Tips to Make Salads That Don’t Suck

Salads are underappreciated. My family likes food. Even still, salads usually come to the table as an afterthought, a big bowl with some tongs and the crazy buffet of dressings that either myself or one of my sister’s would collect from the fridge. Salad was more a civic responsibility than a real dish, something you tossed out on the table in an attempt to satisfy the Federales with their twisted food pyramid.

When I learned a little more about cooking I realized that salads can come in a whole lot more forms than I had ever been aware of. When I first discovered panzanella and this concept that you could use big chunks of good, grilled bread instead of croutons. Those chunks of grilled bread busted open the little tin can that had previously been my salad world. I could now use big chunks of juicy things in salads, and they would get soaked into the bread, and it would be delicious. Basically, my salad horizons were broadened substantially.

And there were still more styles to explore. There’s the niçoise sort of compartmentalized salad, with your tuna and your olives and your aioli, designed more to pick around at, combining your own flavors as you choose. There are the sliced salads, like a zucchini carpaccio, long thin strips of vegetables, lightly dressed. There are grain salads, noodle salads, fruit salads. There are the mayonnaise laden picnic salads, usually with some combination of macaroni and potatoes. And then I started making Japanese food, and there’s a whole new world of salads with all kinds of new and interesting ingredients I’d never worked with before. If you’re willing to relax the guidelines a bit, you can add a bunch of other salads to the list. There are even Jello salads. I don’t like to count Jello salads though. On account of they’re gross.

Maybe you’ve made a salad or two in your day. Maybe you try and follow some recipes, but that can get boring quick. But if you learn a few simple tricks and how to mix them up effectively, you can put fresh produce on the table every night in a way that you and your dining companions look forward to. Here are some tips for taking your salads to the next level.


Freshness

Most of the time, a salad is going to lean heavily on it’s ingredients. With a stew or a braise, you can more easily steamroll subpar ingredients with seasoning and long cooking times. But with a salad, figuring out how to find and identify the highest quality products is crucial, because the difference between the average boring tomato and a fresh, bright, heirloom tomato is the difference between a boring salad and a salad that will rock your socks off.

Composition

I always start a salad by digging through my refrigerator for stuff that needs to get used. Ideally though, you should do a little planning. Choosing ingredients that compliment each other makes the difference here. If you’re not comfortable identifying which ingredients compliment each other, you may wanna check out The Flavor Bible. This book helps you quickly reference interesting ingredient pairings. It’s a gold mine when it comes to constructing interesting dishes. Whenever I work on a formally composed dish for a restaurant or a fancy dinner, I’ll pop this book open several times.

Knife Skills

A sharp knife is awesome. Particularly when it comes to produce. Cutting greens, cucumber, tomatoes, whatever it is, a sharp knife is going to slice ingredients, while a dull knife will crush them. This means that using a sharp knife to prepare a salad will result in crisper ingredients that stay fresh longer.

Dressing

Dressing’s come in a wide range of flavors and consistencies. You’ve got your creamy ranch and your light vinaigrettes, your briney, aggressive caesar, or your spicy Italian, and the list goes on. The key thing to note is that a dressing should make sense with the ingredients it dresses. Caesar works on romaine because it is so intense and romaine is large and crisp to balance that out. Mixed green salads usually have a light dressing, often as simple as oil and lemon, and that’s because these salads often use very delicate greens.

When you work in a professional kitchen you usually start on the cold side of the line and you make a lot of salads. One of the first bad habits that new cooks often need to be broken of, is over-dressing their salads. Overdoing the dressing and handling your greens aggressively can take all of the body out of a salad and turn it into a wilted pile. Use just as much dressing as compliments the ingredients and toss very gently.

Cleanliness

You need to clean your greens. It’s a little annoying, but it’s good to take certain tasks into your own hands. Produce gets prepped and crated in a dirty environment, then shipped through an even dirtier environment, maybe even repackaged with material that has traveled through an equally dirty environment. Even if a package says it’s been washed three times, I like to give my produce a rinse. It’s not uncommon to count a salad spinner as a luxury kitchen tool, but I think it’s crucial to have a decent spinner on hand. There’s just not a better way to dry washed greens thoroughly without damaging them.

Toppings

For me, toppings are that finishing touch that can take a salad to the next level. They can serve to add that final spark of flavor, texture, or color that really marks the difference between a nice, intentionally composed salad and a quick, tossed together kinda deal.

Maceration

When you use a liquid to soften an ingredient and distribute it’s flavor, it’s called maceration (at least in the culinary sense, I don’t recommend googling it). One of my favorite examples uses shallot and lemon. Dice some shallot finely and let it soak in lemon juice. Let it sit for awhile and the shallot looses a little of it’s sharp onion crunch, while the lemon picks up the shallot flavor and disperses it. Just this alone makes for a great dressing, toss it with some leafy greens and a little olive oil, some salt and pepper.

Thanks for reading. Let me know if you’ve found any of these suggestions helpful at all, or if you’ve got anything to add.