 on June 10, 2013 at 5:09 PM

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

    • Maureen Abood on June 10, 2013 at 6:10 PM

      Neeshan, thank you so much!

  4. T on June 17, 2013 at 4:24 PM

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

    • Maureen Abood on June 17, 2013 at 4:26 PM

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

  5. Randy on June 23, 2013 at 9:53 AM

    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 on July 3, 2013 at 9:26 PM

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

  7. Ralph on July 4, 2013 at 12:07 PM

    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 on July 26, 2013 at 10:35 AM

    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 on July 28, 2013 at 3:36 PM

      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 on September 4, 2013 at 7:27 PM

    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 on July 4, 2014 at 8:36 AM

      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 on September 7, 2013 at 4:31 PM

    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!

    • Maureen Abood on September 8, 2013 at 7:17 AM

      I’m sure they came out great Susan! Your recipe sounds wonderful…. Thanks for commenting!

  11. L:yle Luther on November 12, 2013 at 1:45 PM

    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 on November 12, 2013 at 1:52 PM

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

  12. Shnay on December 12, 2013 at 2:46 PM

    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 on December 12, 2013 at 2:48 PM

      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 on December 12, 2013 at 2:47 PM

    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 on March 7, 2014 at 7:36 PM

    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 on March 8, 2014 at 1:54 PM

      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 on March 20, 2014 at 11:59 AM

    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 on March 20, 2014 at 10:20 PM

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

  16. Randy on April 20, 2014 at 12:49 PM

    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 on May 26, 2014 at 12:21 AM

    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!

    • Maureen Abood on May 26, 2014 at 1:24 PM

      That’s terrific, thank you Kathy!

  18. Nancy @ Little Homestead in Boise on June 9, 2014 at 4:36 PM

    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 on June 10, 2014 at 10:34 AM

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

      • Kkay on July 3, 2014 at 11:11 PM

        That’s how I was taught too

    • Patricia Trapani on July 4, 2014 at 8:32 AM

      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 on June 24, 2014 at 9:18 PM

    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

    • Maureen Abood on June 25, 2014 at 7:31 PM

      How cool, and clapclapclap to you!

  20. Holly on July 3, 2014 at 9:48 AM

    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 on July 5, 2014 at 12:25 PM

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

    • Gary on July 9, 2014 at 3:05 PM

      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. 🙂

  22. Vicki on August 12, 2014 at 12:00 PM

    I am cooking my brothers recipe for potato salad it is the best I’ve ever had. I’m about to start cooking it and I’ve never made it before. He told me to peel the red potatoes but don’t over boil them obviously, but I’m new to this kitchen and don’t want to ruin the potatoes by cooking them too long, any suggestions?

    • Maureen Abood on August 14, 2014 at 11:19 AM

      See all of the suggestions in my post, Vicki, to help get them done perfectly–main thing is to keep checking them along the way and to take them out just shy of soft.

  23. JOan on August 13, 2014 at 5:49 PM

    I am 64 yrs. old and have never been able to make potatoe salad correctly. The potatoes were either undercooked or overcooked but today that changed. Thank you for this easy understandable recipe. I am making it from now on. No more store bought.

    • Maureen Abood on August 14, 2014 at 11:18 AM

      That is GREAT Joan!

  24. Heather Campbell on August 14, 2014 at 1:15 PM

    My dad was a cool for his national guard unit when they had their weekend obligations. He said they always boiled potatoes with the skins on just til the water started to boil and then covered the pan and let them completely cool. I have done it this way always and have always had perfect potatoes for my potato salad. I usually boil them the night before and then in the morning drain them and put in the fridge for a couple hrs.

  25. Diane Nassir (My maternal grandmother was an Abowd) on September 1, 2014 at 1:19 PM

    Luv luv luv Lebanese Potato Salad–it is the best. Love your column, I learn so much–never knew this was Lebanese–thought my Mother made it up–and, not the least, I love the word ‘insipid’–not many of us use it these days-

  26. Arlene on September 20, 2014 at 10:08 AM

    OMGosh Maureen!

    I needed to make a potato salad for a tailgate today (I just can’t bring myself to get store bought) But I dread it because truly the hardest part is the cooking of the potato. My mother had a knack in the kitchen cooking the potatoes whole and sometimes peeled off the skin after the boiling process. I never could master that.

    So I went online looking for a better way and viola! It worked! I’m so excited I can use my mom’s ingredients and will never avoid making potato salad again. I’m 58 and you’d think I could have figured it out by now!

    Thanks so much.

    Arlene

    • Maureen Abood on September 26, 2014 at 9:01 AM

      That is SO great Arlene, thank you!

