Potato is the classic American picnic salad, and deservedly so. It’s easy to make, inexpensive, generally well liked, and holds up well – except if you’re outside all day at a hot summer picnic. For the sunny summer park or party meal, the no-dairy potato salad is the perfect solution to the question of what to feed the crowd all day long. It’s healthier,  tastier and vegan, too, but those are just some side benefits.

The starchy, mild flavor of potatoes tends to make them palatable even to fussy youngsters who adhere to a white-food-only diet. And yet, there are many ways to make a potato salad please all palates. Recipes for the American classic have evolved over the years.

The 1959 edition of the General Foods Kitchens Cookbook includes a couple of potato salad recipes. Tellingly, the “Supreme” version is dressed with not just “salad oil” and vinegar but also sour cream and mayonnaise. Their other version is not supreme, merely “Tangy,” and leaves out the sour cream but not the mayo. It daringly adds garlic dressing, hard cooked eggs and assorted other vegetables.

More recent potato salad recipes don't pile on the fat quite as much, or they use a proven "good fat" like olive oil. We've got more than one favorite recipe, of course. One is mostly potatoes, another adds a bunch of whatever other vegetables you find fetching at the farmers market, and a third adds protein in the form of chickpeas, for a more complete meal.

Tips for making a great potato salad:

  • Use waxy, low-starch potatoes, instead of starchier, crumblier types like russets or other baking potatoes. Red Bliss, Yellow Finn, fingerlings and new potatoes (young and small, with thin tender skins) all work well.
  • Do not overcook – mushy mashed potato texture will result; instead, cook just until a fork will easily pierce the potato. Don’t undercook, either; biting into a chunk of potato with a dense hard interior is disappointing.
  • Dress the potatoes while they’re still warm, so they’ll best absorb the flavors. However, flavors will “marry” over time, so there’s no hurry to serve immediately.

Potato Salad with Double Mustard Dressing:

(Recipe from Mark Bittman "How to Cook Everything." Makes 4 servings)
1 ½ pounds waxy potatoes, such as red new potatoes
¼ cup Dijon mustard
¼ cup grainy mustard
½ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic, sherry or other flavorful vinegar
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

  • Bring a medium pot of water to a boil; salt it. Peel the potatoes if you like (or wash and scrub them well), then cut them into bite-sized pieces; cook them in the water until tender but still firm and not at all mushy, 15 minutes or so. Drain.
  • Mix together the mustards, oil, vinegar and basil, and toss with the potatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature. (Can be refrigerated for up to one day; bring back to room temperature before serving.)
Alternatives:
Farmstand Potato Salad – adapted from Cooking Light
To the cooked potatoes, add an assortment of lightly cooked (still crispy) fresh vegetables like sugar snap peas, broccoli, red, yellow and/or green bell pepper, scallions, or green beans.
Potato Bean Salad
To the cooked potatoes, add 3 cups cooked green beans and 2 cups cooked chickpeas. 

If you’re interested in going beyond the all-American, red white and blue versions of the potato salad,  classic recipes (even in the old cookbooks) suggest these old world variations:

French version: for the 2 pounds cooked cubed potatoes, dress with a vinaigrette of red or white wine vinegar (6 tablespoons), OR white wine vinegar (1/4 cup) and dry white wine (2 tablespoons); mixed with olive oil (6 tablespoons), plus minced shallot (one), red onion (1/2) or chives (3 tablespoons); and 2 tablespoons fresh parsley and capers, and whole-grain mustard. (1 tablespoon), plus more herbs – 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme, tarragon, mint or dill.

German version: starting with 2 pounds of cooked cubed potatoes, adds tangy strong flavors of bacon, onion, dill pickle; boils a dressing of stock (1/2 cup), white wine vinegar or cider vinegar (1/4 cup), and 1 teaspoon each of sugar, sweet paprika, and dry mustard, plus salt and pepper to taste.

Mediterranean version: add sundried tomatoes and scallions to the cooked potatoes (1-1 ½ pounds cubed); dress with cumin, olive oil, fresh lemon juice, and salt and pepper.

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