Americans love cold potato salad loaded with mayonnaise. But that’s not the only way to make it. For a different and often lighter take on potato salad, look to Europe and its creative uses of vinaigrette.
Potato salad generally needs three things besides potatoes: fat, acid and flavorings.
In the case of classic American potato salad, the fat and acid come together in the mayonnaise (sometimes in combination with no-fat but high-acid mustard). In a mayo-free potato salad, the fat and acid are typically combined from scratch in the form of a homemade vinaigrette.
Below are recipes that take inspiration from France, Italy, Greece and Germany in potato salads that show you how to hold the mayo.
My French-style potato salad combines Dijon mustard, lemon juice and capers. Mixed with some olive oil and shallot (or onion), it’s a plain but plain delicious salad. Variations include the addition of sliced radishes or sliced cornichons (tiny, tart and crunchy pickles).
The Italian potato salad may seem familiar to Southern cooks in that it combines potatoes with green beans. But unlike the old-fashioned Southern side of green beans and potatoes, this has an oregano-garlic vinaigrette with parsley, dill or both. This salad also is simple, but it can be dressed up with fresh mozzarella balls, salami, marinated artichokes and similar ingredients.
Speaking of meat, the classic German potato salad, served warm, is revered in large part because it has bacon, but its overall signature flavor comes from a dressing that’s made with bacon drippings, sugar, mustard and vinegar.
Finally, if you like Greek salad, you may want to try Greek potato salad. This one takes a bit of a kitchen-sink approach, adding bell pepper, onion, cucumber, olives and feta to the potatoes. It’s tangy with a lot of crunch from the raw vegetables.
Mayo-free potato salads are good for picnics, because oil and vinegar doesn’t spoil in the heat the way mayonnaise does.
Here are a few tips for making great mayo-free potato salads:
- The best potatoes for all kinds of salads are those low in starch, which gives them a denser, moister texture. The low amount of starch helps them hold their shape after cooking, even when cut. Sometimes called boiling potatoes or waxy potatoes, low-starch potatoes include red-skinned potatoes. Red Bliss is probably the ideal boiling and salad potato. New (small and thin-skinned) potatoes typically are low in starch. Fingerlings fall into this category, too.
- Some all-purpose, medium-starch potatoes sometimes used in potato salads include Yukon Gold and Kennebec, but they don’t hold together quite as well in salads as low-starch potatoes — and when they fall apart they are particularly noticeable in mayo-free potato salads because the broken pieces can’t hide in mayo. Russets and Idahos — high-starch potatoes that are great for French fries and baked potatoes — are not recommended for potato salad.
- Ideally, potatoes are cooked whole to retain the most flavor. The skins help the potatoes to avoid leeching flavor into the cooking water. But sometimes it’s more practical to cut the potatoes before cooking them — as with the thin slices in French potato salad.
- Cook potatoes gently in plenty of water. To make the cooking process gradual and gentle, start the potatoes in cold or room-temperature water. That way, the potatoes are heated gradually along with the water. Once the water comes to a simmer or light boil, reduce the heat to maintain a low simmer.
- Most mayo-free potato salads call for leaving the skin on, partly because the varieties of potatoes used typically have thin skins.
- Cutting potatoes with a serrated knife will minimize tearing of the skin.
- It is best to dress the potatoes while warm. The warm temperature is key is helping the potatoes absorb the dressing.