See more of the story

Potato salad, a staple of backyard barbecues and lakeside picnics, is one of the easiest to make. There's "mom's classic" and potato salads in zesty vinaigrettes, plus salads that showcase a rainbow of heirloom potatoes — purple, rose, golden, pure white — that are now at our farmers markets.

All call for the best ingredients and simple techniques, and these tips can help turn any good potato salad into a great one.

Use the right potato. Firm varieties — fingerlings, Red Bliss, Yukon Gold, Yellow Fin and new potatoes — hold up to bold dressings and can be made in advance. Choose smaller spuds that are about the same size. They'll cook quickly and be done around the same time. Baby or micro-potatoes work great.

To peel or not to peel? Most recipes call for peeling after cooking, but unpeeled potatoes give the salad a lovely rustic effect. Plus, potato skins add texture and flavor to the dish.

Do not hold back on the salt. Potatoes should simmer in water that is as briny as the ocean. When cooked this way, they won't taste bland and you won't find yourself trying to season them with more salt before serving.

Do not crowd the pot. Give the potatoes plenty of room to bounce around and cook evenly and thoroughly.

Do not overcook. Start checking the small ones after about 15 minutes and the medium potatoes after about 20 minutes. They should be tender enough that a sharp knife easily slides through them, but not mushy and falling apart.

Dress the potatoes while they're hot. Hot potatoes absorb far more of the dressing and all of those flavors. Plan on using 1/2 to 1 cup of dressing for 2 pounds of cooked potatoes. Dress the potatoes first and then add the rest of the ingredients.

Taste the salad after you've dressed it, then taste and taste and taste again. Potato salads always seem to need more dressing, so keep a little extra on hand to spark it up before serving. Here are four vibrant salads that riff off one simple technique.

Great potato salad starts with basic ingredients. From there the possibilities are endless.
Great potato salad starts with basic ingredients. From there the possibilities are endless.

Ashley Moyna Schwickert, Special to the Star Tribune

Classic Potato Salad

Serves 6 to 8.

This is a family favorite at every summer gathering. Tossing the hot potatoes with apple cider vinegar first guarantees they'll have plenty of punch under the veil of a mayo dressing. From Beth Dooley.

• 2 lb. small waxy potatoes, cooked and drained (see tip below)

• 2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar

• 1 c. quality mayonnaise, such as Duke's or Hellman's

• 1/4 c. whole milk Greek yogurt

• 2 tbsp. coarse mustard

• 1/2 c. finely diced scallions, white parts only

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper

• 2 tbsp. finely chopped dill, plus more for garnish

• 1 hard-boiled egg, halved, for garnish

Directions

Peel the potatoes while still warm. Place potatoes in a large bowl, toss with the apple cider vinegar.

In a small bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, yogurt and mustard. Add to the potatoes and toss to coat. Toss in the scallions and salt and pepper to taste. Toss in the dill, making sure it's combined well. Serve garnished with additional chopped dill and hard-boiled egg.

Italian-Style Potato Salad

Serves 6 to 8.

This hearty tossup makes a fine entree or satisfying side dish. From Beth Dooley.

• 1/2 c. extra-virgin olive oil

• 1/4 c. red wine vinegar

• 1 tsp. Dijon mustard

• 2 lb. small waxy potatoes, cooked and drained (see tip below)

• 2 to 3 oz. prosciutto, cut into strips

• 1/2 c. thinly sliced green onions, white parts only

• 1/2 c. sliced cherry tomatoes

• 1/4 c. diced fennel bulb

• 1/4 c. green olives

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

• 1/4 c. mixed chopped herbs (parsley, basil, marjoram), plus more for garnish

Directions

In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper. Put the potatoes in a large bowl while still warm and toss with the dressing. Toss in the prosciutto, green onions, tomatoes, fennel, olives and salt and pepper, to taste. Toss in the herbs until combined. Serve garnished with more herbs.

Rainbow Potato Salad

Serves 6 to 8.

Look for blue, red and gold heirloom potatoes coming into farmers markets and co-ops. The heirlooms tend to have earthier flavor than the more familiar white potatoes. Dressed with an herb vinaigrette, this potato salad is light and refreshing. From Beth Dooley.

• 1/4 c. white wine vinegar, plus more for seasoning

• 1/2 c. extra-virgin olive oil

• 2 lb. small mixed colorful potatoes, cooked and drained (see tip below)

• 1/4 c. sliced cucumbers

• 1/4 c. sliced red bell pepper

• 1 tbsp. drained capers

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

• 1/4 c. sliced basil, plus more for garnish

• 1 tbsp. sliced mint, plus more for garnish

Directions

In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar and oil. Put the potatoes into a large bowl while still warm and toss with the dressing. Toss in the cucumbers, peppers, capers and salt and pepper, to taste. Toss in the basil and mint. Serve garnished with additional basil and mint.

South of the Border Potato Salad

Serves 6 to 8.

Chile pepper and lemon kick this toss-up of sweet potatoes and corn up a notch. From Beth Dooley.

• Juice of 1 lime, plus more to taste

• 1 tsp. coarse mustard

• 1/3 c. extra-virgin olive oil

• 1 lb. sweet potatoes, cooked, peeled, cut into 1/2-in. pieces (see tip below)

• 1 lb. small waxy potatoes, cooked and drained (see tip below)

• 1/2 c. cooked corn kernels

• 1/4 c. diced red bell pepper

• 1/4 c. sliced celery

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

• 2 tsp. chile-lime-salt seasoning, such as Tajin, or more to taste

• Pinch red pepper flakes, to taste

• Chopped cilantro, for garnish

Directions

In a small bowl, whisk together the lime juice, mustard and olive oil. Put the sweet potatoes and waxy potatoes into a large bowl while warm and toss with the vinaigrette. Toss in the corn, pepper and celery, add salt and pepper to taste. Season with chile-lime-salt seasoning and red pepper flakes. Serve garnished with chopped cilantro.

Tips on cooking potatoes: For waxy potatoes, put 2 pounds of potatoes into a large pot and add enough water to cover the potatoes by 4 inches. Add about 2 tablespoons of salt (it should taste like the ocean). Bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer and cook the potatoes until just tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. A knife should slide easily through the center, but the potatoes should not be falling apart. Cook sweet potatoes the same way, then just drain, allow to cool slightly, peel and cut into ½-inch pieces.

Beth Dooley is the author of "The Perennial Kitchen." Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.