Hold the Mayo, Make Grilled Potato Salad for Your Next Cookout

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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A smoky, crisp, and brightly-flavored potato salad from the grill. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Come summertime, I try to cook as many things as I can outdoors. You must know what that's like. Your grill is a hammer and every single edible thing in the house is a nail. I've been a fan of grilled potatoes ever since the first time I tried them a decade and a half ago, and a well-constructed, bright, fresh, balanced potato salad is one of my cookout go-tos. So I have no idea why it took so long to occur to me to put the two together.

It turns out that grilled potato salad is damn tasty. But it's not quite as simple as throwing your potatoes on the grill, cutting them up, and tossing them with mayonnaise or dressing. For a salad with a range of textures and flavors that complement the charred smokiness from the grill, a little more finessing is required. Here's how I did it.

Getting Crispy

Traditional potato salad is tender, but I knew one thing for certain: if I'm putting those potatoes on the grill, I want them to come out crisp. Simply throwing raw potatoes on the grill doesn't get you there. Any crispness that develops disappears very quickly after you remove those 'taters from the grates. And it also takes ages to cook raw potatoes on a grill.

Instead, I used the same technique I employ for my Ultra-Crispy Roast Potato recipe: I par-boil the potatoes in water.

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This not only hastens the cooking process, but also gelatinizes starches within the potato which allows them to subsequently form a much thicker, more substantial crust when you dehydrate them over the hot grill.

After boiling the potatoes to tenderness, I split them in half and toss them with a mixture of herbs and olive oil.

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The real key to this step is to forget about gentleness. You want the potatoes to get roughed up, so that excess starch gets worked into a paste that forms a thin layer on the surface of the potatoes. As the potatoes grill, this starch will provide an extra level of crispness, thanks to the increased surface area it adds.

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I tried cooking the potatoes over varying degrees of heat and found that taking a bit more time to cook them over a moderate fire is worth the extra effort in terms of the crispness it gets you.

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By the time you flip the potatoes a few minutes later, there should be areas that are shatteringly crisp and nicely charred.

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I take the potatoes off the grill as they cook to completion, replacing them with new potatoes as I go (if you've ever wondered where your grill's hot and cool spots is, you'll find out fast when you're cooking these).

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Originally I started by making a quick dressing made with lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, and chopped herbs, along with shallots and sliced scallions. Then I took a look at those lemons in my hands. With the grill running, those lemons started looking an awful lot like nails to me.

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Onto the grill they went to add a bit of sweet* browning action.

*Yes, I mean that in both senses of the word.

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With so much flavor and textural contrast packed into those potatoes, I found that a mayo-based dressing only ended up masking the work I'd just done. The simple lemon vinaigrette was a much better fit. Warm potatoes and whole grain mustard are practically made for each other (think: German potato salad), so I added a big dollop of that to the mix as well.

If you're the kind of person who likes to grill their bacon, a) I love you and b) you could do worse than to add a handful of chopped grilled bacon to this mix.

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You know how I mentioned that my grill makes everything look like a nail in the summer? Well if this grilled potato salad doesn't start making your fingers look like forks the moment you finish tossing it, you ought to get something checked out.