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Creating potato salads that are always-welcome-at-a-party side dish

In summer's unofficial produce pageant, Silver Queen corn reigns perennial, while peaches and late-August tomatoes vie for runner-up honors. Pound for pound, though, a non-seasonal starter gets the double win for talent and congeniality: the potato.

Not just any spud will do. Go for the small, less-starchy models that now come in many colors, with skin so tender that no one would think of stripping them bare. They're the ones that make potato salads the always-welcome-at-a-party side dish.

Seldom do we try a potato salad recipe that disappoints. When it does fall short, odds are good that somebody has over- or undercooked the star ingredient. Texture is key: You're after a clean, yielding bite, either in counterpoint to the crunch of celery or in concert with ripe avocado.

To achieve that magic consistently, by boiling, start with a wide saute pan instead of a deep pot. Potatoes need only a few inches of salted water to cover but enough room to sit almost in a single layer. (Their skins will stay intact.) Small, whole potatoes about 1 1/2 inches thick take 10 to 15 minutes; allow 25 minutes or so for larger red bliss or gold-fleshed varieties. When the tip of a paring knife can pierce the flesh with minimal resistance, they're most likely done. But just to be sure, you can pluck the fattest potato from the pan and cut it open.

Be gentle as you pour them into a colander in the sink, then treat them to an immediate, generous splash of rice or malt vinegar. The hot potatoes will absorb the liquid and become properly seasoned as they cool. The vinegar also helps to set the skins in place.

Sweet potatoes are often roasted for salads, but boiling them peeled and whole works surprisingly well. Choose ones that are evenly thick, less than 2 1/2 inches wide at the center. They'll cook as fast as their petite pals: two of them can go into a medium saute pan of boiling salted water and be done in 12 minutes.

Choose a mayonnaise-, yogurt- or oil-based dressing with a thought as to how and where you'll be serving: alfresco, for a hours-long buffet or for a quick weeknight meal. Recipe-wise, you can spend a lunch hour perusing options, and with this story we've added a few to our own well-rounded collection.

But once you've mastered how to cook potatoes for salads, there's no need to stick with a written set of directions. Check your farmers market basket, the herbs in your garden, the flavored oils in your pantry and more tips and tricks that follow. A parade of winning dishes awaits.

Lemon, Garlic and Chili Potato Salad. Photo for The Washington Post by Deb Lindsey