Getting to the Root of Potato Salad

How South American tubers and European dressings converged to become an American cookout classic
By Kevin Revolinski
Kevin Revolinski
Kevin Revolinski
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler, craft beer enthusiast, and home-cooking fan. He is the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and his new collection of short stories, “Stealing Away.” He’s based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com
August 26, 2021 Updated: August 26, 2021

Potato salad has always been a German thing to me. But the origin of the main ingredient was South America, and represents one of the earlier cultivated crops on earth. Europe didn’t see them until Spanish conquistadores took them from the Inca Empire, but soon after, they became rooted in European culinary traditions. Irish potato famine? French (Belgian) fries? All recent history to the potato.

From the Andes With Spuds

Wild potatoes originated in the Andes in South America. The people of the high plains there cultivated them more than 7,000 years ago, long before even the Incas existed, but even before the rise of the Sumerians in Mesopotamia. And there they remained until after Francisco Pizarro and his conquistadors arrived in 1526 in what is today Peru.

The Spanish found it to be a staple for the Inca and, convinced, took this domesticated tuber home. Potato salads soon followed: boiled in spiced vinegar or wine and mixed with oil and salt. The French added Dijon mustard to the mix, and may have been the first to add mayonnaise.

The first potato patches brought back across the Atlantic to North America were planted by Scotch-Irish settlers in 1719, in Londonderry in the colony of New Hampshire, but it was the Germans who are generally credited with bringing potato salad to our picnic.

Called Kartoffelsalat, it remains popular in Germany, but takes on a different recipe from the one with which most Americans are familiar. Especially in southern Germany, the dish incorporates beef broth in the soaking of the potatoes, and either white or apple cider vinegar with a bit of mustard, perhaps Dusseldorf, for the dressing—but no mayo. Finally, bacon bits and fat are added at the end.

Red potatoes work well for this, and the dish is served warm. At a deli in the Midwest, you might find a vinegar-centric “German-style” potato salad alongside the more common mayo-based version.

The Turn to Mayonnaise

The origins of mayo are a bit murky. Similar sauces existed as far back as the 18th century in France and Spain. The name mayonnaise itself precedes what we think of as mayo today, and was applied to earlier recipes that often involved meat broths or cream.

Aioli is a relative that predates modern mayonnaise, but it is similar only in this: It is an emulsion, i.e., a mixture of two substances that don’t want to mix but can be whipped to do so (or persuaded with another substance, an emulsifier). Contrary to what we are often served, the original aioli is not garlic-flavored mayo, but rather garlic cloves pounded into a paste and whipped together with olive oil (plus salt and lemon juice). Try it; it turns opaque, and it’s wicked good. Mayonnaise, on the other hand, is made from raw egg yolks (or even whole eggs) with oil, plus the salt and acid in the form of vinegar and/or lemon juice. It appears to have arrived at this form in the early 19th century.

In 1903, Richard Hellmann emigrated from Vetschau, in the north of Germany where mayo had invaded, and landed in New York City, where he married into a deli family. But soon after, he opened his own deli with his wife. Customers loved his original mayos—there were two recipes—and they bought them in bulk. In several years, he needed a factory to keep up with demand. The more popular of the two mayos he marked with a blue ribbon, and you can still see such a ribbon in the Hellmann’s label over a century later.

The Best Taters for Your Salad

Waxy potatoes are the best: Their skins are easy to clean and don’t need to be peeled; they have less starch and so keep their shape better when cooked; and their texture is smoother. Save the starchy Russets for baked and maybe mashed potatoes, as they soak up water more and come apart more easily.

Yukon Golds are the universal tater: medium-starchy but able to perform quite well both for salad and mashed. In any case, don’t overcook them. Also consider red potatoes, peeled or not, or new or fingerling potatoes. For a nod to potato heritage, and for freaking out your cookout guests, add a few of purple South American spuds, too.

The Dressing

Use a good mayonnaise. While some swear by Miracle Whip as an alternative, I find it much too sweet. Yellow mustard is common to give mayo a bit more spice, and fancier blends such as Dijon or Dusseldorf varieties carry a bit more complexity.

My own favorite potato salad recipe incorporates the mayo-mustard mix plus a vinegary element: pickle juice. Your pickle jar comes with it in excess, and it gives the nicest touch of sour to the salad. I use hamburger dill pickle slices myself, chopped into smaller pieces, like a relish, to add a bit of texture to the salad.

Bring some more texture and flavor with finely diced red onions or shallots, and maybe some fresh chives—as much for the flavor as the color, to an otherwise bland-looking dish. Vidalia onions are also a good option.

Adding fresh dill is nice, but the pickles bring enough of that flavor, in my opinion. I don’t do celery, but bless your heart if you add that anyway. I always admire people who play with their food: Some may try walnuts, or swapping plain yogurt or sour cream for some or all of the mayo. There are no hard fast rules here, but be warned that if you experiment too much on a large audience, you might lose some fans at the cookout.

The Poison of the Picnic?

I grew up believing potato salad on a hot summer day could ruin the party. Mayo originally had raw eggs in it, and it was believed that if anyone got sick at the park, potato salad should take the blame.

That may have been true years ago, but today that seems unlikely as commercial varieties are pasteurized—plus the acidity should also deter bacteria. Poorly cleaned hands, prep utensils, and cutting surfaces are more likely the cause of picnic flu, not to mention chicken or tuna in a salad, or even the potatoes themselves if they weren’t kept properly.

All that said, it’s probably not the mayo you need to worry about, but keep your food in a cooler until it’s ready to eat.

RECIPE: Rev’s Potato Salad

If your onions are too strong, slice them first and put them in a bowl of cool water to soak for 5 to 10 minutes, then drain and chop.

Serves 10

  • 3 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes
  • 1/2 to 1 cup mayonnaise, plus more to taste (I’m a Hellman’s fan)
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons mustard (yellow, Dusseldorf, Dijon), according to the mayo amount
  • 1/4 cup finely diced red or sweet onion, or shallots (see headnote)
  • 2 tablespoons chopped chives (optional)
  • 1/2 cup chopped dill pickles or hamburger pickle slices
  • 2 tablespoons pickle juice, or to taste
  • 1 tablespoon fresh dill, chopped
  • 1/2 cup cooked bacon, chopped in large pieces (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
  • 4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped or sliced
  • 1 teaspoon paprika

Wash the potatoes well and pat dry, then peel and cut into 1-inch cubes. Add them to a pot of water large enough to cover all the potatoes and bring to a boil. Be alert that the starches of potatoes make them prone to boiling over. Use a large enough pot, don’t leave the cover on it, or place a large wooden or metal spoon across the top of the pot.

Reduce to a simmer and cook for about 8 minutes, or until you can easily pierce the potatoes with a fork, yet they don’t lose their shape. Drain them in a strainer and don’t continue the recipe until they’ve cooled.

Transfer the potatoes to a large bowl. Mix the mayo, mustard, onions/shallots/chives, pickle juice, and pickles in a small bowl first, then add the mixture to the potatoes, folding them over repeatedly with a spatula without mashing up too many of the pieces. Mix in the dill, and the bacon, if you’re going there. Then salt and pepper to taste.

Add the chopped or sliced hard-boiled eggs at the end, folding gently so they retain some shape, then sprinkle paprika over the bowl. Serve cold, and keep leftovers in the fridge for a couple days.

Kevin Revolinski
Kevin Revolinski
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler, craft beer enthusiast, and home-cooking fan. He is the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and his new collection of short stories, “Stealing Away.” He’s based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com