Nobody likes a poorly dressed salad, and avoiding that outcome starts with proper washing and drying of the greens. You could make the world's most perfect vinaigrette, but if you fail to fully dry your lettuce after washing, that dressing will run right off of the leaves, collecting in a pool at the bottom of the bowl and delivering mouthfuls of bland, watery plant matter.
Drying leafy greens isn't easy: Water clings to their curls and wrinkles, and can't be drained off by a few shakes of a colander. Patting lettuce dry between two clean dish towels works better, but it's inefficient for even medium-sized batches of salad. This is why a salad spinner is an essential kitchen tool. Through the simple mechanism of centrifugal force, it can dry a big batch of greens (or lots of other things, for that matter!) in seconds, leading to satisfying, well-dressed salads every time.
That, at least, is the salad spinner ideal. But a lot of things can also make a salad spinner fall short. Some simply don't spin fast enough, and therefore don't get the lettuce dry enough. Others might actually spin too fast, leaving delicate greens battered and bruised. Some are too small; some are hard to hold on to; some are just poorly made. So I set out to test some of the best-rated salad spinners out there, and find out which did the job most quickly and thoroughly.
Before we get into the testing details, here's the winner. This was one of those rare cases in which one candidate—the Zyliss Swift Dry Salad Spinner—clearly rose above the rest for its space-efficient design, solid construction, and minimal-effort drying mechanism.
Read on for the details.
Salad spinners all follow the same basic design: You place your greens inside a perforated basket set inside a bowl, and some mechanism is used to spin that basket and dry the greens. The nature of the mechanism varies widely. Some use a pull-string, which you yank as you would if you were starting a lawn mower. Some have a simple crank on top of or on the side of the lid. Others have a pump or lever mechanism on top, which activates a series of gears that spin the basket. I chose to test models using all of these mechanisms except for the pull-string, which feels a bit outdated. A pull-string is harder to use because it can easily get tangled, or stuck in the unwound position. It's also prone to breaking, and to mildew when it's wound up damp inside the lid.
Most salad spinners are meant to be used on the countertop and catch dripping water. But a few models out there have holes in the bottom of the bowl, and are meant to be used in the sink. I decided not to test any of those models, because whatever efficiency is added by allowing the water to drain straight out of the spinner is more than offset by the fact that you can't use the spinner anywhere else in the kitchen.
With those basic criteria in mind, I read through a lot of reviews of salad spinners from trusted sources, like Cook's Illustrated, Good Housekeeping, and The Sweethome, then scoured Amazon for all the best-rated spinners I could find. In the end, I narrowed the list down to seven: three with a pump or lever mechanism, three with a crank, and one with a unique pull-handle, kind of like the plastic version of a pull-string.
Here are the criteria I used to judge the quality of the spinners.
A good salad spinner, first and foremost, needs to get greens good and dry, and it needs to do so efficiently. You shouldn't have to spin and spin and spin your greens, only to have them come out still damp. And you shouldn't have to put a lot of effort into spinning. A good geared mechanism should allow you to work the inner basket up to a high spinning speed, without requiring excessive force or speed on your part.
To test how well each spinner dried, I tried drying a standard five-ounce clamshell box of mixed greens in each one. I weighed the greens in grams straight out of the box, then again after washing, while they were still wet. After putting the wet greens in the salad spinner and giving it five pumps or turns of the crank, I weighed the greens again, then put them back in the spinner and spun until they seemed dry, before weighing one final time. With the resulting numbers, I was able to calculate how dry each spinner got the greens, how quickly it dried them, and what percentage of water remained.
The more greens you pack into a salad spinner, the harder it is to get them all dry: Water stays trapped between leaves that are packed too tightly together, and the apparent centrifugal force on those greens stuck at the center of the bowl is not as strong. A good salad spinner, therefore, needs to be at least big enough to comfortably fit a whole five ounces of greens—the standard size for most grocery store salad mixes. If you can't dry that in one go, you need a new salad spinner. It's nice to have an even larger capacity, especially if you like throwing dinner parties or if you just like a lot of salad, but it's not strictly necessary for most people.
