June 29, 2017
Potato Salad: A Course Correction
Grilled Potato Salad (4 of 7)

In an ongoing column, Mary-Frances Heck writes about the curious histories, techniques, and recipes that center around our favorite starchy vegetable: the potato. You can read the previous installments about New York salt potatoes, and the mysterious origins of the vichyssoiseHere, she writes about battling bland potato salad with the help of salt, heat, and smoke.

It’s ever-present in the summertime, sitting next to platters of grilled tube steaks and boiled sweet corn—an obligatory mound of pale white potato salad made by the cookout’s host the night before with ease (and not much else) in mind. There are carefully cut cubes of potato, some kind of onion, and occasionally some bits of hard-boiled egg, all bound together with a mayonnaise-based dressing. More often than not, that first bite is disappointingly mushy and astonishingly under-seasoned. But it’s cheap to make and dependably filling—and someone will always be drunk enough to have a few more bites at the end of the night.

But potato salad doesn’t have to be such a purely utilitarian dish. Potatoes, especially served during the summer when they are freshest, should be celebrated—rather than relegated to the blandest bowl on the table. The key to a great salad? Grilling the potatoes so they are both tender and slightly smoky, pairing them with contrasting textures like crunchy onions and pickles, and adding the right amount of salt throughout.

One of the most important things to know when it comes to seasoning potatoes is that they have a unique ability to absorb massive amounts of salt. When I was first learning to cook, a chef taught me to fix an over-seasoned soup by adding a few whole potatoes, simmering for 20 minutes, then removing and discarding the potatoes. The soup had magically become less salty, thanks to the sodium-starved starch in the potatoes creating an osmotic equilibrium with their saline surroundings.

Because of this sodium-absorbing quality, spuds require layers and layers of seasoning—so each bite tastes great on its own. In the case of potato salad, where the ingredients need time to meld, the quantity and frequency of seasoning may alarm some people. To start, I like to season the potato cooking water so it is “salty like the sea.” Then, I cut the potatoes in half, rub them with oil and sprinkle them with a little salt before setting them on the grill. After grilling for a few minutes, they are diced and dressed with what may seem like an unreasonable amount of mayonnaise, mustard and pickle juice, along with herbs, onions and some diced pickles (this is salad after all, so there has to be something green and crunchy).

The result is a salad where each bite is loaded with flavor—not just the bites where you happen to catch a stray herb. By searing the potatoes (and the onion to boot) until just charred, but retaining a bit of crunch, the smoke of the grill perfumes the whole dish, and you’re left with a salad that’s ready to pull its weight—not just weigh the picnic table down.

Grilled Potato Salad

Grilled Potato Salad

12 servings


  • 5 pounds medium Yukon gold potatoes
  • kosher salt
  • 4 tablespoons neutral oil, divided
  • 2 large Vidalia onions, peeled and cut into 1-inch thick slices
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • ½ cup dill pickle juice
  • 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • ½ cup chopped fresh dill
  • ½ cup chopped fresh chives
  • ½ cup chopped dill pickles
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon sugar, or more to taste

This potato salad is intentionally seasoned multiple times during the cooking process, so please trust us and don’t skip any of the layers of flavor. First the potatoes are simmered in salty water, then seasoned again before grilling. Then a pickle and mustard dressing adds another layer of salt and some acid. The salad retains its flavor for several days in the fridge.

  1. Heat a grill to medium-high or build a medium fire in a charcoal grill.
  2. Scrub the potatoes and place them in a large pot. Add ¼ cup salt and cover with cool water by 2 inches. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium and simmer until a knife inserted into the potatoes meets only a touch of resistance, about 25 minutes
  3. Drain the potatoes and let cool slightly. When cool enough to handle, slice the potatoes in half lengthwise. Arrange them on a tray and rub the potatoes with a few tablespoons of oil, then sprinkle with salt. Grill them on all sides until crisped and charred, about 5 minutes. Return to the tray and let cool slightly.
  4. Rub the onion slices with the remaining few tablespoons of oil. Grill, turning often, until charred and heated through but still crunchy, about 8 minutes. Place on the tray with the potatoes to cool slightly.
  5. In a large bowl, whisk the mayonnaise, pickle juice and mustard until smooth. Stir in the dill, chives, pickles, pepper and sugar.
  6. When cool enough to handle, cut the potatoes and onions into 1-inch pieces, ensuring a bit of char on each piece. Add the potatoes and onions to the bowl with the dressing and fold gently to coat. Cover and chill the potato salad for at least 2 hours or preferably overnight. Before serving, taste the salad and adjust seasoning with sugar, salt and pepper to taste.

Mary-Frances Heck

Mary-Frances Heck is a food writer and chef. She is the former head recipe developer for Lucky Peach and test kitchen director of Bon Appétit. Her first cookbook, Sweet Potatoes: Roasted, Loaded, Fried, and Made Into Pie, will be published in the fall of 2017.

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