Why It Works
- Salting the tomato drains excess water, concentrating its flavor while seasoning it throughout.
- Quick-pickling the red onion reduces its harshness while adding a needed bright note to balance the creamy richness of the dressing and meaty bacon.
- Crisping the fresh bread crumbs in the rendered bacon fat adds more smoky, porky flavor to the dish.
The other day I looked at the thermometer outside my New York City kitchen window and it read 105°F. Clearly, I need a new thermometer. And yet, even if it isn't that hot out, it's definitely been getting warm enough that my water consumption is starting to spike while my appetite recedes (well, slightly, anyway). We're entering that time of year when foods need to be satisfying but not gut-busting. If they're refreshing, all the better. And no dish delivers better on all those fronts than the classic wedge salad—a quarter of a head of iceberg lettuce dripping with creamy blue cheese dressing and scattered with crisp bacon, tomatoes, and more.
In addition to its appealing mix of cooling and creamy elements, one of the hallmarks of a wedge salad is its total simplicity—overcomplicating it in an attempt to make a version that stands out from the crowd flies in the face of what this salad should be, which is dead easy. But that doesn't mean that anything goes. There are details that are essential to creating a wedge salad that's the celebration of flavor and texture that it should be.
Scale: Wedge vs. Toppings
A wedge salad plays with proportion in an interesting way, and failing to notice this can lead to sub-par results. Specifically, what I'm talking about is that huge wedge of iceberg lettuce, a quarter of a head held together at its core. It's not chopped, it's not sliced, it's not separated into individual leaves like almost every other lettuce-y salad. No, this thing's a whopper that requires a knife, just like a big slab of steak does.
"The wedge salad is a mouth party, and all ingredients are invited to each and every bite."
One of the biggest mistakes I see with wedge salads is when people top them with overlarge ornaments. The last thing a wedge salad needs are big chunks of tomato, onion, and bacon precariously balanced on it like hills perched atop mountains; sameness, or even similarity, of scale is a wedge salad's death. No, what we want is maximum contrast. That means all the toppings need to be small, like confetti, so that you're guaranteed to have little bits of every garnish stuck to every forkful of the lettuce. The wedge salad is a mouth party, and all ingredients are invited to each and every bite.
How to Top a Wedge Salad
We'll make this fast since the wedge salad is, after all, a simple affair.
Tomato adds flavor, tenderness, and freshness, but it can also be watery and, in far too many cases, bland. We're going to remedy that with salt. By salting the diced tomatoes and letting them sit in a strainer over a bowl, we draw out water through osmosis, concentrating the flavor in each piece while also seasoning it throughout. It's a trick you've probably seen on this site before, including in Kenji's pico de gallo and my migas recipes.
It's worth noting that this adds no extra time to your overall prep: Just dice the tomato first and toss it with the salt before moving on to prep everything else. It'll drain while you work.
I'll be honest: I'm not the biggest fan of raw onion in most salads. It's strong and aggressive, and more often than not I find that it overpowers whatever else is on the plate. Still, a little bit of that pungency, if tempered, is a pleasant addition to the wedge. My favorite technique is to quickly pickle the onion in vinegar, which softens its flavor considerably. You also get a couple additional benefits: First, you get a needed bright and tangy note in the salad, thanks to the vinegar, which helps balance some of the richness of the blue cheese dressing; second, it turns red onion an intense pink color, which makes the finished dish look so much more festive.
For you raw onion fans, please don't fret. I mince chives and sprinkle them on top, too. I find their mild raw green-onion flavor much more pleasant.
Once more, note that pickling the onion doesn't add to your prep time either. Right after salting your tomato, mince your onion and pour your vinegar on top. (I use white wine vinegar in the recipe, but it's flexible—you could use red wine, rice, or distilled vinegar too.) Then let it stand while you continue to make the rest of the components.
There's not much to say about the bacon except that it's a requisite ingredient and we want it crispity crunchity, which leads me to...
Toasted Bread Crumbs
The bacon adds a good deal of crunch to each bite, but I really like to layer the crisp textures here. To do that, I take some fresh bread and pulse it in a food processor to create small crumbs. Then I toast it in the rendered bacon fat until browned and crisp. Not only do we stretch the bacon flavor this way by infusing the bread crumbs with it, we also get a new crunchy texture, less shattering than the bacon, but with more of a light, airy pop.
How to Make Blue Cheese Dressing
The last part is the dressing itself. You could buy blue cheese dressing at the store, but it's so much better to make your own. To start, take some mild, crumbly blue cheese and break it up with a whisk. Then add equal parts mayonnaise, sour cream, and buttermilk.
The buttermilk may seem like one step too far for such a simple salad, but it absolutely makes the dressing, both in terms of the great lactic flavor it adds, and also in how it thins the dressing just enough for it to cascade down the face of the iceberg wedge without clotting and clumping. A tablespoon of fresh lemon juice helps perk the dressing up with just a bit more brightness.
Once that's set, just spoon the dressing onto the lettuce wedges and sprinkle the toppings all over.
You won't so much as break a sweat.
2 small tomatoes (about 8 ounces total), diced
1 small red onion, minced
White wine vinegar, for soaking onion (see note)
4 ounces bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) fresh bread crumbs
Freshly ground black pepper
1 head iceberg lettuce, outer leaves discarded, quartered through core so that each quarter holds together
Buttermilk Blue Cheese Dressing (you may not need the full recipe)
Minced chives, for garnish
Set a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl and add diced tomatoes. Sprinkle liberally with salt and toss to combine. Place onion in a small bowl and pour enough vinegar on top to cover. Let tomatoes and onion stand while you prep the other ingredients.
In a small skillet, cook bacon over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until crisped, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a paper towel–lined plate to drain. You should have about 2 tablespoons (30ml) rendered fat in the skillet. Add bread crumbs and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until browned and crisp, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel–lined plate to drain and season liberally with salt and pepper.
Arrange iceberg wedges on plates and spoon dressing over each. Drain quick-pickled onions and sprinkle all over salads, along with drained tomatoes (discard any extracted liquid), bacon, toasted bread crumbs, and chives. Serve.
Fine-mesh strainer, slotted spoon
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 15g||19%|
|Saturated Fat 5g||23%|
|Total Carbohydrate 22g||8%|
|Dietary Fiber 3g||12%|
|Total Sugars 9g|
|Vitamin C 13mg||67%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|