How To Make Potato Salad: A Guide For The Great-Aunts Of Tomorrow

Calling cooked potatoes and a token smattering of vegetables tossed in what's basically seasoned mayonnaise a salad is rather like calling ketchup a vegetable, or Jim Gray a human being: Sure, there might be some flimsy, threadbare technical basis for doing so—Well, the etymological root of the word "salad" comes to us from the ancient Urartian word "saal," which many scholars would argue refers to the human testicle, which is shaped not totally unlike a tiny Russet potato—but, c'mon. Nobody's really buying it.

Still, this ludicrous characterization is a bit of sea-lawyering we've been deploying for generations, for the simple reason that, whatever the hell the best possible term for the stuff may finally be, it goddamn tastes great, and firing it down in heaping shovelfuls is slightly easier to feel good about if we all agree to pretend it's not the nutritional equivalent of a meteor strike. So, we call it salad, because calling it salad is marginally less cognitively dissonant than calling it asparagus.

There are as many different ways to make tasty potato salad as there are blue-haired great-aunts from whom to learn a recipe; one thing all these tasty preparations have in common is that they do not concede an inch to concerns of healthfulness by, say, swapping out disgustingly unwholesome real mayonnaise for the sad, characterless low-fat variety, or by adding some goddamn kale to the mix, or by just swapping the whole friggin' concoction out in favor of some steamed lima beans. Perversely, the more like an actual salad your potato salad gets, the shittier a potato salad becomes.

Other than that—their resolute unhealthfulness—and, y'know, the potatoes, those two bazillion different versions of potato salad don't have much else in common. Some keep the skins on the potatoes. Some include bacon. Some include peas and carrots. Some do not include eggs, and are stupid. Some are designed to appease ridiculous anti-mayonnaise ninnies, and replace the stuff altogether with, like, yellow mustard and vinegar and a wan life of constant low-intensity sadness. This means that the following version will likely differ from the one your fucking Mee-Maw used to make in the old days back in the holler, and y'know what? I'm OK with that. You might not be, and I'm OK with that, too, because the potato salad we're making today is goddamn delicious, and no one who gives it a fair shake could say otherwise. Let's get started.

To start, grab your trusty potato peeler (which is to say, the first step is to foster a relationship with your great-aunt and spend several months indulging your secret love of macramé, Wheel of Fortune, and the works of Danielle Steel, as a pretext for borrowing her potato peeler without seeming like an ingrate) and peel five pounds of Yukon Gold potatoes. When they're peeled, cut the potatoes into eighths (twelfths for any especially large potatoes). The peeling and cutting should only take you, oh, a fortnight or so.

A note, here. Yes, there's a faster- and lazier-seeming way to do this, which is just to skip the preceding paragraph, cook the potatoes whole according to the steps that follow, and peel and chop them later, when they've softened and their skins can be stripped off by hand. However. The potatoes will take significantly longer to cook if you go that route, and then you'll have to let them sit and cool for a while before you try to handle them (unless you're particularly in the mood to burn the shit out of your hands), so you're not really saving time. And you're not really saving effort, either: Since the potatoes are not all the same size, they may not cook at the same pace, meaning you must either resign yourself to unevenly cooked potatoes in your potato salad (which is bad), or you must periodically check every single potato for doneness and remove them individually from the heat as they cook (which is ridiculous). Really, what will decide your approach is whether you prefer to do a bunch of tedious shit now (befriending an elderly relation, peeling, chopping, writing unprintably obscene hate-email to an internet food columnist) and be lazy later, or prefer to be lazy now (cooking your potatoes whole and unpeeled), do a bunch of tedious shit later, and come to the depressing realization that this behavior pattern is precisely why your parents lie about what you do for a living. Do the prep work. It's worth the annoyance.

So you've peeled and chopped; now it's time to dump your potato hunks into a large pot and submerge them in cold water. You'll want enough water for the potato hunks to sit a couple of inches below the surface, because you are also going to place a dozen eggs (still in their shells, of course) in the water with your potatoes, and you'll need the eggs to be submerged, too. Place this large pot on your stove, bring it to a boil, and reduce the heat to a steady simmer.

Now, about those eggs. Yes, they are in a pot with the potatoes. Yes, the water in this pot is going to be boiling. Yes, the eggs are going to be hard-boiled in this pot. But food person, you are shrieking at your computer screen, sobbing inconsolably and clawing huge gashes in the wildly oversized commemorative Bret Michaels Roses & Thorns Tour t-shirt you have been wearing since 2010, everybody knows the best way to cook hard-boiled eggs is to remove the entire pot of water from the heat when it comes to a boil and let the eggs sit in the cooling water for 17 minutes! But if I do that, the potatoes won't cook all the way! Yes. You are correct. We are not cooking these hard-boiled eggs via the best possible method for cooking hard-boiled eggs. If this were a preparation for, say, deviled eggs, or Scotch eggs, or for just cooking and eating some friggin' hard-boiled eggs, this would be an important point (and, in the case of just making some hard-boiled eggs, it would be the only point). However, these eggs are going to get chopped up and dispersed throughout an enormous batch of potato salad, among a bunch of other things, and nobody is going to notice that you did not cook them the absolute best way they could be cooked, and not just because you have no one with whom to share your potato salad in your isolated Adirondack turf-yurt, but because if any wayward traveler did happen across your hovel and come to share in the splendor of your potato salad, this person would be far too busy joyously wolfing down delicious potato salad (and wondering how many other wayward travelers you'd made into lampshades) to pay much attention to how exactly the eggs were cooked.

