When John Lewis says that "a potato salad is kind of like a blank canvas," you should trust him: He’s the pitmaster at la Barbecue in Austin, TX, where the barbecue is excellent and the potato salad is to die for. Sarah Simmons, the chef behind Birds & Bubbles on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, agrees: “The fun thing about potato salad is that there’s so many things you can do,” she says.
Thank goodness they agree on that, because they don’t see eye to eye on much else.
Both Simmons and Lewis are Southern-trained chefs, and yet when I asked them how to make a basic potato salad they gave two entirely different answers. That makes my job a little bit harder — how can you tell someone the right way to cook a dish if two professional chefs can’t agree?
It should put all of you at ease. Here’s the rub: You can’t mess up a potato salad unless you mess up the potato. Don’t mess up on that one simple thing, and you’re good.
Chefs are divided on whether russet or red is the right potato for the job. It depends in part on the type of salad you’re making: Simmons likes russet because their starch content is great for frying, and in her salad, the potatoes are fried. Lewis prefers the waxy skin and firmer texture of red potatoes — plus, the color looks great and the "skin is good for you."
Either way, make sure your potatoes are in equal-sized chunks before you boil them. For smaller red potatoes, Lewis recommends cooking them whole.
Start your potatoes (skin still on!) in a pot of salt-seasoned cold water and then bring it to a boil. Writer J. Kenji López-Alt did a side-by-side test at Serious Eats and found that putting your potatoes in already-boiling water resulted in only sadness, with an undercooked middle and overcooked exterior. Starting them cold gives you an even texture throughout.
To know when they’re finished, "you insert a sharp knife into one potato. If it falls off the knife, it's done," says Lewis.
Alternatively, you could bake and then deep-fry your potatoes for some Southern-style crunch, like Simmons does. The crispy skin of a baked potato tastes doubly-good when fried, especially if you tear it into bite-sized chunks by hand first.
"The torn pieces and the broken skin crisp up nicely," she says. "If you cut them with a knife, you get perfect cuts, but you don’t get ridges that get really crispy."
However you cook the taters, the real star of the salad is the dressing, a creamy mixture of sweetness and acid, herbs and spice, salty and savory. "You want a balance of all flavors," Lewis says. In his recipe, you "get your saltiness and savoriness from the bacon. There’s a little bit of sugar so it doesn’t taste sweet. And acid from the lemon wakes it up."
Most chefs, including Simmons, use mayonnaise as the base for their dressing and round out the salad with fresh-cracked black pepper, shallots, and whatever herbs are in season. The salad gets its essential acid flavor from lemon zest, juice, and sherry vinegar, which has a “really nice acidic note and that great oxidized wine flavor,” Simmons says.
But don't feel left out if you're not a mayo fan or hate the mouthfeel of a traditional potato salad — Lewis's salad has a sharper tang, swapping the mayonnaise for sour cream and buttermilk. "You get the creaminess of mayo, but you also get acidity from it as well," he says. He also adds whole-grain mustard, which provides texture but "doesn’t turn the whole thing yellow" like a dijon or traditional yellow mustard might.
Here’s one last thing they do agree on: Sugar. You don't need a ton, but a pinch is essential to create a well-balanced flavor.
Don't wait too long after cooking your potatoes to mix them with the salad. "There’s a perfect temperature where the potatoes are cool, but still warm enough to absorb the flavors," Simmons says. "Make sure they're not cold when you're tossing them, because it’s so much tastier when they’re slightly warm. The flavors mix better and the potatoes absorb it better."
Once you've mastered the basic potato salad, don't be afraid to go wild. Lewis adds bacon; Simmons adds fried capers. Whatever you’d like to add, your potato canvas is open for painting.
John Lewis’s Potato Salad Dressing
- 16 oz. sour cream
- 4 oz. fresh lemon juice
- 6 oz. buttermilk
- 1 tbsp. sugar
- 1 tbsp. celery seed
- Salt + pepper to taste
- ½ cup whole grain mustard
- Add ingredients to a bowl and stir until combined. Using your hands, mix with cooked and cooled potatoes.
- Add as much bacon, chives, and parsley as you please.