To some, it might just look like a bowl of potato salad. To others, it might look like a serving of delicious controversy.
I am quite amused at the strong feelings associated with potato salad that I have unearthed recently. Forget opening a can of worms, just try putting mayo on some potatoes and see what happens. (Even that phrase isn’t as innocent as it seems — maybe you think it’s supposed to be miracle whip!)
I too, however, possess more potato salad convictions than I was previously aware of. Personal attachments to this particular picnicky side started coming up this past weekend when I was prepping for my biggest annual catering job, a yearly customer appreciation farm party for a local dairy. We were whipping out giant tubs of potato salad to go alongside pulled pork and beef sandwiches...and when I say “whipping out,” I mean “slowly and laboriously working on.” There is nothing quick about 70 pounds of potatoes.
I follow an idea, not a recipe, when I make potato salad (and most other things). And actual measurements even more so go out the window when cooking for over 400, because who really knows what’s going on? I might be the “chef,” although I prefer the title of “Person Who Cooks,” but really I just do stuff and hope it tastes good.
That said, I do have an idea about how I want and expect things to go. And when we decided on classic potato salad, apparently the farm party hosts and I were saying the same words yet meaning different things. I’ve made quite a variety of potato salads in my day — although not quite as many as my husband thinks. When I was discussing the topic with him, Brian laughed out loud and asserted that I’ve made at least 25 different kinds since we’ve been married, and that I’ve never made the same kind twice. I have not made that many, and although he may be correct on the technicality that they’re not exactly the same since I don’t measure, I have a clear “classic” style.
It’s creamy, mustardy, and sweet, with plenty of texture from celery and hard-boiled eggs. I prefer to use unpeeled diced Yukon gold potatoes, although shredded russets is what I grew up with, and the diced red potatoes we used for this event were perfect. I used miracle whip once in my culinary infancy, and never again — it’s mayonnaise always and forever. I like fresh dill, celery seed, and diced pickles, with good splashes of the pickle juice.
But that is obviously not how everyone envisions potato salad, and the more people I questioned about it, the more heartfelt answers I got. The differences in what my hosts meant by potato salad were neither earth-shattering nor unappetizing by any means, but they were also not the Right Way to make it. Who makes potato salad without sugar or herbs, and with essentially equal parts potatoes, eggs, and pickles?
My favorite moment was when four of us tasted the dish in process: I thought it needed sugar, she thought it needed more salt, he thought it needed more acid, and the other he thought it needed more pickles.
The good news is, at that point we all knew it was close, so we tossed/lugged the tubs of it into the fridge to chill out overnight and figure out its own problems. In the end, it was nobody’s “ideal” salad — but by the time we dished it out for serving, none of us wanted to change anything (except for the guy who still needed more pickles).
The general public seemed to agree, and it was all we could do to keep the serving dishes from getting empty. And honestly, the quart of leftover salad I took home was strangely addictive. I am not a potato salad snacker, until this batch came around. Open the fridge, take a few bites, and voila! Summer satisfaction.
Not-Quite-Classic Classic Potato Salad
That whole thing about not measuring anything makes sharing a recipe more difficult. I can tell you we used 70 pounds potatoes, 6 quarts mayo, a couple jars Dijon mustard, 13 dozen eggs ... but that’s also not helpful. Here’s a good approximation for a smaller batch, and try to hold yourself back from adding that thing you think it needs more of until it has a chance to chill overnight.
Prep tips: I like to sprinkle some salt and splash some vinegar over the potatoes while they’re still hot so they soak up some of that flavor.
• 5 pounds red potatoes, scrubbed
• 1 dozen hard-boiled eggs, diced
• 5-10 celery ribs, including leaves; minced
• 1 red onion, minced
• Splashes of white and apple cider vinegar
• 2 cups mayo
• ¼ cup dijon mustard
• 1-2 cups diced pickles or relish, dill and/or bread & butter
• Salt and pepper to taste
Cook potatoes until fully tender but still holding together. Let cool slightly, then dice. Add remaining ingredients, and stir thoroughly — some of the potatoes will probably break down, but that’s good as they make it creamier. Refrigerate overnight, then adjust as necessary.
Amanda Miller lives with her husband, almost-two-years-old son, and whoever else God brings them through foster care on the family dairy farm in Hutchinson. She enjoys doing some catering, teaching cooking classes, and freelancing, but mostly chasing after her kid(s). Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.