Many recipes for potato salad state that one should place the salad in the refrigerator after preparing. Some recipes state that one hour is enough. Others ask for several hours. Some recipes even require it to be stored overnight before being served. Why do these recipes have this requirement?
Refrigerating accomplishes several things:
- It is the right temperature to get the intended flavor. Flavors change with temperature, and some dishes get the correct taste when cold.
- Flavors get to blend more. Aromatic spices sometimes take time to soak into the sauce, and liquids absorb into the potatoes more
- Cold is an easy way to prevent spoilage. Potato salad usually contains mayonnaise, which is a natural growth medium for bacteria. By cooling the salad you can leave it out to serve for a couple hours without risking illness.
Food safety of Potato Salad: For potato salad, you have about 2 hours of safe eating in the 40-140F temperature range. Refrigerating is an easy way to extend this, by cooling below 40F. For hot salads, you can either reheat before serving, or keep it hotter than 140F by using a chafing dish and can of Sterno.
About Mayonnaise in Potato Salad: Commercial mayonnaise is too acidic to spoil easily, but when mixed in with potato salad it can be diluted enough to spoil. It is better to refrigerate than take the risk, right? If you use homemade mayonnaise, you run the risk of salmonella on top of this.
I love warm potato salad, especially with a salty porky dinner like oktoberfest sausages. If you are making it and serving it right away, it is not going to poison anyone - think of all those recipes for garlic mashed potatoes that basically involve stirring a mayo-based garlicy caesar salad dressing into mashed potatoes. After dinner if there is any left I put it in the fridge. (The next day, my teens are quite likely to microwave their portions - they prefer to eat it warm.)
Now if you're making it to take to a picnic, that's a different story. Get it cold right away and keep it cold while you're transporting it. But there's no need if it's for immediate consumption.
I'm with Kate on serving temperature, although Bob has a significant point about the flavors marrying. In truth, it's often just worth refrigerating the salad well in large gathering scenarios, as Kate mentioned, and if someone wants it warm, they can request that their portion be removed from refrigeration early or actively warmed. The serving temp is really a matter of personal opinion, as far as I can tell.
Disclaimer: completely subjective and in a hurry to get to a glass of bourbon.
I also find that refrigeration helps to thicken the dressing. I'm not a fan of runny potato salad.