Classically trained chef shares the secret to making the best potato salad ever

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen
RJ Harvey, culinary director Potatoes USA, is probably the most qualified chef in the US to dole out potato advice.

RJ Harvey has potato salad tips for days. 

Harvey, culinary director for Potatoes USA, is also a Johnson & Wales-trained chef who's worked at Grant Achatz's Alinea and Thomas Keller's French Laundry. So when the man tells you to add pickle juice to your potatoes to take the flavor to the next level, you might want to listen.

When making potato salad, Harvey recommends spreading the still-warm diced potatoes on a sheet pan and then adding your acid. Pickle juice is best.

"So that pickle juice that goes on top of your potatoes is seeping into the inside of the potato, giving them more flavor," he said. "And that way when you go to bite into that potato salad, you're left with something that's just really, really flavorful."

Here are the rest of your potato salad questions, answered.

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What kind of potatoes should I use?

The foundation of the perfect potato salad is, of course, the potato. Harvey recommends fluffy, starchy russet potatoes for a classic picnic-type potato salad.

"It's about that dressing, that sauce," he said. "That should also have pieces of almost dissolved potato in along with it."

A German-style potato salad, with its robust fat- and vinegar-based dressing, should be made with a sturdier, lower-starch tuber that won't fall apart and murk up that bright sauce. Waxy red-skinned or new potatoes work. It's the same with Greek-style potato salads.

Potato Salad

Harvey's Mexican street corn potato salad (recipe below) also calls for red potatoes.

"Even though the dressing is more mayonnaise-based, we don't want the potatoes to fall apart," he said. "We still want there to be discernible textures to it."

How should I cook my potatoes?

"Regardless of what type of potato you choose, you want to make sure that they're fully cooked," Harvey said. "You don't want to undercook them because you'll just have dressing around this hard potato, which isn't very nice."

Overcooking potatoes will earn you a soupy salad, which no one wants. Instead, you want a potato that retains its bite, but not too much. Boiling in salted water is also better than steaming because the salt penetrates the potato as it boils, Harvey said.

But don't just go throwing those potatoes in the water unprepared. After you peel and dice them, soak them in cold water. This not only prevents oxidation but helps remove excess starch, which is key for velvety salad. Give them a quick blast of water after they cook for the same reason. 

"After you drain your potatoes after they're cooked, rinse them with a little bit of hot water," Harvey said. "Hot tap water is fine and you don't need to go crazy with it because we don't want to soak the potatoes again and get them waterlogged."

Then let them drain and dry as you mix your dressing. Don't forget the pickle juice trick. 

What about dressing?

Always prepare your potato dressing ahead of time, Harvey recommends. Way ahead of time, in fact. Making potato salad a day in advance lets the flavors properly marry. And never toss your dressing ingredients straight into the cooked potatoes, he cautions. 

"The last thing you want is to add all of your ingredients together into your potatoes and then try to mix everything," he said. "That's going to result in you overmixing your potato salad, which is going to end up too gloopy and soupy."

For a classic American potato salad, for example, Harvey stirs together mayonnaise, mustard, onions, celery and any other vegetables he plans to use (see the recipe below). Then he seasons the mix and tosses it gently into the potatoes.

To egg or not to egg?

Harvey is a believer in hard-boiled eggs in potato salad. 

"I grew up in a household where potato salad was religion, and it always had three things," he said. "It always had celery, it always had eggs, and of course it had yellow mustard."

Eggs lend a creamy texture that plays nice with crunchier ingredients such as celery and onion.

"I think that's really lovely," he said. "Plus the egg yolk adds to your dressing as well, and I think that's really key."

It's important that your hard-boiled eggs be fully cooked but not so much that the yolks turn green. Always add eggs to your potato salad last and toss them gently. 

What about onions? Herbs?

Onions can easily dominate the flavor of potato salad, so Harvey likes to tame their flavor by roasting or slow-cooking. For German potato salad, for example, he likes to caramelize his onions first.

"They don't need to be like a deep, dark color, like you would for French onion soup or anything," he said. "But I think cooking some of that moisture out of them and intensifying their sweetness helps a German-style potato salad, where your dressing is more acidic."

