Potato salad resulted from Spanish explorers applying European culinary traditions to a New World vegetable in the 16th century. The first potato salads likely were cooked and dressed with vinegar and/or wine, not the creamy mayonnaise concoctions typical on today’s American picnic tables.
So from whence the ubiquitous American mayo-based potato salad? German immigrants brought a warm potato salad recipe, that called for bacon, onion and vinegar, with them to the United States in the 19th century. But mayonnaise, a French condiment, was not available in America until the early 1900s and, since it is a labor intensive sauce to make by hand, it did not become popular in salads until commercial brands, like Hellmann’s and Miracle Whip, emerged in the mid-20th century.
This has led some to postulate that Mr. Hellmann himself could have introduced mayo-based potato salad (in addition to mayo-based coleslaw) to Americans in order to market his condiment. An immigrant from northern Germany, Hellmann opened a delicatessen on Columbus Avenue in New York City in 1905. The salads he served, made with his wife’s recipe for mayonnaise, became so popular that, in 1912, he built a factory to bottle the mayonnaise for wider distribution. By 1917, he closed his deli to devote full time to his mayonnaise business. In the early 1950s, Good Housekeeping Magazine published a recipe for “creamy potato salad” made with Hellmann’s mayonnaise.
Potato salad tips:
- Most potato salad recipes call for waxy, low starch potatoes because they hold their shape when boiled (baking potatoes, like russets, are higher in starch and more likely to turn to mush during cooking), their high moisture content results in a creamy texture, and they have better flavor when dressed than baking potatoes do. Yukon Gold, a medium-starch, all purpose potato, is widely available year round and is a good choice for salads.
- Buy potatoes that are roughly the same size so they cook evenly.
- While many cooks will advise you to dress the cooked potatoes while they are still warm so they absorb more flavor, they are easier to cut into uniform slices (and less apt to crumble) if you allow them to cool before proceeding.
Hellmann’s Blue Ribbon Mayonnaise, by the way, remains the most popular mayonnaise in the United States. It was bought by Best Foods, a San Francisco-based company, in 1932. Afterwards, Hellmann’s mayo (or a very close approximation) was sold on the East coast as Hellmann’s Blue Ribbon mayo and on the West coast as Best Foods mayo (“Bring out the Hellmann’s and bring out the Best!”).