Potato salad is any type of hot or cold salad that uses potatoes as the main ingredient. Despite the popularity of potato salad in the United States, this dish is not an American creation. Although there is some debate as to where potato salad recipes first originated, many food historians believe the hearty dish first cropped up in Germany, a country with a lot of potatoes, a variety of potato recipes, and thrifty citizens who don’t like to waste a thing.
The Germans liked their food sour with a tangy bite, so the “German potato salad” recipes called for making a dressing of hot vinegar, onions, and bacon drippings. Served warm, some versions used a little course mustard and some made the salad a little less sour by adding a bit of sugar. Known as an economy dish, the potato salad was a way to use up the bits and dabs of leftover potatoes.
When potato salads reached other parts of Europe, however, cooks added their own twist to the dish. French chefs, for instance, disliked the taste of the hot vinegar and converted the recipes to include a full-scale vinaigrette. As a result, “French potato salad” recipes use potatoes and a dressing made of vinegar, Dijon mustard, and sweet tarragon. Italian potato salad recipes, on the other hand, tended to use an olive oil and vinegar dressing mixed with potatoes, parsley, and ample chunks of salami. Potato salads in Greece, however, were warm salads made with potatoes dressed with garlic, lemon, and olive oil.
Potato salads were introduced to America in the latter part of the 19th century by European immigrants who had to adapt their traditional recipes to use local ingredients. This is why there are so many regional potato salad recipe variations in the United States.
The American potato salad is heavier and heartier than European versions. While early recipes usually required a “French dressing,” mayonnaise took its place as a congealer during the 1940s. In addition to chunks of potatoes and a lot of mayonnaise, cooks can add a variety of additions such as hard-boiled eggs, mustard, sweet pickles, celery, pimento, onion, parsley, or chives. Some versions of potato salad recipes call for ham or salami.
In America, potato salad is considered a casual fare, and is often served at picnics, barbecues, and hot dog cookouts. Potato salad has enjoyed continued popularity because it still calls for only inexpensive ingredients, it can be made in large quantities, and it can be prepared in advance and left in the refrigerator until it’s needed.