  27. Judi on October 4, 2014 at 12:10 PM

    Thanks for telling us not just how to do the steps but also why you do it that way. It helps a lot and I will remember the steps better that way too. Have an awesome day – I know I will -I’ll have potato salad after al!!!

  28. Jennifer Brennan on December 20, 2014 at 4:58 PM

    Why do you use Kosher Salt what is the difference is it only because you are of Jewish Religion or for the cooking value please dont get offended i am just curios if the kosher salt makes a difference Kind Regards Jenny

    • Maureen Abood on December 22, 2014 at 11:20 AM

      Hi Jenny–great question! Many cooks and chefs use Kosher salt because it is a coarser grain than table salt, and easier to feel in the hand and measure that way, without measuring spoons. Kosher salt also has better flavor than regular table salt! Note that kosher salt is not as salty as table salt, so they are not always an even substitution in recipes.

  29. Theresa Thompson on December 27, 2014 at 11:05 AM

    Should have specified that I use red potatoes and boil them skin-on. My previous comment: to avoid ending up with mashed potatoe salad, you can also cut them in half after cooking them and leave them in the fridge for 1 or 2 days, uncovered. They will dry out and give you more chunks than flakes when u cut them up. Thanks.

    • Maureen Abood on December 29, 2014 at 6:52 AM

      Great idea Theresa, thank you!

  30. Dawn Robertson on January 23, 2015 at 12:38 PM

    When making potato salad, is it best to let the potatoes cool before mixing in the ingredients? Or mix while they are still warm?

    • Maureen Abood on January 23, 2015 at 1:52 PM

      Hi Dawn–great question. For Lebanese potato salad (recipe here), the ingredients are mixed in while the potatoes are warm, and it’s served warm. For mayo-based potato salad, cool the potatoes and then chill the salad immediately after combining everything.

  31. Sharon on May 9, 2015 at 11:21 AM

    Is the suggested cooking time from when you start to heat the water or from when it comes to avoid?

    • Maureen Abood on May 9, 2015 at 10:50 PM

      Great question Sharon. This is from when you start to heat the water.

  32. Sharon on May 10, 2015 at 7:44 AM

    Thanks. I hope you realized auto correct, for some reason changed “boil” to “avoid”!

  33. Tonya on May 22, 2015 at 3:03 AM

    I already mixed my potatoe salad and when tasting it realized some of my potatoes are a little hard is there anyway I can fix this without remaking.thank you

    • Maureen Abood on May 22, 2015 at 9:33 AM

      Tonya, you can try microwaving the salad in short increments, like 30 seconds at a time, to try to cook the potatoes further!

  34. Kelley on May 23, 2015 at 4:33 PM

    Just a question for Maureen. Did the cooking times you gave begin after the pot came to boil and you uncovered it? Thanks.

    Kelley

    • Maureen Abood on May 24, 2015 at 10:45 PM

      Hi Kelley–start timing once the water comes to a boil!

  35. Lori lathrom on July 2, 2015 at 4:52 AM

    My Mom taught me to make potatoe salad by boiling whole russet potatoes. It’s a time consuming pain in the butt. While working in the food service industry I learned to use leftover baked potatoes. But who wants to heat up the house on hot summer day? Your method sounds SO much easier, and I can’t wait to try it. Why didn’t I think of it before?!?

  36. Don Odiorne on July 31, 2015 at 12:03 PM

    With russets the real trick is to not boil whole but to do exactly what you recommended and cut up into even sized pieces. Doneness varies, I like to pierce a chunk of cooked potato and see if it will mush with a fork to know it is fully cooked. Letting the potato cool helps a lot in keeping the chunks whole, but like a lot of the responses I like a little crumbling as it makes the dressing creamier.

  37. Janis on March 24, 2016 at 4:25 PM

    If you want a really great taste add sliced olives in,(if you like olives)!

  38. Carol on July 6, 2016 at 7:40 PM

    I cooked potatoes today and they not only split they where stringy when I cut them ! What your answere for that ??

    • Maureen Abood on July 22, 2016 at 11:24 AM

      Perhaps it was the quality and type of potato!

  39. Joto Grande on August 12, 2016 at 2:30 AM

    I have a lot of luck cooking potatoes whole and then cutting them up for the salad – only a little cooling makes this manageable and will give some mush to the outside that will marry the ingredients better (so you won’t have to wait those few days for better taste). Speaking of marrying, when the potatoes are cut and still warm-hot you can put in all spices and bathe in vinegar, olive oil, and mustard and add any veggies (have everything ready – prep while the potatoes boil). Give it a good toss and it will be cool enough to add mayonnaise. When mayonnaise is added, stir well to mix the mashed residuals with the spices and everything else. Adding the oil and a little mashed content can help you cut down significantly on mayonnaise. One of the best uses ever for leftover potato salad? Enchilada stuffing!