You can also soften the sting of diced raw onion by rinsing or soaking the pieces in cold water, then draining them well.

"But I'm also a big fan of just reaching for green onions, scallions and chives," he said. 

Harvey also loves herbaceous notes in his potato salad. For that, dill, tarragon, chervil and other tender, fragrant herbs work perfectly.

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Will I get sick if the salad sits out?

With major heat waves from coast to coast, you might be wondering if it's OK to leave your potato salad sitting around at your outdoor picnic. 

"I think it's a misconception that you cannot serve a mayonnaise-based potato salad at a picnic because you may inadvertently kill a whole bunch of folks," Harvey said. "I want to dispel that myth."

Most store-bought mayonnaise is highly pasteurized, he said. 

"In fact, most of the bacteria that you're dealing with in a commercially based mayonnaise is no different than the bacteria you'd be dealing with in a commercially based oil."

According to the health department, you've got about four hours from the time it comes out of the cooler to the time your guests can consume it safely, he said. 

It's important to completely cool potatoes and any other ingredients before mixing in the mayonnaise, however.

"And then you can just bring that potato salad to your events," he said. "Everybody will eat most likely within four hours, and then you're good. But anything past that point, you're kind of on your own."

This Mexican street corn potato salad is zingy and crunchy.

Mexican street corn potato salad

Use waxy red, purple and white potatoes for this tangy, creamy potato salad, which tastes just like elote, or Mexican street corn. 

Serves: 8

Ingredients

1-1/2 pounds tri-colored potatoes, cut in half

1 gallon cold water

2 tablespoons Kosher salt

4 ears sweet corn on the cob

1-1/4 cup Mexican crema

¾ cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon smoked paprika

1 tablespoon cumin

1 tablespoon ground chipotle pepper

1-1/2 tablespoon garlic, chopped

3 tablespoons Mexican hot sauce

¼ cup freshly squeezed lime juice

2 tablespoons cilantro

10 ounces cotija cheese, crumbled

2 teaspoons Kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

In a large pot over medium-high heat combine the potatoes and the cold water. Allow the water to come to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Cook the potatoes until fork tender (about 25-30 minutes), remove from the heat, drain and allow to cool.

Shuck the corn and grill over high heat until the kernels are slightly charred. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Once cool, cut the corn from the cobs and set aside while you make the sauce for the potato salad.

Combine the crema, mayonnaise, smoked paprika, cumin, chipotle chili powder, garlic, hot sauce, lime juice, cilantro and cotija cheese. Stir until mixed thoroughly. Toss the cooled and cooked potatoes along with the charred corn in the sauce. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. The potato salad is now ready to eat but will taste even better if allowed to sit overnight in the refrigerator.

Traditional potato salad should be creamy, not soupy.

Classic picnic-style potato salad

This creamy, basic potato salad is a crowd-pleaser, especially if you have potato salad purists in your crowd. 

Serves: 8

Ingredients

6 medium white or yellow potatoes, about 2½ to 3 pounds, quartered

3 tablespoons white vinegar

2-3 large celery stalks, diced

6 green onions, diced

5 hard-boiled eggs, peeled

1½ cups mayonnaise (or Miracle Whip)

1 tablespoon yellow mustard

1½ teaspoons celery seed

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Paprika to garnish (optional)

Instructions

Bring potatoes to a boil in a large pot of cold water that’s been liberally salted. Reduce the heat to medium-high or a lightly rolling boil and cook for 10-15 minutes or until the potatoes are easily pierced with a paring knife. Drain and let cool until just able to handle.

Peel the skins from the potatoes and cut them into large diced pieces. Transfer the warm potatoes to a large mixing bowl and sprinkle with the white vinegar and stir. Allow the potatoes to cool, about 20 minutes. Add the celery and green onions. Chop 4 of the hard-boiled eggs and add to the potato mixture.

In a medium bowl, mix the mayonnaise, yellow mustard, celery seed and sea salt and pepper. Mix well into the potato mixture and season with more salt and pepper if needed.

Slice the last egg into thin slices and place the slices on top of the salad. Sprinkle with paprika if desired. Chill for at least 1 hour or overnight before serving.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com