None of the salad spinners I tested had any trouble handling five ounces of greens, but from there, I tried pushing them to the limit. To see how far each spinner could go, I increased the amount of greens to one and a half times the standard, and then—for those that could handle that—a full 10 ounces, double the original amount. For each round, I repeated the weighing process from my first round of testing.
Cleaning and Storage
Inevitably, salad spinners can be a bit of a pain to clean, since they involve at least three parts (bowl, basket, and lid). Bits of leaves can get wedged in the mesh of the basket and, in some cases, can be hard to get out. Multipart lids may also trap lettuce bits in areas that are impossible to reach with a sponge, and not all are dishwasher-safe. But some baskets are easier to clean than others due to the size and shape of their holes, and some lids disassemble, also making them easier to clean. These were all things I took into account while testing out the salad spinners.
Salad spinners are also inevitably bulky, for the capacity reasons described above. The bowls of most spinners hold at least five quarts, and that takes up a lot of cupboard space. But some spinners at least try to reduce their footprint, while others bulk it up with domed lids and handles poking out. I gave priority to the former.
A salad spinner can be very frustrating to use if it's not easy to hold steady on the countertop. The best spinners have silicone grips on the bottom to keep them from sliding around. These days, it's possible to find spinners that can be operated with one hand, but, at the very least, a spinner should have an easy handhold, to allow you to grip the bowl with one hand while spinning with the other. The spinners I tested with mechanisms that pumped up and down kept the spinner planted on the countertop, as opposed to those that required you to pull a tab or spin a crank, which could send them off balance. The lid should also rest securely in place, and not be at risk of slipping off while you spin.
It's also nice to have a braking mechanism of some sort, usually in the form of a button on top of the lid, to quickly stop the basket from spinning. You can do without, but all the spinners I tested did include a brake, and I appreciated the feature. I also noted that some brakes worked better than others—some were slow, some were hard to press, some squeaked loudly.
Some spinners come with a hole or grate at one edge of the lid, which is meant to allow you to pour water out of the bowl while the basket of lettuce is still inside. This is somewhat convenient, but not absolutely necessary, and often poorly designed as well. The act of pouring water out can easily result in pouring gritty water back through the basket and into your lettuce. And if the lid doesn't clip in place, it's quite likely you'll drop it, and all the lettuce with it, right into the sink as you try to pour. I tried the pour spout on every spinner that came with one, but ultimately didn't give it much weight in my ranking.
If a spinner is too powerful—i.e., if it spins too fast—it runs the risk of damaging tender greens and herbs, not to mention berries you might want to dry in your spinner. In my testing, I took note of this by drying a bunch of fragile cilantro in each spinner, noting whether the leaves came out bruised or damaged. But when drying delicate things, you can always line your salad spinner with a few layers of paper towels to soften its effect, so I didn't judge rough salad spinners too harshly, unless they damaged even mixed greens.
Finally, a salad spinner needs to last. Spinners typically rely on a lot of breakable plastic parts—bowls can crack, gears can start slipping—and, though I have no way of knowing from a day's worth of testing which ones will last, I did keep an eye out for anything that seemed particularly fragile or unreliable. I also read through Amazon reviews, looking for any red flags in the form of common complaints.
The Winner: Zyliss Swift Dry Salad Spinner
For power and ease of use, the Zyliss Swift Dry Salad Spinner is the best one I tested. This is a relatively new spinner on the market (an update of Zyliss's Smart Touch Salad Spinner), operated by pumping down on a lever that pops up from the lid. Not only is this pumping mechanism powerful, but the Zyliss also boasts one unique design feature that genuinely seems to improve its efficiency: a ridged basket.
