How to Not F#&k Up a Caprese Salad

The key to a perfect Caprese salad is not f-ing it up. [Photographs and video: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Working on a recipe for Caprese salad is kind of like working on updating the Beatles' classic "If I Fell." It's so damn near perfect already, where is there to go with it?

I started considering what I could do to improve the tomatoes. Maybe I could salt them, then use the liquid drawn off as the basis for a vinaigrette. Maybe I could make my own mozzarella and make it creamier than any mozzarella you can buy in a store. Maybe I could turn that basil into some kind of infused oil or tincture that would add interest to the dish.

It wasn't long before I came to my senses and realized that absolutely none of these things would lead to an improvement over the classic. A good Caprese salad is a culinary endpoint. Like a Neapolitan pizza or a good old American hamburger, it's a dish that's so well conceived, so balanced, so downright delicious in its most common incarnation, that to improve upon it by changing its basic form or structure is simply impossible.

So it's ironic that Caprese salads are high on the list of foods in the world that are most often and most egregiously messed up. How many times have you ordered a Caprese salad and received rubbery mozzarella? How many times have you bitten into slices of mealy, fridge-cold tomatoes? How often has the olive oil been so flavorless that it may as well have been (and may well have been) canola oil? How many times have you ordered a Caprese salad only to find that it came tainted with whatever the chef decided would make that salad his?

It's at the point where I simply don't try to order them out anymore unless I'm at a restaurant I know and trust. If you really want the best Caprese salad, you're usually better off making it yourself at home.

You want the short version of this? Get the best damn tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil you can find, put 'em on a plate, sprinkle them with salt and pepper, drizzle them with the best damn olive oil, and stop right there. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, and step away from the balsamic vinegar. Serve it. Admire its perfection. Sip your chilled rosé with the knowledge that you've participated in something beautiful.

You want the longer version? Here goes.

Rule #1: Get Excellent Tomatoes

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This is the hardest step, but not that hard if it's the height of tomato season, toward the end of summer.

If you've got a farmers market nearby (or, even better, a neighbor or backyard with tomato vines), hit it up. Look for the juiciest, plumpest tomatoes you can find. A good tomato should feel like a heavy, dense water balloon ready to burst, with no hints of greenness around the stem end (unless, of course, it's a green variety). If you've got one particular breed of heirloom or standard tomato you like, by all means, use just that one. I prefer to use a mix, picking from varieties that are meant for slicing and eating as opposed to saucing varieties. (Talk to the farmer if you don't know which are which.) I also like to include some cherry tomatoes in the mix, which tend to be sweeter than their meatier cousins.

Really good supermarkets will occasionally have decent tomatoes during the summer, but chances are they won't. Tomatoes that are shipped long distances on trucks are almost all picked before they're ripe in order to withstand the bumps and jostles they receive during shipment. This means inferior flavor down the line.

If you refrigerate your tomatoes (and if you have ripe tomatoes that you aren't eating right away, you definitely should, despite what anyone says), make sure to take them out of the refrigerator at least long enough to take the chill off before you make your salad. An hour will suffice; four hours is better.

What if you want to make a Caprese salad during the winter or spring? That's easy. Don't. You don't go skiing in the summer, you don't go apple-picking in the spring, and you don't make a Caprese salad any time of year other than during tomato season. The first step on the road to self-improvement is self-respect, and trust me, you'll respect yourself more in the morning if you don't fall asleep with a gut full of mealy tomatoes and that insipid, watery flavor on your lips.

Rule #2: Get Excellent Fresh Mozzarella

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Fresh mozzarella comes in a few forms, in decreasing order of goodness. And, to be clear, we're talking fresh, as in the pale white stuff that comes in balls, either in brine or in vacuum-sealed bags. We are not talking about low-moisture or aged mozzarella, which has a yellowish hue and comes in rectangular bricks designed for grating. The number of times in the past that I've had Caprese salads made with block mozzarella is directly related to the number of times I've wanted to manually tear out my toenails in frustration. You can certainly make your own, but if you're looking to buy, here's what to look for.

  • Fresh from the local dairy. Most people aren't going to have a local dairy. If you live in a big city with a large Italian and/or hipster population, you might. Quality can vary from producer to producer, but odds are that a local dairy will produce mozzarella that is superior to any of the imports, which lose quality as they sit in their briny packaging. The best mozzarella should be sold while it's still warm from the dairy.
  • Water-packed buffalo mozzarella. The slightly gamey, sour flavor of buffalo mozzarella is often attributed to the milk used, but the reality is that it's more a function of how long it ages as it travels during shipment. The buffalo mozzarella I had in Naples tasted clean and fresh. Still, the buffalo-milk imports I've found generally have texture and flavor that's superior to their regular cow's-milk brethren, for whatever reason.
  • Water-packed cow's-milk mozzarella. There are a few nationally available brands of fresh cow's-milk mozzarella, packed in water or brine, but without fail, I've found that the more local brands in each city I've lived in have better texture and flavor. Pick them over the nationals.
  • Cryovac-packed mozzarella. Your last resort, which will have you teetering on the very slim ledge before tumbling into "I done f#&ked up my Caprese salad" territory. Use only in the direst of circumstances.

Word of advice: If you have fresh mozzarella from the dairy, do not refrigerate it, as this will cause it to tighten and lose its juicy texture. If you find yourself with refrigerated mozzarella, the best way to restore it to its former glory is by submerging it in warm, salty milk for a spell.

