At its core, potato salad is a simple dish, and every family has its favorite version.
My grandma's "recipe," written in pencil on a dog-eared note card, takes only two lines: "Boil cut up potatoes. Mix with chopped onions, mayonnaise, a splash of vinegar and a pinch of sugar." I'm sure she also added salt and pepper, but that would go without saying — so she didn't say it.
My mom added cut-up hard-boiled eggs and chopped sweet pickles. I was OK with the eggy addition, but always picked out the pickles. (Sorry, Mom.) Still, I liked my mom's version best because it had more flavor. The pickles brought an extra hit of acidity that cut through the rich mayonnaise and gave a boost to a salad that was otherwise, well, just potatoes.
As I got older and became the master of my own potato salad, I took a play out of the German potato salad playbook and left the vinegar out of the dressing and started sprinkling it over the potatoes while they were still hot from the boiling water. This allowed them to soak it up as they cooled, drawing the flavor all the way through the potato instead of letting it just sit on the surface with the mayonnaise.
While that helped, it wasn't quite the flavor I remembered that made my mom's version so good. With that in mind, I started adding Dijon mustard and juice from a jar of sweet gherkins to the vinegar spritz.
The extra acidity, along with the hint of the sweetness and warm spices that give sweet pickles their distinctive flavor, turned my simple salad into something much more interesting.
Over the years, I've lost my purist attitude about adding extra ingredients to my salad. I always add hard-boiled eggs and sometimes I'll even toss in bacon, herbs or chopped pickled jalapeños.
As it turns out, there are an endless number of things you can combine with potatoes and mayonnaise, and many of them are very good. For me, chopped pickles don't make the cut, but feel free to add them to yours. After all, you are the master of your own potato salad.
Classic Potato Salad
Serves 6 to 8.
Note: You'd never know that sweet pickle juice, soaked into the hot potatoes, is what gives this picnic and backyard barbecue staple an added flavor boost. While the basic version of this salad is delicious, you can make it even better by including some of your favorite add-ins. If you don't have any pickle juice, add 2 more tablespoons vinegar, mixed with 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar, until sugar is dissolved. From Meredith Deeds.
For the potato salad:
• 2 1/2 lb. baby Yukon Gold potatoes, 1 to 11⁄2 in. in diameter, peeled and cut into 1-in. pieces
• 2 tsp. table salt, divided
• 3 tbsp. sweet pickle juice (see note)
• 2 tbsp. cider vinegar
• 1 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. Dijon mustard
• 1/2 c. mayonnaise
• 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
• 1/2 c. finely chopped sweet onion
• 1/2 c. chopped celery
• 1/2 c. finely chopped cooked bacon
• 1/3 c. chopped sweet or dill pickles
• 3 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and cut in 1/2-in. pieces
• 2 to 4 tbsp. chopped soft herbs (chives, basil, parsley, etc.)
• 2 tbsp. finely chopped pickled jalapeños (substitute 1 tbsp. vinegar with pickled jalapeño juice)
• 2 tbsp. capers, drained and rinsed
In a large saucepan, cover the potatoes with 1 inch of cold water. Stir in 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium and cook at a low boil for 15 to 20 minutes, until just tender. (Do not overcook the potatoes, or they will fall apart when combined with dressing.)
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine pickle juice, vinegar and mustard.
Drain potatoes and spread out on large, rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle 5 tablespoons pickle juice mixture over potatoes, and gently toss until coated. Refrigerate, uncovered, until cooled, about 30 minutes.
Mix remaining pickle juice mixture, chopped onions, remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, pepper and mayonnaise in large bowl. Toss in cooled potatoes, cover and refrigerate until well chilled. (At this point, salad can be refrigerated, covered, for up to 2 days.) Gently stir in desired optional add-ins, if using, and serve.
Meredith Deeds is a cookbook author and food writer from Edina. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Instagram at @meredithdeeds.