Three Secrets to Perfect Potato Salad (and Our Potato Salad Moment)

Perfect Potato Salad

Potato salad is one of those iconic dishes with every family having their unique spin. No matter how delicious, how creamy, how flavorful the salad is, you will never enjoy it unless it tastes like the potato salad your mom/grandpa/auntie made for you while you were growing up.

But there are three things – let’s call them three “secrets” – that will take any potato salad any style from good to WOW!

I’ll get to these three things in just a moment. But first, I just have to share with you my greatest potato salad moment ever. And, Yes, I do have a “potato salad moment.”

Here it is.

In the summer of 2000, I had packed my Mom Van to the ceiling with inner tubes, air rafts, towels, picnic baskets and then headed out for the day’s anticipated adventures. Lost Lake, a magazine worthy pristine lake in the foothills of majestic Mount Hood in Oregon was a favorite of the Kelly family. Breathtaking views abound, including the Matterhorn-ish Mount Hood reflecting in the clear blue lake waters. There are huckleberries aplenty for the picking, easy lakeside hikes, people-friendly chipmunks scurrying at your feet begging for crumbs. Usually I happily smiled at the thought of the fun-filled day that stretched out ahead of me.

But today my heart was racing because my newly rediscovered, all-grown-up daughter Anne was among the precious Mom Van cargo.

My birth daughter Anne, born in 1972, and I had been secretly reunited for almost a year. On this Lost Lake day, Anne joined her first Kelly family outing.

Looking back, my anxiety was sort of silly. I fretted over everything. Would she like us? Would the four Kelly kids behave? Would there just be awkward stares across the picnic table? And the food. My biggest worry was the food. Nowhere was that more apparent than in my fretting over that seemingly benign picnic staple: the potato salad.

What if she hated my version of potato salad? What if her mom made it with more mustard? I should have used fresh dill! I should have asked her if she likes boiled eggs! Does she like sweet or dill pickles? If I am her mom, why-oh-why didn’t I know these things about her?

My family had been making our potato salad the same way for years: chunks of potatoes, creamy mayo-based dressing, dill pickles, hard boiled eggs. But what about Anne’s family? Did they like their potato salad sweet or vinegar-y? Celery or no? Flecks of red pepper? Onion tang or without?

Back then, I didn’t know how to approach issues such as the Family Potato Salad. There are no rule books to consult for reuniting with your long-absent biological child. No potato salad etiquette. No Emily Post to consult.

As we unpacked the Mom Van, I resigned myself to making the best of things and apologizing profusely as needed.

It started out to be a lovely day. Anne joined in with the Kelly kids. They all skipped around, arms linked, singing their mountain songs repertoire. Valder-ie! Valder-a! Valdera-ha-ha-ha! They floated and splashed. They chased chipmunks and gathered tadpoles. We all hiked around the whole lake.

When it came time to eat, Anne shared with us her vegan hot dogs, unappealingly named “Tofu Pups.” My sweet son Jake’s words were: “You can hardly tell the difference!” But the choking sound he made spoke volumes. He clearly just wanted to make his newly discovered sister fell loved, accepted, part of us. But then the dreaded moment came: the potato salad tasting.

It turns out I need not have worried. I later would come to know my rediscovered daughter Anne as a gracious and generous soul. But for that moment, I gratefully absorbed her “ooh’s” and “ahh’s” over my potato salad. She even miraculously ate seconds.

And then, of course, I cried. Tears of joy, to be sure, but mostly tears of relief.

She liked my potato salad. She liked us. She liked me. Everything was going to be all right.

So, I will never eat a bite of potato salad in my life without being back in that glorious day in the summer of 2000, when my rediscovered daughter Anne, now my co-blogger, joined our family.

And now back to the three secrets.

SECRET ONE. You must place bite-sized chunks of potato in salted water and boil until fork tender and then you must drain and spread those chunks out on a baking sheet or large cutting board. This will let the steam escape and the chunks will dry out and be perfectly light and dry. They will have a perfect texture and will not be soggy or gummy like they would if you leave them in the cooking pot to cool.

SECRET TWO. You must chill the cooled potato chunks and all ingredients except the dressing in the fridge for at least four hours, up to overnight. This lets the flavors blend and readies the salad for the dressing.

SECRET THREE. You must mix the dressing and chill it SEPARATELY in the fridge. You must then stir it into the salad right before serving. This technique insures that the potatoes will stay light and fluffy and the dressing will stay separate and not get absorbed. This makes for a perfect creamy potato salad.

potato chunks cooling

Chunks of cooked potatoes spread on a baking sheet to cool – allowing steam to escape.

potatoe salad chilling

Chill potato mixture withOUT the dressing to ensure the perfect potato salad texture.

Three Secrets to Perfect Potato Salad
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
A no fail version of the iconic All American picnic dish.
Recipe type: Side Dish
Cuisine: American
Serves: 12 servings
  • 5 pounds Russet potatoes
  • 6 large eggs, hard boiled
  • 3 stalks celery, with leaves, diced
  • ½ cup diced dill pickles
  • 3 green onions, thinly sliced
  • ½ cup minced fresh dill
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 packet (1 ounce) Hidden Valley Ranch dressing mix
  • ½ cup dill pickle juice (from a jar of dill pickles)
  1. Peel potatoes and cut into 2 inch chunks. Place in a pot of well salted water. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Cook until potato chunks are fork tender, about 10 minutes.
  2. Drain off water and then spread the cooked potato chunks on a baking sheet or large cutting board. Let the steam escape, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are dried.
  3. Place potatoes in a large serving bowl. Peel and dice the eggs. Stir into the potatoes the eggs, celery, diced pickles, green onions and dill. Cover and refrigerate for a minimum of four hours, up to 24 hours.
  4. Mix together the mayonnaise, ranch mix and pickle juice. Toss with the chilled potatoes mixture right before serving. Sprinkle with paprika for a traditional presentation

Other family heirloom potato salads:

Best Potato Salad, Foodie Crush
Potato Salad, Inspired Taste
Best Ever Potato Salad, Brown Eyed Baker


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