How to make the perfect Russian salad

“Ooh, Russian salad!” a friend messaged when I told her what I was doing for this week’s column. “That always reminds me of Barcelona.” Another had fond memories of mayonnaise-laden vegetable cubes from her schooldays in Brittany, while Sabrina Ghayour describes it as one of the most popular salads in Iran and Niloufer Ichaporia King claims it as “a Parsi standard” in her book My Bombay Kitchen. It’s known and loved from India to Lisbon. The last time I had Russian salad, on top of a slightly soggy slice of bread in a northern Italian bar, I wondered why we in the UK are so puzzlingly immune to its charms.

In Russia itself, as in Iran, this mixture of cooked, diced vegetables in a creamy dressing is named after Lucien Olivier, the Belgian chef who first put it on the menu at his Moscow restaurant in the mid-19th century. According to Darra Goldstein’s classic work A Taste of Russia, Olivier’s original was a mixture “of cooked chicken and potatoes masked with mayonnaise”, but if that is indeed the case, it wasn’t long before it traded up: Escoffier’s 1903 recipe contains lobster, truffles and caviar. Modern-day Russian salad seems to have almost as many variations as it has fans. But what’s the best?

The vegetables
Though many mass-produced versions go big on the spuds, this shouldn’t be a potato salad with benefits – if Russian salad is an orchestra of flavours and textures, then each player deserves to be heard. That said, we miss them in Richard Corrigan’s salad (which, to be fair to him, is intended to be served with a potato pancake) – their starchy bulk feels like a good anchor, turning the salad from a mere vegetable sideshow into a dish in its own right.

I do, however, enjoy the turnips Corrigan uses instead, writing in The Clatter of Forks and Spoons, “I like that little bitterness in your mouth to offset the sweetness of some of the other vegetables … we don’t have enough bitterness going on in our cooking overall.” Sweet, in his case, means carrots, which are present in every recipe I try, and beetroot, which is used less often. Though the latter is indeed sweet, it presents the salad maker with a practical problem in that it bleeds its sweet purple juices into everything else, muddying the flavours as well as the colours. If you do use it, I would, like Corrigan, recommend plonking it on top just before serving.

Peas are another favourite, and add a pleasing spherical element to all those little cubes (dicing the vegetables is the hardest part of this recipe: as Siberian-born Alissa Timoshkina observes in her book Salt and Time, “the cooking method for this salad could not be simpler, yet also more time-consuming”); though, since mushy peas are only delicious on a fish supper, I’d suggest pouring a kettle of boiling water over them rather than simmering them with the other vegetables, so they retain their characteristic springy freshness.

You could leave it there, but I also like the snap of the lightly cooked French beans in a couple of the recipes I try – testers, meanwhile, are very keen on the crispness of the apple with the sweetcorn and soft white beans in Ren Behan’s Polish version in Wild Honey and Rye. Cauliflower seems to be popular in Italian translations, Lindsey Bareham and Simon Hopkinson’s version in the Prawn Cocktail Years includes cooked celery or celeriac, and Nieves Barragán Mohacho (who says in her book Sabor that she’s never met a Spanish person who doesn’t love ensaladilla rusa) piles hers on to little gem lettuce leaves and garnishes it with white asparagus and piquillo peppers.

In short, so long as you aim for a harmonious mixture of flavours and textures, and stick with cooked vegetables (this is not, I think, a place for the juicy crunch of the raw), use what you like – early recipes seem more focused on protein, in any case. Whatever you go for, having made six of the things in quick succession, I’d agree with chef Trish Hilferty in her excellent book of fish and potato recipes, Lobster and Chips: “It’s important to cook the vegetables separately and in strict order,” rather than putting them all in the same pan and hoping for the best. Unless time is of the essence, I’d do the chopping afterwards – unless you watch them like a hawk, it’s easy to overcook diced vegetables.

The not-vegetables
Timoshkina notes that, although she prefers to keep her salad vegetarian, millions of Russians disagree, so she suggests adding diced cooked chicken breast to the mix, while one of my testers, who boasts extensive experience of the dish “made by actual Russians”, claims she’s never had one without ham. The Prawn Cocktail Years recipe, based on that by Escoffier, the great French chef and cookery writer of the late-19th century, includes that, but also tongue, lobster and, “if throwing caution to the wind”, caviar (or anchovies, should caution be something you wish to keep a firm hold on).

Bareham and Hopkinson further note that Larousse Gastronomique calls for sausage, and Silvena Rowe suggests frankfurters, while Hilferty adds peeled brown shrimps, which have a salty sweetness that meets with a mixed reception from my testers – “This tastes like the 70s,” one says, rather unkindly. Though I defend them (none of us knows what the 1907s tasted like, but I’m pretty sure it’s not delicious Morecambe Bay shrimp), I have to concede that, like the caviar, they do tend to dominate every mouthful they’re part of.