This is great news. Don't worry about the eggs. They'll be just fine in there. If you absolutely must intercede in some way or another on their behalf while the potatoes boil away, it's OK to scoop the eggs out of the pot 8 or 10 minutes after it comes to a boil.

The potato hunks are going to need to simmer for … a while. Half an hour? About that? Sure, that sounds good. Poke them every now and then with a fork: When it penetrates an individual hunk with little effort, but before the potato hunk is softened enough that it comes apart when you stick a fork in it, dump the potatoes into a big colander to drain and set the eggs aside to cool.

In the meantime, while the potatoes and eggs are simmering, you're going to make dressing for your potato salad. In a big bowl, dump and mix the following ingredients: two-thirds or so of a big 30-ounce jar of real, no-bullshit mayonnaise; a heaping tablespoon or two of dijon or brown mustard; a splash of apple-cider vinegar; another splash of the brine from a jar of baby dill pickles; a pinch of paprika; a generous pinch of salt; and another generous pinch of black pepper. Those splashes above, of brine and vinegar, should be tiny: maybe two teaspoons each, just enough to taste. And taste you shall, as you mix the ingredients together, until the proportions are just right for you. When you get there, set the dressing aside for a minute.

Now, chop vegetation. One big stalk of celery, most of one big yellow onion, five or six baby dill pickles. You can decide for yourself how finely you want to chop this stuff; I'm recommending you go small, for the reason that it's better to have a small amount of these flavorful ingredients included in each forkful of the finished product than it is to have the occasional forkful that is nothing but an enormous hunk of raw onion and a piece of celery, but no potato or egg.

Speaking of egg, peel and quarter the cooled eggs. You may be familiar with potato salad preparations in which the egg is sliced into discs and arranged artfully atop the rest of the (figurative) shit in the bowl; there's nothing particularly wrong with doing this, except that you'll find the potato salad more satisfying to eat (if slightly less attractive to look at, which is OK, because it is food and not goddamn sculpture) if the egg is fully integrated and coated with dressing like everything else. (You may also be familiar with potato salad preparations that do not include egg, which would indicate that it's time for you to assimilate yourself into a new family.) The better way to proceed is to cut each egg in half lengthwise, then crosswise: this may seem to yield a too-small number of big, unwieldy hunks of egg, but they'll break up a tad when you assemble the potato salad, leaving you with a bit of egg for each forkful of the finished product, or close to it.

So your potatoes and your eggs and your vegetation and your dressing are all ready to go; assemble potato salad! Back in the big (now dry) pot, dump the potatoes and veggies, top them with the dressing, and toss everything with a big wooden spoon or your hands, being gentle to ensure the potatoes aren't demolished in the process. Once that stuff's fairly well mixed together, dump the eggs on top of it all, and give the stuff another couple of gentle tosses.

Your potato salad is assembled and almost—almost—ready to serve. There's one last ingredient to add: time. No, not thyme. Time! The indefinite continued progress of existence! You're going to add some of that stuff, and this last ingredient is what's going to pull all the ingredients together and make your potato salad taste delicious enough to make your bowtie (you are wearing a bowtie) (dweeb!) spin like a pinwheel.

See, the thing is, right now, all the ingredients in your potato salad have only just met each other; when you take a bite, they announce themselves individually as they cross your palate: Hey, an onion!, as you bite through a little piece of onion, followed by Ooh, pickle!, as you crunch down on a bit of pickle, and so on. Which is fine, I guess, but you could much more easily just eat a friggin' onion or chow down on a jar of pickles if that's what you wanted, instead of making potato salad. So. Transfer your potato salad into a big bowl or an enormous tupperware (or just keep it in the pot, if that's all you've got), cover it with plastic wrap, and stick the whole thing in the refrigerator for at least an hour. When you peel the cover back an hour later, jab a fork in there, extract a mouthful, and fire it down, you're not going to taste potato and onion and pickle and celery and egg and dressing separately. You are going to taste hey, potato salad!, which will be oniony and pickly and potatoish and celerylike and so on, but will taste like all of these things at the same time, which is to say that it will taste like potato salad. Which is what one would tend to want one's potato salad to taste like.

You can certainly serve your potato salad by itself as a meal, if you like: It's hearty enough, what with the potatoes and the eggs and the nutritional caldera eruption that is the dressing. I'm going to recommend, however, that you fire up your shitty little charcoal grill and cook some chicken thighs on it. Park the chicken and the potato salad next to each other on a crummy paper plate and let them get comfy, so some of the dressing gets gooped onto the chicken thighs and some of the barbecue sauce rubs off on the pile of potato salad. Serve this plate with cans or shitty plastic cups of very incredibly cold beer and, if the weather permits you, by God you must eat it outside, preferably beneath a tall tree. That sweet, tangy barbecue sauce against the rich, creamy potato salad, the cold beer, the shifting sunlight and singing birds, holy cow this is what everything should be like all the time. Exciting for the senses, satisfying for the stomach, and restorative to the soul.

And good for your health, too! Because it's salad!

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Got any cooking questions? Email me: albertburneko@gmail.com. We're gonna do an occasional Foodspin mailbag (the Feedbag, naturally).

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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at albertburneko@gmail.com. You can find lots more Foodspin at foodspin.deadspin.com.

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