Ooh la la! Mon Dieu! You’re not saying.… What is this world coming to?” The word was out— Americans were putting mayonnaise in their potato salad. My cousin Gérard had seen it on a ski trip to Colorado. I was ten years old when the rumor buzzed though our tiny village in the Alps at the speed of a downhill racer.
To us in the provinces, mayonnaise on potato salad was a bizarre idea, and everyone had something to say about it. It was right after this that I started to pay closer attention to my mother’s version of potato salad, the one my whole family took for granted because it seemed so easy.
The secret is dressing the potatoes while they’re still warm. What makes French potato salad different from the kind made with mayonnaise is that you’re building layers of flavor, starting with giving the potatoes themselves a shot of intense flavor, rather than just coating them with a dressing.
The key to “layering” is to douse the potatoes while they’re still warm with a sharp, strong liquid—usually wine or vinegar. The finished salad is light and tangy, with the potatoes taking on an almost creamy texture from soaking up the liquid and drawing it right to their centers.
Yukon Gold potatoes are the best choice because they’re absorbent but firm. I like to keep the skins on, both for the look and for the flavor. A high-starch baking potato like an Idaho is great at absorbing flavors, too, but it’s more apt to crumble when you toss it, and it can feel grainy in a potato salad. Red-skinned potatoes (lower in starch and more likely to stay intact) don’t absorb as much of the dressing as I like them to, leaving a little too much oil at the bottom of the bowl, but they’re a good second choice.
To get the best flavor, boil potatoes in plenty of well-salted water until they’re fork-tender. I find that when I bake potatoes for this salad, they actually soak up too much liquid, leaving none behind as a dressing. Baking is fine if you like your potatoes a little on the crumbly, dry side.
Be sure the potatoes are warm when you toss them with the wine and oil so they sponge up the most flavor. It’s very important not to let the potatoes get cool before you start to dress them. And toss gently: hot potatoes fall apart more easily than cool ones. You can even cook the potatoes in advance, whole and unpeeled. Before slicing and dressing them, warm them through in boiling, salted water.
First comes white wine or vinegar, along with salt and pepper. This initial absorption is key for the best flavor. Then comes the olive oil to finish the dressing. While you don’t actually make a vinaigrette, the elements of a vinaigrette are absorbed by the potatoes. Then, after the potatoes have cooled slightly, you toss in the rest of the ingredients. I prefer white pepper here; to me, it looks better than black.
Serve this potato salad at room temperature. The oil will stay liquid, which makes for the best taste and texture (and for easier serving), and the flavors of all the ingredients are better when they’re not muted from the cold.