Secrets to German Potato Salad

Often what passes for German Potato Salad here in the U.S. is so far removed from the real thing it’s a wonder international laws aren’t violated.  Some believe all it takes is a little oil, vinegar and bacon, but dump and stir recipes usually yield an oily, gloppy mess.  It takes a little German know-how to get Kartoffelsalat just right. So we turned to an actual German, KJ contributing writer Julius Kuhn-Regnier, to show us the proper techniques for making authentic German Potato Salad as good as any you’d find in the Swabian region.

Because it is such a German classic, Kartoffelsalat, or potato salad, has been one of those dishes I have longed to master. Over the years, I have spent much time cooking and perfecting my techniques. I have tried several approaches, but this one, which I adapted from a recipe by renown German chef Johann Lafer, is probably my favorite.

In order to make a good German potato salad, you need to focus on the three key components – the potatoes, the bacon and the vinaigrette. If you address each of these properly, what results is a delicious, authentic salad with the perfect balance of flavors.

How to Select and Prepare the Potatoes

The consistency of the potatoes is critical. If you use starchy potatoes, your potato salad will be closer to potato puree. You will want to use small hard-boiling potatoes. What we are ideally going for is a wax-like structure so when you cut the potatoes they don’t fall apart. In the U.S., Yukon Gold, Carola, Inca Gold, Rose Gold, Red Bliss and New potatoes are all good choices. Avoid Russet potatoes at all costs.

I have found that smaller potatoes make for a better salad, but try to select potatoes that are roughly the same size. This will ensure even cooking.

Do not slice the potatoes before cooking. Boil them whole to ensure a more consistent texture. You can peel them if you like, but I prefer to cook mine with the skin on and quickly peel them after cooking while they are still hot.  Some might find this a challenge, but you’d be surprised how easily the skins pull away. Use a clean kitchen towel to avoid burning your fingers.

Pull the potatoes from the water when they are slightly under cooked. Residual heat will carry them the rest of the way.

Before cutting them, allow the potatoes to rest for at least 2 – 3 hours at room temperature, but 4 – 5 hours is optimal. This resting period is helps develop the wax-like structure in the potatoes. Using potatoes cooked the day before will work as well.

Selecting the Right Bacon

Bacon adds a lot of flavor and richness to the salad. Thus I make sure to only use a good quality bacon. Here in Germany, I always go to my local butcher where I know they provide great meat. In the U.S., butchers are not as common. I don’t recommend getting the prepackaged diced bacon. I’ve used bacon like that several times, and you can usually see the result when you start heating the bacon. Instead of browning, the bacon loses a lot of water. This is obviously not what we want. Much of the flavor we are able to get from the salad is through the browning process of the bacon and onions. Good bacon, like other quality meats, doesn’t lose water quickly. Inquire at the meat counter of your supermarket to see if they sell slab bacon, which dices nicely. Cut it into thick slices, cook, and then dice. If package bacon is all that is available, selected a quality brand, preferably thick sliced.

The Vinaigrette – A Warm Potato Salad Dressing

The vinaigrette is the third essential ingredient of the salad. It must have a lot of flavor. Since the potatoes are unseasoned, they must derive flavor from the intensity and saltiness of the vinaigrette. That’s why the vinaigrette needs to be a little too salty and too acidic. It’s also important to note that oil brings the flavors together, and balances the vinegar. Thus, creating a dressing that otherwise tastes too strong for a regular salad is essential in this one.

Why do we cook the vinaigrette? First of all, the process of heating the onions softens them and reduces their pungency, while the browning adds flavor. Most importantly, the potatoes will soak-up a hot dressing faster than a cold one.

The following is a basic recipe, which, by itself is very good, but you can easily alter it for a different effect. For example, by using an infused vinegar, you can add more complexity to the salad. I simply love the nutty flavor of brown butter, but you can also use canola oil to get a lighter taste.

AUTHENTIC GERMAN POTATO SALAD
 
Serves: 4 servings
INGREDIENTS
  • 1½ lbs (600 g) potatoes
  • 3-4 ounces (100 g) bacon, good quality, about 3 slices
  • 2 medium white or red onions
  • 6 tablespoons (90 g) butter, unsalted
  • Scant ⅓ cup (150 ml) veal or low-sodium vegetable broth (See notes below.)
  • 2 tablespoons (50 ml) white wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon prepared mustard
  • Salt and pepper
  • Fresh parsley, chives, or dill chopped
METHOD
  1. Cook the potatoes until almost done about 20 minutes and peel right away. Allow them to cool for a minimum of 2 – 3 hours. Cut them into ¼ – ½-inch (1-2 cm) slices. Dice the onions and bacon. Heat 4 tablespoons (50 g) butter in a pan over medium heat, then add the onions and bacon. Continue to cook over medium heat until onions begin to soften and bacon is browned.
  2. Add the vinegar and reduce it a bit. Add the veal broth and stir in the tablespoon of mustard until completely dissolved. Add salt and pepper to taste. Then pour it over the cut potatoes. Let it rest for at least 1 – 2 hours. Meanwhile melt the remaining butter in a small pan and allow it to brown. Once it’s brown let it cool down and pour it over the potato salad. Garnish with parsley, chives or dill.
NOTES
Adapted from a recipe by Johann Lafer

 kb_veal_stockAbout Veal Stock

While veal stock is a staple of finer European cuisines, it has not been readily available in U.S. supermarkets until very recently. Kitchen Basics, a division of McCormick, offers a line of stocks that go beyond just chicken and beef to include veal, turkey and seafood.

Their veal stock, made from veal and beef concentrates, is all-natural, contains no MSG, and is relatively low in sodium at 330 mg per cup.  Taste testers generally liked it’s “light beef flavor” and convenience.

Julius Kuhn-Regnier
After completing college and helping build a tech start-up in Berlin, Julius turned his pursuits to the culinary world. He trained at the famed Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and just recently completed the Masters Program at The University of Gastronomic Sciences (UNISG) in Bra, Italy.

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  • I enjoyed reading your every word. I have been the designated German potato salad chef at family gatherings since my Mother is no longer able to make it. I love to watch everyone enjoy my creation. Thank you for tips I never knew before such as using slab bacon and veal broth as well as the mustard. oh yes, also the brown butter. I can’t wait to enjoy the delicious changes. Thank you so much!

  • Thanks so much for sharing this! After much research, I decided on your recipe as my first attempt at German potato salad. My fiancé and his German friends all loved it! Well worth the time and effort it takes to prepare. This will be part of my regular rotation. Thanks again!

    • Hi Louise. Excellent question! Veal or even beef broth is added to provide depth of flavor. Of course, the impact of flavor is dependent on the quality of the broth.