  40. diana Eppens on March 18, 2017 at 3:52 PM

    Hi Maureen, Just love your site. My deceased husband of whom I was married for 46 years was of Lebanese descent. I loved and adored his mother. I just wanted to mention that she did one thing in making Tabouli that I have never read or seen anyone do though I would pass it along to you. She would rinse her wheat fine grind once with cold water then she would have her fresh lemon juice ready and she would soak her wheat in lemon juice and salt until she was ready to add it to the parsley. She used sour salt as well and would sprinkle it on the wheat being careful because it is strong. I have made it both ways and I think her way was superior. Also when she would make zattar bread she added sour salt to her mix of sumac and zattar. She used sour salt for many things, her theory was that some fresh lemons had a zest and some were lacking. If you don’t know about it you can buy it from your mid-east shops. You are a darling lady and I miss all of them so much. Diana

    • Maureen Abood on March 20, 2017 at 2:49 PM

      Thank you so much Diana, for your kind words and your terrific tips!

  41. Kerry on May 10, 2018 at 3:50 PM

    Thank you! Almost six years after your original post, this is still extremely helpful. For once, my potatoes for potato salad turned out perfect.

    • Maureen Abood on May 11, 2018 at 10:07 AM

      That’s so great, thanks Kerry!

  42. KEN on June 5, 2018 at 11:17 AM

    try this….peel and cut your potatoes to bite size. Then steam them for exactly 12 minutes. cool and dry on paper towels before adding to other ingredients.

    • Maureen Abood on June 5, 2018 at 5:48 PM

      Thank you Ken for the method!

  43. Jo on August 31, 2018 at 8:00 PM

    Hi. I was wondering why you don’t suggest steaming the potatoes since they are so affected by water? The skins are a cinch to scrape off with a paring knife after they’ve cooled enough to handle. I have been steaming them for years and I do prefer the russets for the same reason you say. They absorb the dressing you use, no matter what one.

    • Maureen Abood on September 5, 2018 at 3:48 PM

      Beautiful idea! Can’t wait to try it!

  44. teachermrw on May 27, 2019 at 9:00 AM

    Thank you for your post. I suppose it’s a matter of personal preference. However, the way my mom taught me how to boil potatoes for potato salad: Boil with the skins on, then allow them to cool completely before mixing into a salad. When boiled without the skin, it’s easier to overcook the potatoes that way. Also, the texture, at least to me, seems mushier. Russets are the classic potato for potato salad. Something about the yellowish color of Yukon golds I don’t find personally appealing for potato salad.

    • Maureen Abood on May 28, 2019 at 8:18 AM

      Thank you for sharing your method and favorite ways with us!

  45. Nada Saoud on September 8, 2019 at 3:56 PM

    Hello. I made this today for the first time (my mom and aunts have made in the past) and was so worried about getting mushy potatoes that I think I undercooked. They were al dente with just hint of resistance when I drained them; however most of the dressing puddled on the bottom of the bowl and didn’t absorb. I’m guessing that is why the dressing didn’t all absorb?
    I’ll have to make again and boil the potatoes longer. Thank you for the recipe.

    • Maureen Abood on September 9, 2019 at 10:18 AM

      Nada, this sure can take a little practice to get the potatoes just how you like them. I agree that the dressing should absorb better if the potatoes aren’t too al dente. Thanks for sharing!

  46. Lisa on November 28, 2019 at 6:03 AM

    Perfect! Thank You

    • Maureen Abood on December 2, 2019 at 8:17 AM

      Thanks Lisa!

  47. witclcik on September 28, 2020 at 2:15 AM

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

    • Maureen Abood on September 28, 2020 at 11:19 AM

      Thank you so very much. The recipe is here!

  48. l'Editrix on January 1, 2022 at 10:21 PM

    A tip to keep you from overcooking your russets is to add a teaspoon or two (depending on amount of potatoes) of vinegar to the water at the beginning. The vinegar helps to solidify just the outside surface of the cube of potato. Crumbling is far less likely. You still don’t want to overcook the potatoes because they lose flavor. The vinegar is like insurance against mashed potato salad, plus the sharp edges look prettier. The russet still soaks up flavor, especially when hot.
    This is an old post, so I hope this helps somebody. All the recipes here are fantastic. Thank you.

    • Maureen Abood on January 5, 2022 at 12:12 PM

      How intriguing, thank you so much! I’m going to try it!

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I'm so glad you're here! You'll find among these pages the fresh and classic Lebanese recipes we can't get enough of! My mission is to share my tried + true recipes -- and to help our Lebanese food-loving community keep these culinary traditions alive and on the table. What recipes are you looking for? Let me know!

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