The ridges increase the surface area of the basket, allowing air to flow more quickly through more of the greens, without requiring a significant increase in the size of the bowl. Where most of the other spinners I tested resulted in greens that retained between 3 and 10% of the water used to rinse them, the Zyliss greens retained zero, or even less than zero (since greens don't come perfectly dry to begin with). That's right: They came out as dry as they were before washing, or even drier.
Even compared to those other spinners that could get the greens all the way dry, the Zyliss still did it faster. Other models I tried typically required 15 or 20 pumps or turns of the crank to dry the greens to an acceptable degree, sometimes even more. The Zyliss got them dry in 10. The shape of the basket surely deserves some credit for this, but the pumping mechanism on the Zyliss also felt particularly powerful, quickly working the basket up to a high speed. One small downside to this was that the Zyliss takes some extra force to get going. But it's not so hard that I think anyone would find it impossible to do, and after that first press, the basket is already spinning at such a good speed, it takes little effort to keep it going.
At first, the ridged basket looked like it would have less capacity than the simpler round baskets. With seven or 10 ounces of greens piled in, it looked overstuffed, and yet it handled both quantities with ease. Yes, it took a few extra pumps of the lever, and the full 10 ounces of greens didn't come out completely dry—they held on to about 7% of the water accumulated through washing. But other spinners retained much more, and some were unable to dry even seven ounces of greens, which the Zyliss dried completely with ease.
The lever on the Zyliss also locks in the down position, completely flush with the lid. The lid itself is flat and not too bulky, making this spinner easy to store. The other spinner I tested with a similar lever also included a locking mechanism for storage, but the lever itself felt much flimsier; it bent with every push down, and a few times I heard an unpleasant cracking sound coming from the gears inside the lid. The third pump-action spinner I tested—which had a big button instead of a lever—also locked in the down position, but wasn't quite as powerful as the Zyliss.
All three of the crank-operated spinners I tested proved harder to store, thanks to the protruding crank. One, which had its crank on the side instead of on top, also had a high, domed lid, making the spinner a good three inches taller than any other I tested. The crank mechanism usually made it more difficult to get the spinner up to a high speed—it's a lot of work for wrists and shoulders, and my knuckles occasionally got in the way, grazing against the lid. Plus, you can't operate a hand-cranked salad spinner one-handed: You have to hold the bowl—and the lid, if it's not clamped down—in place with the other. The one spinner I tested with a pull-handle had a similar problem, and the pull-handle also turned out to be very noisy (it actually drowned out the radio I was listening to while testing).
In comparison, it was easy enough to operate the Zyliss, and all the other pump-action spinners, with one hand, simply by pressing straight down. Thanks to a wide base and a ring of silicone all the way around the bottom rim, the Zyliss was also super stable. It didn't slip, nor did it wobble, which was an issue I ran into with spinners that had three or four silicone feet instead of that single nonslip ring.
Despite its power, the Zyliss was easy to stop quickly with a simple brake button. It also wasn't particularly abusive of delicate cilantro. But one of its flaws was that the holes in the bottom of the basket are somewhat bigger than those of other salad spinners. This meant that a handful of stray cilantro leaves escaped the basket, so I'd still recommend lining it with a paper towel when drying small herbs or greens.
On the plus side, those holes make the basket easier to clean than some of the other spinners I tried, which allowed leaves to lodge in narrow crevices. That's an especially good thing considering that, of all the pieces of the Zyliss, only the bowl is dishwasher-safe. But at least the lid disassembles easily into two pieces, allowing you to clean the entire thing quickly by hand.
On a couple of occasions, those two lid pieces actually separated accidentally when I was either putting on or removing the lid. This was a small annoyance—I had to pause to put the two pieces back together—but I wouldn't call it a deal-breaker, since the issue was easy enough to fix, and it didn't happen every time. Overall, the Zyliss seems to have a good, sturdy construction, though only time will tell how long those plastic gears last. The spinner comes with a five-year manufacturer's guarantee. Should it fail for any reason other than your own error (say, dropping it on the floor), Zyliss promises to send a replacement.