Back when I was in culinary school, my instructors would often tell our class that the true litmus test of a chef's competency is whether she can make a perfect plate of eggs to order. But I have a theory that watching someone construct a salad can be far more informative. For starters, salads present an opportunity for experimentation and self-expression: No two people, whether accomplished chefs or novice home cooks, will make even the most classic salad in exactly the same way. And when you excel at salad-making, when you really enjoy it, it can be an opportunity to showcase your sense of flavor and balance, your knife skills, your ability to eyeball seasoning and dressing, and your all-around culinary creativity.
Luckily, being great at salads isn't hard—it just takes a little know-how. I've gathered the techniques we've shared with our readers over the years, along with the advice of chefs around the country, to bring you some easy, actionable tips that will make for better, more flavorful salads. Let's take a look.
Think Big Picture
We all know that good food almost always starts with good ingredients, but the adage is doubly true when your ingredients are predominantly raw. Your first step toward making a great salad is to look for the best produce you can find—crisp, unbruised greens; ripe, in-season fruit; and bright, crunchy veggies. Sometimes that means blanching your vegetables (and even freezing them) for longer-lasting freshness; other times, you may want to swap that pasty mid-winter tomato and chalky avocado for some brassicas, radishes, and potatoes instead.
But quality is just half the battle—you want to think about balance, too. "In our test kitchen, I like to build salads by utilizing the four corners of flavor (sweet, salty, bitter, sour)," says Sweetgreen Executive Chef Michael Stebner. One or more of those flavors can come from your dressing, but every ingredient you select should do something to improve the mix. Have a lot of rich, creamy avocado in your salad? You'll likely want a foil that's bright and acidic, like a tangy citrus vinaigrette or even slices of grapefruit, along with something that provides a bit of contrasting crunch, be it radishes, toasted grains, or croutons. Similarly, "when you put fruit in a salad, you want to balance it with some kind of fat, usually in the form of cheese," says Stuart Brioza, chef/owner at San Francisco's State Bird Provisions. "It's also a great excuse to use your bitter radicchios and dandelion greens," he adds. In other words, you want to be perpetually on the lookout for complementary flavors and textures that come together harmoniously.
Try New Greens
If your go-to salad leaves comes from a pre-packaged mix, it may be time to expand your horizons. "Mixed greens look great, but there really isn't a lot of flavor and they don't hold up as well in a salad," says Stebner. "Green and red leaf lettuce should be on more people's radars," he adds. "Normally, people buy that type of lettuce for hamburgers for its crispness but it's perfect for salad." Also among Stebner's go-tos are sturdier greens like collards, swiss chard, broccoli leaves, and bok choy.
San Francisco's Bar Tartine chefs Nick Balla and Cortney Burns agree—they're big fans of hardy leaves, and particularly the vast realm of Asian greens, like choy and mustard. As for how to prepare them? "We often poach or salt lettuces," say Balla and Burns. "It transforms the ingredient for sure but can be amazing. Wilted gem lettuce with horseradish sauce is an alternative to creamed spinach. Kale, spinach, and collards are great when briefly wilted and served with crunchy ingredients in a salad."
Even more delicate greens can hit the heat—Burns likes to grill lettuces and chicories, serving them hot with cold accompaniments. If you're feeling skeptical, just try these grilled romaine hearts in a tangy buttermilk dressing. Seared on a hot grill, they come out charred and smoky, with a crisp-tender texture texture that offsets a layer of juicy grape tomatoes and crisp, peppery radishes.
Meanwhile, if you're a gardener, you may have more greens at your disposal than you even realize, says Brioza. "One of my favorite salad greens is all the thinnings and crop cover from pea greens, favas, beets, swiss chard, and so forth," he explains. Unlike their tougher adult relatives, these budding leaves are delicate, tender, and ready to eat with little more than a light vinaigrette.
In all cases, if you're planning to serve your greens crisp and raw, you'll want to maximize their freshness. "I like to wash my greens very well," says Cesare Casella, author of the forthcoming cookbook Feeding the Heart. "Ideally, you should wash and dry your ingredients and then refrigerate them until they're chilled. It will help give them some extra crunch."
Use More Herbs!
I first started incorporating fresh herbs into my salads when I found myself with an exceptionally lush herb garden, and I'm firm in my belief that they're one of the most underrated salad ingredients. I'm also far from alone: "Getting a little pop of fresh mint or parsley or chervil is such a nice layer of flavor," says Brioza. Balla and Burns even recommend using strongly flavored herbs like sage, mint, marjoram, and chives as the main salad green—a move I wholeheartedly endorse.
You can start with lighter applications, like this summery raw corn salad with shiso and basil, or dive right into an aromatic Thai steak salad, piled high with cilantro, mint, chives, and basil. But my personal favorite is that very first herb salad I made: a potent jumble of basil, lemon thyme, mint, parsley, and cilantro, amplified with a handful of peppery arugula, tart grape tomatoes, chopped olives, and shredded mozzarella.
