To the young me, a Greek salad was one thing: chopped iceberg lettuce topped with wan slices of pale pink tomato; watery cucumber; red onion that may have seen better, less stinky days; a few token canned black olives; and a ladleful or two of "Greek" dressing, which as far as I could tell was a cross between ranch and Caesar, with some crumbled feta cheese crumbled into it. I think the olives and the dressing were the only thing that differentiated it from the Italian salad at the pizza joints, which I'd occasionally order when I needed something other than fruit punch to chase down my slice.
I'm a much bigger fan of real deal Greek salads—the kind that are made of cucumber and really good tomato and feta and herbs and real lemon and awesome olive oil and stuff. Doesn't that sound much better than gloppily-dressed iceberg?*
*Who am I kidding? I also love gloppily dressed iceberg.
The key to a great Greek salad is in the tomatoes, which means that your best bet is to hold off making it until the late summer when tomatoes are local, ripe, and bursting with flavor. While greek salads often have olives in them, when I've got awesome tomatoes on hand, I like to leave them out or serve them on the side so as not to distract from the tomato flavor.
Don't have perfect tomatoes on hand? No worries—in the off-season, you can get away with using a good brand of grape or cherry tomato, which invariably have more flavor than their full-sized counterparts. Why is that? It's because large tomatoes are picked when they're underripe, green, and firm in order to withstand the rigors of centralized shipping routes. Since tomatoes don't really develop much flavor after picking, a large tomato may look ripe, but it'll taste green.
Cherry and grape tomatoes, on the other hand, are sturdier due to their smaller size, so they can be left to ripen on the vine a bit longer than a standard large tomato. The result is more intense flavor and sweetness.
To bring out the flavor of the tomatoes and cucumbers even more, I like to salt them and let them rest in a strainer to suck out excess moisture. The resulting fruit is denser, more compact, and more flavorful.
Rather than large chunks of feta cheese, I go with crumbled feta that coats each bite, along with a mix of chopped fresh oregano and mint.
Raw red onions can be pungent on their own, but soaking them in warm water (which is more effective at drawing out odors than cold water) can render them sweet and crunchy.
The best part about this salad is that it doesn't wilt like those old iceberg numbers used to. Make it in the morning, eat it at night, or even the next day.
And did I mention to use the best olive oil you have? Use the best olive oil you have.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.