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Pass the Potato Salad

It's Gameday. You have everything ready for your tailgate. Crackers, cheese, beer, pickles, meat for the barbeque, baked beans, stuffed squash, broccoli cheddar balls, potato chip cups, dip, wings, and good old potato salad. Potato salad -- that delicious mixture of eggs, potatoes, pickles, and mayonnaise all served up to make the day. Of course, you have to be careful that the potato salad doesn't become a foodborne illness villain.

Potato Salad and Foodborne Illness

One of the first assignments in my graduate school epidemiology course was identifying the culprit of a foodborne illness outbreak from a picnic. The ultimate perpetrator....potato salad. Mayonnaise is often blamed for causing outbreaks, but that is not the case. Potato salad is a combination of many different ingredients (see my recipe below), and those ingredients put together create an environment for bacteria to grow. Many of the ingredients in potato salad have low pH. The pH registers the acidity level of different foods. Anything less than 7 is considered acidic, and anything higher than 7 is considered basic or alkaline. Potatoes and eggs are naturally alkaline foods. Their pH levels aren't over 7, but close enough when compared to other ingredients. Mayonnaise, on the other hand, is considered acidic. Mustard, vinegar, and pickles are also acidic. Essentially, making potato salad is a chemistry experiment. Acids and bases are working against each other to create a tasty dish or to create a breeding ground for bacteria.

How To Stay Safe

Dishes with multiple ingredients don't have to cause problems. Proper food preparation, storage, and serving temperature can help with reducing risk of foodborne illness. I am going to talk about how I prepare potato salad right now, and I will discuss how the steps reduce the risk of foodborne illness. 

I start my potato salad the night before or a few hours before I am going to serve the potato salad. I usually start with six potatoes and six eggs. I wash the potatoes first. Then, I peel the potatoes because I don't want to risk any dirt or bacteria that is on the potato skins to get in the dish. I add the potatoes to boiling water. I set a timer to 20 minutes, because overcooking potatoes reduces whatever flavor potatoes have and makes the potatoes taste soggy. When finished, I drain the potatoes, give them a chance to cool down, and then I cut them into pieces. I then place those pieces in a dish, cover it, and let it sit in the refrigerator for a few hours.

I repeat the same with eggs. I put the eggs in the pan first and then add cool water. I set the timer and cook them for 10 minutes. When they are done, I drain the water from the eggs and move the eggs to a separate bowl allowing them to cool. If I boiled my eggs correctly, then the shells come right off. Again, I cut the eggs into pieces, place the eggs into a small bowl and put the bowl in the refrigerator the night before or several hours before I am going to serve the potato salad. 

Pickles are often already cool, but as a time saving technique I will chop them the night before or several hours before I am going to serve the potato salad. That way, all the ingredients are ready to go when I am ready to prepare the food. By not mixing the foods right away, I am preventing the bases and acids in the foods from interacting. Keeping the ingredients refrigerated at or below 40 degrees, prevents bacteria from growing. 

I'm not a big fan of raw onions, so I typically do not dice onions for the potato salad. I may choose to add scallions or chives, however. Again, I would dice those ingredients and store them in the refrigerator until I am ready to put my potato salad together.

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Serve It Up Healthy

When I am about ready to serve the potato salad, and I mean within 30 minutes or less, I get all the ingredients out and put them in a large mixing bowl. I dump in the potatoes, eggs, pickles, chives, and scallions. Now, I need to add the ingredients that increase the acidity level of the potato salad, although not to the point that they overwhelm the taste of the alkaline foods. I use mayonnaise in my potato salad, but you can use sour cream as a substitute. To add extra flavor, I use dijon mustard as opposed to plain mustard. I also throw in a splash of vinegar for good measure. Honestly, I am more of a dump-things-in kind of person and don't really measure things out. I'll provide my best guess for my measurements in my recipe, though.

Most importantly, when I serve the potato salad, I make sure it doesn't stay at room temperature for very long. Because of the mixture of alkaline and acidic ingredients, potato salad needs to stay cool and should not be at a warm temperature. Think of it this way, keep your potato salad as cool as you would keep your beer. Would you serve warm, skunky beer to your guests? Most likely not. Then, don't serve warm, skunky potato salad to your guests, either. Keep the potato salad in the refrigerator or in a cooler that is less than 40 degrees when not serving it. Do not leave it out for hours at a time, unless you want to visit your sick guests or family members the next day.

My Potato Salad

6 red potatoes boiled

6 hard-boiled eggs

1/2 cup Hamburger Dill pickles

1 tbsp dijon mustard

1/8 to 1/4 C mayonnaise (to taste)

1/4 C scallions

1 tbsp chives

Splash of vinegar

Pepper to taste

Salt to taste. I typically don't use salt because I think we get enough in our diets already.