Rule #3: Get Excellent Basil

This is your easiest task. Look for bright green, non-limp, sweet Italian basil. I prefer the smaller leaves, but that's almost purely for aesthetic reasons. If you've got fresh basil in your herb garden, pluck it just before assembling your salad.

Rule #4: Get Excellent Olive Oil

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In this day and age, there's no excuse for using terrible, flavorless olive oil anymore. There's good stuff widely available in pretty much every supermarket in the country. Extra-virgin and cold-pressed are the minimum requirements, but from there, you're mostly on your own. Try to go to a shop that will let you taste before you buy. For my money, the best olive oils for a Caprese salad are those that have a nice peppery, astringent bite on the finish to complement the sweetness of the tomatoes and the creaminess of the cheese.

You know what? Most Italian olive oils aren't even Italian! I've heard people say. And it's true. Mislabeling of country of origin in olive oils is rampant, and some folks even question whether bottles labeled "extra-virgin" conform to the standards required for that labeling.

To all these people, I say, from a practical perspective, who cares? So long as you're buying an olive oil from a brand you've come to like and trust, or you're buying it from a source that lets you taste before buying, let your tongue be your guide and ignore 100% of everything else on the label, aside from price. As an olive oil fiend and collector, I've had great oils from all over the world: Greece, Turkey, Italy, Spain. I've also had every one of those oils from bottles labeled "Italian." There's great oil from California and great oil from Mexico. My current drizzle-on-everything bottle is from Palestine, and it's perfect for Caprese salad.

Don't want to get sucked into the olive oil rabbit hole? Okay, fine. Go to your supermarket and pick up a bottle of Colavita or Lucini. Are they the best around? Nope. But they're available everywhere, and the bang for your buck is tough to beat.

Rule #5: Crunchy Salt and Coarsely Ground Pepper

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Last ingredients here.

So far our salad is soft on soft on soft, drizzled with liquid. But we want a little bit of texture here, right? That's where the salt comes in. The right salt is more than just a seasoning—it provides crunch and little bursts of flavor as you eat. Some folks seem to think that all salt does is add saltiness to a dish, and that this is an effect that can essentially be replaced by other strong flavors. This is not true. Saltiness has a physiological effect that is quite different from most other flavors, which are defined more by their aroma than by our perception of them on the tongue. Salt doesn't just taste salty; it allows us to taste better, by making foods taste more of themselves.

Try this little experiment: Cut a slice of tomato in half. Eat half of it plain, then eat the other half with a little pinch of salt. See how that second half tasted so much more like a good tomato?

As for pepper, use whole peppercorns and grind them fresh in a good pepper mill, or crush them under a heavy skillet on a hard surface. Whatever you do, put down that little shaker filled with black sawdust. Good fresh pepper has a sweet flavor, with a quick punch of heat at the end. Pre-ground pepper has no flavor, with a quick punch of dehydrated cardboard at the end.

Rule #6: Don't F#&k With It

This is by far the most important rule.

With most recipes, once you've gathered the ingredients, you're ready to begin cooking. With a Caprese salad, you're done. The less cooking you do, the better. In fact, the less thought you put into it, the better. Cut your tomatoes up into random bite-size pieces, arrange them on a plate, sprinkle them with salt. Tear up your mozzarella (yes, tear, don't slice; trust me on this) and nestle it into the tomato. Take a brief second to admire how the milky juices of the mozzarella and the watery juices of the tomato mingle on the plate.

Tear up your basil leaves by hand (put down that knife—this is not the time to impress the world with your Shun Classic and fair-to-moderate chopping skills), and scatter them over the top. Season everything with a little more salt and pepper, drizzle with tons of olive oil (no, you need more than that), and put it on the table with some forks.

Put away that vinegar. I'm serious about this one. I see you creeping. Step away from the balsamic vinegar! If your tomatoes and mozzarella are good enough, the only thing balsamic vinegar will do is cover up their flavor. If your tomatoes and mozzarella are not great, you shouldn't be making this salad. Not to mention the fact that your balsamic vinegar is most likely just wine vinegar with caramel color added to it. You thought olive oil labeling was shady? Look into the sordid world of balsamic vinegar. Or don't, if you don't want to become a cretinous, grumpy food snob like me.

And ferchrissake, cool it with that pesto. Putting pesto on a Caprese salad is like letting Jack White burst in with a wailing guitar solo in the middle of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, except far, far less awesome.

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Don't bother with share plates or passing the serving dish around. That would preclude the option to participate in the best part of the salad: the collective pool of tomato juice, mozzarella whey, and olive oil that forms on the plate, serving as a sort of makeshift vinaigrette for dressing your tomatoes and cheese. I like to stab a big, juicy hunk of tomato with my fork, top it with a small bit of mozzarella, then drag it through the juices before eating it.

I'm not a particularly gushy or flowery sort of writer or eater, and, to be honest, I'm somewhat disgusted when adjectives generally reserved for sexual acts are used to describe foods. But I can't think of a better way to say it: If your salad is not downright sensual, if you don't have juices dripping down your chin, if you aren't salivating at the mere thought of the next bite you're going to have, you have either done something terribly wrong in the construction of the dish (did you add balsamic? Shame!), or perhaps you just haven't been intimate with a salad-eating partner in a while.

Getting the former right will certainly help with the latter.