Basically, a potato salad is a combination of potatoes, salad dressing or mayonnaise, vegetables like onions and celery, seasonings, and sometimes eggs. Because salad dressings and mayonnaise can spoil quickly potato salads need to be kept cool from the beginning of preparation. There are potato salads that are prepared and served hot, but for those creamy potato salads served cold, you will need to keep them cold at all times. This also includes letting the potatoes cool down significantly after you have boiled them. This helps to maintain and cooled environment from the onset of preparation.
While a potato salad seems like a pretty basic dish, you might want to improve your salads with the right potato. The traditional potato is of course the russet or Idaho potato. This is the potato you always see in a large pile or in big bags at the grocery store. Now, while this is a great potato for baking and making French fries it is not necessarily the right potato for boiling and making into salads. You might want to try one of the high moisture, waxy potatoes like the red potato, Yellow Finn or Yukon Gold. I prefer the Yukon gold because they have a superior texture.
When boiling potatoes you want to make sure you get them to the perfect point and then get them right out of the hot water. Potatoes can be boiled whole or cut into smaller pieces. The boiling time is reduced the smaller the pieces. You also want to add salt to the water before you add the potatoes. When the potatoes are tender enough to bite through, but before it becomes mushy, remove them from the water. At this point you want to dry them. This can be done by either returning the potatoes to the empty pot or by placing on a cookie sheet in the oven for a few minutes. You dont want to cook the potatoes any more at this point but you want to get the water off of them. This helps dressings, oils and seasonings to sink into the potatoes.
Potatoes absorb flavors the best while they are hot and while you shouldn't add anything that can be spoiled by heat, you will want to add seasonings while they are still hot. A light mixture of oil with whatever herbs and spices you want can be added to the potatoes by tossing everything together in a large bowl. Now, for cold salads, its best to let the potatoes cool before completing your salad.
What else goes in a potato salad? Salad dressings and/or mayonnaise are typical but as for the seasonings that's entirely up to you. Try diced vegetables like onions, celery, carrots or whatever you have in the refrigerator. Fresh herbs and mustards are also good additions. Remember, if you are going to be making potato salads you will need to personalize your own recipe, its tradition.