10 Lessons for Building the Perfect Salad
A beautiful salad is a master class in contrasts—think tart citrus with earthy-sweet beets, crunchy cucumber with creamy feta, channeling six veggie-loving chefs, food editor Hannah Klinger creates five salads (and provides ten tips) that are balanced, colorful, and brilliantly simple.
Lesson 1: Stick to the season.
Keep salad combos seasonal by using what naturally grows together so peak produce can shine. "Salads are the perfect way to show off the bounty of the season or celebrate a beloved ingredient." —Suzanne Goin, chef of Lucques and a.o.c. in L.A. She is a disciple of Alice Waters and a champion of sustainable, local food and healthy school lunches.
Lesson 2: Invest in equipment.
Making sure your greens are dry can make or break a salad. Since even pre-washed salad mixes usually could benefit from a quick wash too, it's a good idea to invest in a salad spinner. This handy gadget will speed up your prep while leaving you with clean and crispy greens.
Lesson 3: Keep it simple.
Resist the "kitchen sink" approach unless every item has a purpose. "I never like things to be mushed together. Every ingredient must have its own identity yet still work together as a whole." —Yotam Ottolenghi, author of Plenty and Plenty More about the striking, innovative vegetable recipes from his London restaurants.
Lesson 4: Don't fear the fat.
A little fat goes a long way in salads. While homemade salad dressings may seem like they contain an outrageous measurement of oil, when it comes down to how much everyone consumes per serving it's quite a small amount. If you're worried about drowning your salad, just toss it with a little dressing at a time until well-coated. Any excess dressing/oil will pool at the bottom.
Lesson 5: Seek out crunch.
Just as a salad would be naked without dressing, it would be incomplete without crunch. "Texture plays a big role in creating a memorable salad, especially crunchy textures." —Scott Crawford, chef of Crawford and Son in Raleigh, North Carolina. His West Coast-meets-Southern approach puts fresh, local produce first.
Lesson 6: Include cooked veggies.
While most of us picture a salad containing mostly raw vegetables and fruits, adding in cooked components can truly elevate a salad. A bite into creamy baked sweet potato, a hint of smoke from charred corn, or a dose of sweetness from roasted carrots can be just what your dish needs.
Lesson 7: Choose a theme.
Carefully selected elements make a salad feel like a real dish, not an obligatory vegetable serving. "I have to choose an ethnicity. When flavors complement each other, it's more satisfying." —Jenn Louis, chef of Ray in Portland, Oregon, and author of The Book of Greens. Her plant-forward menus elevate vegetables to main-dish stars.
Lesson 8: Toss, toss, toss.
After going through all the effort to carefully build your perfect salad, don't ruin it by dumping the dressing straight on top. Gently toss your salad components (leaving out any crunchy toppings) with the dressing for an evenly coated dish that packs flavor in each bite.
Lesson 9: Strive for balance.
Round out crunchy with soft, acidic with fatty, spicy with creamy. "It'll soften a hearty or bitter green with avocado, a creamy dressing, or a soft cheese." —Sara Jenkins, chef of Porsena in NYC. While pastas and Italian-style meats are her specialty, she's praised for the bold and unexpected salads on her menus.
Lesson 10: Herb it up.
Forget just putting fresh herbs into the dressing, toss them straight into the salad! Bright and flavorful herbs will blend beautifully with your greens of choice, all while amping up the salad.
How Best To Dress
"Start with an ingredient you want to feature, then think about what it plays well with, such as a particular vinegar." —Scott Crawford
The Taste Test
"Taste your dressings on a vegetable, not your fingers—that's the way you're going to eat it." —Deborah Madison
"It's important to dress your salads gently but well. You want to get the leaves coated, but not overdressed." —Suzanne Goin
Ring Around the Bowl
"Spoon the dressing around the sides of the bowl so it doesn't land on the vegetables. That way you can add more as needed." —Jenn Louis
Prep Now, Toss Later
"Don't assemble or dress until the last minute. Salads rarely benefit from sitting around." —Yotam Ottolenghi
Build Some Body
"I love to make yogurt dressings to add a creamy taste. I also like to add lentils to a vinaigrette for an unexpected texture." —Sara Jenkins