Why is My Potato Salad Mushy? Heat Capacity

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potato salad mushyIf you have a curious mind, you look at everyday matters differently. You ask yourself questions others do not care about.

What is spider silk made of? What happens when water boils? Why do canned whole tomatoes look so perfect? Why are buttercups so bright? Are there dust storms on Mars?

But now we ask: Since others make delicious potato salad, why is my potato salad mushy?

The Challenge

Potato salad is one of the most satisfying foods out there. It is low-cost and complements even simple meals. But it can detract from a meal if the potatoes are too hard, or if the potato salad is better called mashed potato salad. Such results obviously involve potato variety, size, and uniformity of the cut pieces. But more is involved.


potato salad mushy
Try to maintain uniformity.

Potato pieces must be cooked sufficiently to break cell walls in the potato, which also softens them. The temperature of boiling water surpasses that. However, if potato pieces are not put directly into boiling water, but they are put into room temperature water to begin, it is hard to estimate the correct time to cook them.

A toothpick (or fork) pressed into one or two pieces determines the time to stop boiling. If the chef makes potato salad often, using the same pot, the same variety and cut size of potatoes, and the same ratio of water-to-potatoes, it should not be hard to avoid making mushy potato salad.

All of the above is true IF one additional step is added. Those who do repeatedly make fine potato salad know what that step is. It involves, what scientists call heat capacity.

Heat Capacity

Every object in nature has a heat capacity. Put simply, heat capacity is how much heat an object requires to raise its temperature. Meteorologists, for example, know land heats more quickly than water does. This is because water has a high heat capacity. It takes a lot of heat to warm it up. It is for this reason there is no better liquid to use in your radiator. If a different liquid was used, your radiator might boil over.

Do potatoes have a high heat capacity? Well, have you ever heard the expression “it’s like trying to hold a hot potato”? If you pour off the hot water after boiling potatoes, they hold enough heat within themselves (at a temperature greater than the minimum required) to continue cooking. If you’ve done everything right so far in preparing your potato salad, you may still ruin it if you do not quickly cover them with cold water.

By Way of Review

To make delicious potato salad,

  • Every time you make it, use the same pot.
  • Pick the best variety of potato for boiling.
  • Cut the potato into uniform, properly sized pieces.
  • Place into water. For best predictability, boiling water.
  • Check regularly with a toothpick or fork for the correct firmness/tenderness.
  • Take off the stove and immediately replace the hot water with cold water. Allow to cool.
  • Follow your favorite recipe.

Note: You might also enjoy Potato Varieties: Nutritional Differences

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One thought on “Why is My Potato Salad Mushy? Heat Capacity

  • Adding cold water straight away after the potatoes have completed cooking is a great idea. I do that for hard boiled eggs. If they boil too long they get a dark ring around the yolk but putting them into cold water after hard boiling stops that.

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