The lobster, meanwhile, suffers from the opposite problem: despite offering a pleasingly meaty texture, with everything else going on here, its flavour gets a bit lost. Unless you’re lucky enough to live somewhere where it’s cheap as chips, I’d save fancy seafood for a dish where it can be the star of the show – and anyway, the bolder flavours of the salted meat seem to work better with the sweetness of the vegetables and creaminess of the dressing in this dish.

If you want to keep the salad meat-free, you may be pleased to learn that hard-boiled eggs are, in my opinion, a non-negotiable ingredient. The bouncy whites and rich, crumbly yolks bring yet another texture to the party – if you’re serving the salad as a standalone dish, you might prefer, as Timoshkina suggests, to serve them cut in half on top instead. (You could, of course, leave them out entirely, and use vegan mayonnaise, to make an entirely plant-based version.)

Of pickles and herbs
The one strong flavour we do (almost) all vote for is pickled cucumbers, which feel like a quintessentially Russian ingredient, offering pops of vinegary flavour without overpowering the creaminess of the dressing. The capers in the Prawn Cocktail Years’ recipe do much the same job for salt, making both optional, but recommended.

Herbs aren’t a big part of this particular salad, and indeed many recipes don’t include any at all. Dill is a common choice among those that do, while Corrigan takes that “slightly liquorice” flavour even further with tarragon, and the Prawn Cocktail Years suggests chives, which offer a more subtle flavour than Hilferty’s spring onion; again, the aim here is that no one ingredient should overwhelm the rest. Personally, I like dill, but chives are a happy alternative for those, like some of my testers, who are sworn against the stuff. (If you want to go really wild, note that Ghayour uses coriander in the version in her book Persiana.)

The dressing
Though Timoshkina describes Olivier as a stalwart of the Soviet repertoire of “salads heavily laden with mayo”, she herself favours a lighter dressing of creme fraiche and yoghurt; Hilferty mixes mayonnaise with soured cream, and Corrigan rebels entirely: “The French laugh at things like salad cream,” he observes, “but they have their own kind of salad cream in mayonnaise. I think the idea of a homemade salad cream … is terrific, I really do.” My testers also like the idea, and the reality of it, too, especially as made to his recipe, with English mustard and evaporated milk, though they’re less keen on it in this particular dish, preferring the richness of straight mayonnaise to any of the alternatives.

You don’t need too much of it, though; just enough lightly to coat the rest, rather than turning it into a claggy mess of unidentifiable ingredients, preferably with a dash of pickle juice or some other acid to pep things up a bit. Not too much, however; in this salad, moderation is everything – until it comes to helping yourself, obviously.

Perfect Russian salad
Prep 40 min
Cook 15 min
Serves 4

For the homemade mayonnaise (alternatively, use 2-3 tbsp ready-made)
2 egg yolks
1 tsp dijon mustard
1 generous pinch salt
250ml groundnut or sunflower oil
25ml extra-virgin olive oil
1 tbsp white-wine vinegar, or lemon juice

For the salad
200g waxy potatoes (ie, about 4 small ones)
100g carrots (ie, 1 medium one)
100g turnip (about half a medium one, or 2 extra potatoes, if you prefer)
50g green beans
75g frozen peas
2 eggs
2 large gherkins, plus 2 tbsp of their pickling liquid
1 tbsp salted capers, rinsed
50g ham or tongue (optional)
1 small bunch dill or chives, finely chopped

To make the mayonnaise, beat the egg yolks and mustard in a large bowl until thickened (it’s helpful to anchor the bowl by putting a damp tea towel underneath it), then gradually whisk in the oils, very slowly at first. Finally, stir in the vinegar and season to taste. (This will make too much mayonnaise, but it keeps well in the fridge.)

Peel the potatoes, carrot and turnip, if using, and top and tail the beans. Cut the carrot and turnip into large chunks, but keep the potatoes whole, unless they’re particularly large.

Put the potatoes in a pan of cold salted water, bring to a boil and cook until tender; be careful not to overcook them, or they’ll be hard to cut neatly later.

Meanwhile, bring another pan of salted water to a boil, cook the beans for a couple of minutes until al dente, then scoop out with a slotted spoon into a sink or large bowl filled with cold water.

Put the carrot and turnip in the same pot of boiling water and cook until tender, checking both regularly, because they’ll probably be done at different times, then scoop out and add to the beans bowl. Put the peas in a colander, pour a kettle of boiling water over them, then put with the rest of the vegetables.

Boil the egg for eight and a half minutes, then leave to cool while you drain, dry and chop the vegetables (except the peas) into 1cm dice and put them all in a large bowl. Cut the gherkins into 1cm dice and add to the bowl with two tablespoons of their pickling vinegar, the capers and peas.

Cut the ham into strips and add to the bowl with the herbs. Peel and grate in the eggs. Finally, stir in the mayonnaise and serve – it’s even better after a few hours in the fridge, though.

• Russian salad, salat Olivier, salad Olivieh … whatever you call it, is it a nostalgic pleasure, a current favourite, or something that once came out of tins and is now best forgotten? What do you put in yours and, just as importantly, what do you serve it with? And why oh why is the UK one of the few European countries to spurn its mayonnaisey charms?