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The Food Lab: The Best Caesar Salad
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We all know what Caesar salad is. Chopped romaine lettuce and garlicky croutons tossed in a creamy dressing made with eggs, olive oil, lemon, Parmesan, Worcestershire sauce, and anchovies. There's a reason that in the 90 years since its invention, it's become the default second salad option at every single major restaurant chain in the country: even when mass-produced, this combination of savory, creamy, tangy, and crunchy ingredients is tasty stuff. But we can do better than those chains in our own kitchens, I hope.
The most quotable source on the history and construction of an authentic Caesar salad comes from From Julia Child's Kitchen>, published in 1975. In the book, she recounts a childhood expedition to Tijuana in 1925, the supposed birthplace of the salad, which was created the year before by Caesar Cardini, a San Diego restaurateur who made the trip south of the border to avoid Prohibition-era laws. Yes, the United States' most famous addition to the salad canon actually comes from Mexico.
Julia recounts how "Caesar himself rolled the big cart up to the table, tossed the romaine in a great wooden bowl... I can see him break two eggs over that romaine and roll them in, the greens going all creamy as the eggs flowed over them." The original, according to Julia, was made with the inner leaves of romaine lettuce—left whole to be eaten with your fingers—tossed with olive oil, lemon juice, Parmesan cheese, black pepper, garlic, and eggs that have been boiled for exactly one minute. Bear in mind, this is a 62-year-old woman with a penchant for storytelling recounting a salad she ate when she was 12—I'd take its veracity with a grain of salt and a sprinkle of Parmesan.
Caesar's daughter Rosa, who Julia interviewed decades after the fact, claims that the salad was created when an unexpectedly busy Fourth of July weekend in 1924 ended with Caesar being forced to make do with only the romaine lettuce, eggs, and condiments he had on hand, tossing the salad tableside to add a bit of cheffy flair.
I do wonder what the restaurant was doing with more romaine than anything else. But if traumatic childhood experiences followed by cathartic turns to crime-fighting are the hallmarks of every superhero origin, then unexpected late night restaurant guests, oddly stocked pantries, and wildly innovative chef-restaurateurs are the hallmarks of a good food origin story. Both are probably equally mythical.
These days, most Caesar salads are made with an emulsified, pre-mixed, intensely flavored, creamy dressing rather than with the loosely emulsified mix that forms when you attempt Julia's take on Caesar's original recipe. So my question: can we combine lessons from the authentic and the modern versions of the salad to come up with something even greater?
(Spoiler alert: yes.)
This is one part of Julia/Caesar's method that I really dig—using only the ultra-crisp inner leaves of a head of romaine and keeping the leaves large so that they take a few bites to finish. I remove the outer leaves until I get to the point where there's no flop to the greens at all, then separate the leaves by cutting off the bottom inch of the base. After removing all the free leaves, I cut off another inch to separate the remaining leaves in the center.
Like leeks and bellybuttons, romaine can hid bits of grit or dirt in their inner depths, so even pre-washed romaine heads need a good rinse in cold water before serving. In order to maximize their freshness and prevent any bruising, I dry mine on layers of paper towels rather than attempting to spin them in a salad spinner.
I tear the very largest leaves in half, mostly in the interest of not making life difficult for my wife, who has rather dainty lips.
Making garlic croutons seems super easy—just toss some bread cubes with minced garlic and oil, then bake them until crisp and light brown, right? Yes. Except: Garlic browns faster than bread. You end up with bits of dark garlic on otherwise perfect croutons. Here's where a bit of Julia's genius from the original recipe comes into play. Rather than tossing the bread with straight-up garlic, instead mix the garlic with olive oil, then press it out through a fine mesh strainer. The olive oil is infused with garlic flavor, which then gets transferred to the croutons.
All the garlic, none of the burning. The pressed garlic can then be re-used in the dressing, making it a no-waste endeavor.
For added flavor, I also like to toss the bread with some of the Parmesan cheese. I use a trick that I often employ with pizza, adding some cheese before baking, along with a fresh sprinkle after the croutons come out of the oven, giving you the nuttiness of cooked Parm with the sharp bite of fresh-grated.
And now we get to the real crux of the authentic-vs-modern question: emulsified dressing vs. tableside tossing? And more importantly, do we use anchovies or not?
Frankly, I prefer the modern emulsified dressing approach. Lettuce leaves have a waxy, hyrdophobic coating. It's a natural evolutionary adaptation that helps regulate moisture levels inside and outside the plant even with varying humidity or rain fall. Oil sticks to leaves but water doesn't. So with an unemulsified dressing, the olive oil and bits of egg yolk will stick to your leaves, but the lemon juice and other water-based-liquid elements will fall to the bottom of the bowl.
Emulsified dressings, on the other hand, cling well to all sorts of surfaces, including hydrophobic lettuce leaves. Emulsion + even coating = better flavor in each bite. And I'm perfectly content to remove cheffy flair in the pursuit of better flavor.
When it comes down to it, an emulsified Caesar salad dressing is essentially a flavored mayonnaise. Fortunately for us, because of the large amounts of solid particles it contains in the form of Parmesan and black pepper, it's far easier to emulsify a Caesar dressing than a standard mayonnaise—you'd have no problem doing it with a bowl, a whisk, and a bit of elbow grease. That said, the absolute easiest way to do it is using my Foolproof 2-Minute Mayonnaise technique.
It goes something like this:
The only difference is in the base ingredients. Just as with a regular mayonnaise, you don't want to use extra-virgin olive oil with an electric blender. It causes the olive oil to break down and turn bitter. Instead, use a neutral oil like canola to begin your emulsion. Then, when it's stable, whisk in the extra-virgin by hand.
And speaking of base ingredients, what about those little fishies? Julia asked Rosa Cardini about this as well and got an emphatic "No! No anchovies! Caesar never used anything but the best oil, fresh lemons, salt and pepper, a little Worcestershire—that's where those anchovies crept into so many of the recipes"
In support of this no-anchovies claim is this October 8th, 1946 menu from a Los Angeles restaurant, the earliest known printed documentation of the Caesar salad. On that menu listed two salads below the Caesar you find a "Romaine with Anchovies" salad. If anchovies and romaine were two main ingredients in a Caesar salad, it's unlikely the restaurant would serve another salad so similar.
But in this case, I'm going to come out and say it: Anchovies are essential to the modern idea and current taste memory of a Caesar salad. Caesar dressing without anchovies tastes too flat, too one-dimensional, despite using great Parmesan. I like to use a full half dozen anchovies in a batch, but even a couple will bring the necessary savory depth to the dish.
To toss the salad, the key is to use a really large bowl and to toss by hand, so that those nice big leaves you picked and washed don't get bruised or broken in the process. As Julia described it, Caesar would scoop the leaves and make them "turn like a large wave breaking toward him." It's a good image to keep in mind while tossing.
Finally, a post-toss sprinkle of freshly grated Parmesan doesn't hurt.
I don't know how Caesar Cardini or Julia Child would react to this bastardized-but-still-slightly-faithful version of their* salad, but I have no doubt that they'd both lick their plates clean before coming down with any judgment.
*Almost all traditional Caesar salad recipes around these days are based on Julia Child's interpretation, so this dish owes as much to Child as it does to Cardini.