When Packing A Picnic, Think Twice Before You Make A Mayo-Based Salad

Mayonnaise is the glue that binds some of summer's most enduring side dishes. It casts an oddly alluring sheen over the colorful components of tuna and egg salad, macaroni salad, and Waldorf salad, to name a few. While those dishes might seem like the perfect additions to a potluck in the park, they don't travel as well as Big Picnic has led us to believe. 

Rodger Bowser, head chef of Michigan's Zingerman's Deli, explained why in an exclusive interview with Daily Meal. While shedding light on foods you should avoid bringing on your perfect summer picnic, he advised steering clear of "any mayo-based salads or mayo on sandwiches." He's not as worried about the risk of foodborne illness as he is about taste and texture. "[Mayonnaise] gets oily when warm and doesn't have a great taste," he said. 

If you must bring a mayo-based dish to a picnic, consider packing it on ice in a cooler. Otherwise, take stock of the bounty of picnic foods that travel beautifully, with or without a cooler.

Picnic dishes that get better with age

If you're in charge of bringing a salad to the picnic, choose one that tastes better the longer it sits. Let's say you start with a hearty grain like farro or barley. Ina Garten's tip for perfectly dressing any grain salad (adding the dressing while the grains are still warm) makes for a reliable and flavorful side that allows you to experiment with dressings. Chickpeas and white beans are excellent starting points for a summer salad since they're hearty enough to absorb dressing without turning soggy.

Pasta salad is another classic option. Flavor and texture-wise, it's better at room temperature than straight from the fridge, making it great for traveling. From zesty Italian pasta salad with antipasto ingredients to versions that use tortellini instead of rotini or bow ties, mayo-less pasta salad options abound. For something light and refreshing, consider a vinegary cucumber salad or a sweet and savory salad with watermelon, feta, and mint. 

Picnic food safety is key

Chef Rodger Browser may have cited taste as his main beef with mayo-based picnic dishes, but it's also important to consider safety when dining al fresco, regardless of what you bring to the communal table.  

Food safety expert Angela M. Fraser, Ph.D., warns that dishes that require "a lot of handling during preparation" can play host to harmful bacteria that can lead to foodborne illness. While hands are all you need to toss the perfect salad, it's good to be mindful of germs when preparing picnic dishes for a crowd. Further, Fraser notes that warm temperatures can cause bacteria in food to fester. "The longer food is at warm temperatures, the more likely foodborne illness will result," she writes.

Make sure your hands (and serving dishes and utensils) are clean before sharing food. You might even consider wearing gloves during cooking prep. Come picnic time; find a shady spot where your spread will stay cool and out of harm's way.