Fresh, in-season ingredients may be the cornerstone of a great salad, but if there's one thing that can make or break 'em, it's the dressing. If you, too, have fallen victim to a bowl of sad, drowned leaves or indestructible kale, here are a few rules of thumb to help things along.
- Hardy dressing for hardy greens: "You want to match the hardiness of your dressing to the hardiness of your salad greens," says Brioza. "Delicate greens—arugula, baby spinach, mâche, and so forth—are easily overwhelmed or wilted by heavier dressings. You want to look to lighter vinaigrettes and add just enough on to provide a gossamer slick on the leaves." But, he adds, "As your dressing becomes thicker, so should the items that you're dressing"—think romaines and icebergs, along with hardier greens like kale.
- Emulsify, emulsify, emulsify: Sure, you can drizzle olive oil and vinegar on a pile of greens and call it salad. But don't be surprised if you wind up with a bunch of oily leaves floating in a pool of vinegar a few minutes later. You can catch Kenji nerding out about emulsified vinaigrettes here (and also here), but long story short, adding an emulsifying agent, also known as a surfactant, to your vinaigrette will bind an oil and water-based-acid in a stable mixture. The result, he says, is a dressing in which "both the oil and the vinegar cling tightly to the leaves, giving you balanced flavor in every mouthful." Mustard is the most common salad dressing surfactant, but you can also use a dollop of mayonnaise or honey to bring your vinaigrette together.
- Buy a squeeze bottle: As for the best way to actually take care of that emulsification? Use a restaurant-style squeeze bottle to combine, shake, and store your dressings in one cheap, handy vessel.
- Take it slow: The last thing you want to do is flood your carefully made salad with too much dressing. "You want the dressing to lubricate the salad, but too much dressing will kill the fragrance and crispness of good ingredients," says Casella. Stebner agrees, noting that, "At home we tend to overdress by sight." Instead of going by looks, the chefs I spoke to recommend adding dressing incrementally, tossing and tasting the salad along the way. "I like to season as I go," adds Brioza. That includes "the vinaigrette, the salad in the bowl, and then possibly once again to finish."
- Toss by hand: Set your salad servers aside—you'll have a much easier time coating your ingredients evenly if you just get your hands a little dirty. Just be sure to use a great big bowl for this step—you want something at least three times the volume of your salad so that you can toss it evenly without messing up the greens. And, on that note, try to be gentle or you'll risk bruising or wilting more delicate leaves.
- Marinate tough, waxy greens in oil: The one time you actually want your leaves to sit in straight oil is when you're trying to tenderize a tougher green like kale. The waxy cuticle that coats the leaves is actually oil-soluble—massaging them with your oil of choice and letting them marinate for a bit yields far more tender, pliable greens. Try it out in our bright and satisfying kale Caesar with garlicky croutons and Parmesan cheese, shake things up with a springtime salad of roasted potatoes, marinated mushrooms, and kale, or try out this hearty vegan rendition with tofu, avocado, grapefruit, and kale.
- Account for moisture: Another key tip? "Consider the moisture level of the ingredients you're using," says Casella. "If you have a lot of tomatoes, they'll be adding their own moisture to the bowl." It's a challenge we've encountered in other salads, like Daniel's tabbouleh recipe. One option? Salt your wet ingredients and set them in a strainer to drain off excess liquid and concentrate their flavor—it works well for everything from tomatoes to cucumbers to parsley. Better yet, that same liquid can ultimately be incorporated into the dressing if you're so inclined.
- Think outside the box: Just because most vinaigrettes are a combination of acid and oil doesn't mean you have to follow the same formula every time. Give creamier dairy- or mayonnaise-based salad dressings a shot (with sturdier leaves, of course!), or try mixing in less commonplace ingredients like tahini, dashi, or even puréed vegetables. In all cases, though, do yourself a favor and skip the bottled dressings—making them at home doesn't just guarantee better flavor, it's often cheaper, too.
Consider Your Timeline
Before you start dumping your salad dressing on, stop and take a look at the clock. Are you going to be eating your salad in the next five minutes? If not, set your dressing to the side and keep your salad in the fridge until you're ready to eat. Too many leafy salads wilt under prematurely applied dressing and warm temperatures.
Of course, chopped and marinated salads are another ballgame entirely. "Non-lettuce salads often benefit from dressing several hours ahead," Balla and Burns add. If you're looking for travel-friendly salads that'll hold up well in the fridge (or the bottom of you bag), skip the leaves and go for chopped vegetables mixed with beans or grains—these hardier ingredients don't just hold up under dressing, they actually get better with time. We've got a whole collection of recipes to get you started.