Since 2005, I have hosted five German exchange students. Like most teenagers, they are all very different people with varying interests and opinions, but one thing I’m certain they would all agree on is that the stuff we like to call “German” potato salad here in the U.S. is anything but German. Most of the kids are able to denounce it right on sight. Either it’s too mushy, oily or, worst of all, flavorless.
My second student, Julius, who comes from Freiburg, in the Black Forrest region, shares my interest in cooking, and is quite a good cook. Since he is the one who motivated me to create this website, I asked him if he would be willing to contribute something from time to time. Fortunately for all of you out there desperately searching for an authentic German potato salad recipe, Julius has chosen that as his first post.
Cooking is truly one of the joys of my life. For some reason, ever since my childhood, I’ve gravitated towards cooking. Now that I am in college, I notice this more than ever. People keep questioning how I can spend so much time in the kitchen, but I simply love it.
Potato salad has been one of those things I always wanted to be good at. So I spent a lot of time cooking and perfecting it. 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, you will make a delicious salad.
The consistency of the potatoes is critical. If you use starchy potatoes, your potato salad will be more like 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. I’ve also found that smaller potatoes make for a better salad. In the U.S., red-skinned potatoes, new potatoes, and white round potatoes are all good choices.
When boiling the potatoes, they should be almost cooked through. Quickly peel the potatoes after cooking them, because it is a lot easier while they are still hot. Before cutting them, allow the potatoes to rest for at least 2 – 3 hours at room temperature, but 4 – 5 hours of resting is optimal. This resting period is what ends up developing the wax-like structure in the potatoes. Using potatoes from the day before will work too.
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 trusted 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 good meat, doesn’t lose water quickly. Inquire at the meat counter of your supermarket to see if they sell slab bacon, which dices nicely. 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. What you need to remember is that the dressing is supposed to be soaked up by the potatoes. The reason why I am mentioning this is because it’s important. The intensity and saltiness of the vinaigrette doesn’t directly translate into the potatoes. 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 it also reduces the intensity of the vinegar. Thus, creating a dressing that otherwise tastes too strong to for a regular salad is key 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 more quickly 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
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 1/3 cup (150 ml) veal broth
2 tablespoons (50 ml) white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon prepared mustard
Salt and pepper
Parsley or chives
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 1/4 – 1/2-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.
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. Cut the chives or parsley and add it before serving.
Makes 4 servings.
Adapted from a recipe by Johann Lafer.