What Makes German Potato Salad Different From American?

Potato salad — that time-honored favorite that graces the table of every cookout, BBQ, and picnic blanket from sea to shining sea. It's become inextricably linked with the 4th of July, hot dogs, and mom's apple pie. 

Everyone has their favorite family recipe. From the more subdued, white-hued, classic all-American mayo versions to the zingy mustard-tinged sunny yellow southern styles, one thing is certain: Americans pledge allegiance to their potato salad of choice. And while there may be plenty of spirited debate between the factions about whether dill, scallions, or paprika should take center stage, if the pickles should be sweet or savory, whether sliced or diced hard-boiled eggs are a must, or if adding chunked or shredded cheese is blasphemy, what most of us expect from our potato salad is that it be cool, creamy, and comforting. That is — unless you've had German potato salad.

Potato salad: the birth of an American dream

While traditional potato salad here in the States comes with a heavy dose of Americana, the truth about potato salad is that it didn't start in the United States; it evolved here. According to NPR, potato salad was introduced to Europe in the 16th century by the Spanish, who first learned of potatoes from native peoples in South America during their explorations of the New World. according to the publication, "These early potato salads were made by boiling potatoes in wine or a mixture of vinegar and spices."

Though it took a while for potatoes to become a favorite among Europeans and the rest of the world, once they did, these types of potato dishes dressed in vinegar and served largely warmed, proliferated, with each region and culture adapting the recipes to their tastes. There's the French version, strewn with dill and green onions and doused in a vinaigrette of dijon and champagne vinegar; the Korean take mixed with chopped carrots and cucumber and topped with grated hard-boiled egg yolk; Spanish varieties bathed in garlic, olive oil, and vinegar or mixed with tuna; and an Austrian version dotted with caraway seeds, nutmeg, and thyme and covered in hot beef broth with onions, before finally being dressed in apple cider vinegar and mustard. But there is none more influential to the birth of the potato salad here in the United States than Germany's beloved varieties of potato salad.

German potato salad(s)

But what exactly is German potato salad and what makes it different from its American counterpart? That all depends on which German potato salad you're talking about.

Cookbook author Karen Lodder notes on her website, German Girl in America, that just like in the United States, regional and familial differences in potato salad recipes vary throughout Germany. Major regional categories include Schwäbisch, Bavarian, and Northern. All three of which have an assortment of interpretations, even within the same region. Lodder breaks it down simply by saying, "Northern Germans tend to use mayonnaise, while Southern Germans stand by vinegar. Hot or warm in the South . . . Cold in the North." 

Generally speaking though, in southern Germany, potato salads are often served warm and involve vinegar, broth, onions, and mustard or other spices as in Schwäbischer or Schwabisch-style potato salad or Badischer or Baden-style potato salad both from the southwestern region of Germany. The variation most similar to what's called German Potato salad in the United States is Bayerischer or Bavarian potato salad. This traditional potato salad, favored in Germany's Bavaria region, often uses red onion and includes the addition of bacon and bacon grease, as well as a touch of sugar — and even pickles!

The differences between Bavarian, Baden, or Schwäbisch potato salads and the American version mirror those between north and south Germany: warm versus cold and vinegar versus mayo. But when you compare northern-style German salads to those in America, the differences disappear.

Northern Germans and American potato salad

Karen Lodder from German Girl in America says Northern German potato salad (or Berliner Kartoffelsalat) is served cold and features mayonnaise, often mixed with sour cream or cream, and speckled with bits of hard-boiled egg and sweet or sour pickles. There is no salty broth or bacon grease like in the savory warmth of a Bavarian potato salad. There is instead, a rich creamy experience, sometimes brightened by the addition of tart mustard. Sound familiar?

One reason northern German potato salad may bear such a striking resemblance to modern American versions may be due, at least in part to the influence of northern German immigrants arriving in the United States, like New York delicatessen owner, Richard Hellmann of Hellmann's mayonnaise. According to The Epoch Times, Hellmann emigrated from the northern German town of Vetschau in 1903. Soon after, he met and married his wife, Margaret Vossberg, whose parents owned a delicatessen (via PRWeek). Once married, Margaret and Richard went on to open a deli of their own that featured Margaret's mother's recipe for mayonnaise, which would go on to make Hellmann's a household name. 

While it's hard to know for sure who first added mayo to American potato salads, according to NPR, Hellmann's did come to dominate the mayonnaise market (via Hellmann's Mayonnaise: A History) and to this day, Hellmann's Mayonnaise features "The original potato salad recipe" on its website. Plus, Hellmann's northern Germanic roots and serendipitous love affair with the daughter of a mayonnaise maven, along with his business acumen, certainly make a strong case for the company's place in spreading this northern German style of cold potato salad in America.

You say potato . . .

So, what makes German potato salad different from the standard American variety? If it's potato salad from North Germany, not much. But despite this version's popularity at picnics and backyard barbecues, in the United States, you can probably get whatever type you prefer. 

Whether your favorite style of potato salad is American or German, hot or cold, French or Spanish, Korean or Austrian, doused in vinegar and broth or slathered in mayo, potato salad belongs to all of us. It's a side dish replete with nostalgia, carried and tweaked from place-to-place worldwide, melding a plain tuber with the familiar flavors of each culture and region, each putting their own unique twist on the flavors and presentation.

Potato salad itself, at its roots, is a truly American story. Each culture has added a line or two to the recipe, making something new out of pieces of the old, each one contributing its own special ingredients. Now, what could be more American than that?