Salad is one of the most basic components of a meal: toss some greens together with a light vinaigrette and you’ve got the basis for a healthy and delicious dish, particularly perfect for summer. And the beauty of salads? There aren’t really a lot of rules for what can or can’t be included. Chopped vegetables? Sure. Meat? Cheese? Hardboiled eggs? Add them all in! Even fruit fits. And a truly great salad is not a mere side dish, but a meal.
Salads date all the way back to the Roman Empire. Technically defined in the “Oxford English Dictionary” as “a cold dish of various mixtures of raw or cooked vegetables, usually seasoned with oil, vinegar, or other dressing and sometimes accompanied by meat, fish, or other ingredients,” or more simply, “A mixture containing a specified ingredient served with a dressing,” the beauty of a freshly tossed salad is undeniable. As a side dish or a main course, a summer salad can be chilled or made ahead of time (think potato salad, pasta salad) or composed of simply the freshest vegetables you can find (summer tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, etc).
Salad became extremely popular in the United States in the 1920s, when cookbooks devoted to only salad were published, and tossed salads became the norm. Fruit salad, and the iconic American invention Jell-O salad (neither Jell-O, nor salad) were also popular choices.
In our salad dressing video, Andy Swallow, the founder of Mixt Greens, discusses the perfect ratio of oil to vinegar in a salad dressing. Instead of the typical 3:1 ratio of oil to vinegar in a salad dressing, Andy advocates for a 2:1 ratio (or even a 1:1 ratio!) to make for a brighter, fresher tasting dressing that balances the flavors.
If you’re worried about the composition of your salad or would like some basic rules to follow, here are some tips to troubleshoot your salad:
The most important part of the salad is the base, whether it is delicate leafy greens, hearty greens, thinly sliced cooked or raw vegetables, or a combination of the three. Play around with different lettuces, vegetables, even fruits.
Oil-and-vinegar is a salad dressing at its most basic. But the oil can be nut, olive, grapeseed, or a combination of several. The acid can be in the form of red wine vinegar, rice vinegar, or lemon juice. The addition of creams, eggs, or fruits, like avocado, can sweeten or change the dressing’s texture. If you want a little umami, add some soy sauce, anchovies, fish sauce, or Worcestershire sauce.
Let’s delve deeper into dressings, which are so important. These are the basic types.
Vinaigrette: (acid + optional binder + oil + salt + pepper) Acids include red wine, white wine, champagne, sherry, tarragon, rice wine, and balsamic vinegars; citrus juices; oils can be olive, peanut, grapeseed, sesame, almond, walnut, pistachio, pumpkin seed; the optional binder is usually a mustard such as Dijon, whole grain, or honey.
Egg-Based: (acid + egg + oil + salt + pepper) For example, Caesar dressing.
Creamy: (acid + creamy ingredient + salt + pepper) For the creamy ingredient, use yogurt, buttermilk, crème fraîche, Mexican crema, sour cream, mayonnaise, silken tofu, mascarpone, cream cheese, tahini, miso, or coconut milk.
Vegetable-Based: Puréed vegetable + acid + oil or creamy ingredient + salt + pepper. The puréed vegetable could be avocado, English peas, sautéed tomato, roasted garlic, grilled peppers, or caramelized onion.
Salty: Cheeses (goat, feta, blue, mozzarella, queso fresco, cheddar, Manchego, Parmesan, pecorino, ricotta salata), cured meats (pancetta, bacon, salami, speck), capers, olives, anchovies
Sour: Tomatoes, fresh fruit (kumquats, grapefruit, pineapple), dried fruit (cherries, cranberries), pickled foods
Sweet: Dried fruit (dates, plums, cherries, golden raisins or sultanas, membrillo or quince, raisins, cranberries, sun-dried tomatoes), fresh fruit (apples, pears, citrus, stone fruit, grapes, berries, figs, melon, tropical fruit, Fuyu persimmons), vegetables (roasted beets, sweet potatoes, squash, red bell peppers, tomatoes, sugar snap peas, carrots); for dressings: honey, sugar, agave, pomegranate molasses, maple syrup, fruit juices
Bitter: Broccoli rabe, radicchio, grapefruit, radish, endive, garlic, eggplant, arugula
Umami: Umami implies savory or meaty and usually involves salt, proteins, fermentation, or a combination of these. Seaweed, meats (ham, chicken, turkey, steak), cured meats (salami, pancetta, bacon, speck), fish, cured fish (sardines, anchovies), smoked foods (cheese, tofu, fish, meat, paprika, salt), cheese, fermented foods (black beans), mushrooms; for dressings: miso, broths, stocks, peanut butter, Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, smashed anchovies, tahini
Spicy: Watercress, upland cress, arugula, chile peppers (fresh, dried, in adobo), black peppercorns, ginger; for dressings: Sriracha, Tabasco, horseradish, wasabi
Once you’ve got the basics down, you should start thinking about what kind of textures you’d like to include in your salad. Mix and match different levels of crunchiness for success. Textures you should think about including are any of the following: crunchy, creamy, chewy, and juicy.
How should you get started on building your perfect summer salad?
First, figure out if you’re interested in a salad based on greens, or what the French would call a salade composée, which is a series of ingredients arranged on a plate.
When it comes to finding your perfect salad, the key is experimentation.
It’s time to get started on creating your summer salad!
Start with the basics: a pasta salad, a grain salad, and a green salad. Then get creative and move on to potato salad, panzanella, and more.
Use the best ingredients because there are only a few of them, and you will notice. Or at least, it will make a huge difference. Fresh, locally grown, organic tomatoes burst with so much more flavor than standard supermarket tomatoes, so please try to get good ones if you’re doing this salad. Get our Caprese Salad recipe.
A creamy (but healthy) avocado-based dressing with smoky chipotle is perfect over fresh summer product, including juicy tomatoes and crisp corn. Tomatillos and jicama add even more crunch. Get our Tomato, Tomatillo, and Corn Salad with Avocado Dressing recipe.
This salad is versatile for a work lunch or a picnic lunch, by itself, or on the side with a protein. The creamy cheese lets the briny olives shine, and it’s still got greens to make you feel virtuous. Get our Pasta Salad with Spinach, Olives, and Mozzarella recipe.
Grains, in this case wheat berries, can be the base of the salad or add more heft to a greens-based salad. Here, the ancient grain with lotsa nutrition is the main ingredient, brightened with fruit and spiced with harissa. The pistachios and carrots give a nice crunch too. Get our Wheat Berry Salad with Harissa and Pistachios recipe.
For an easy, uncomplicated summer salad that celebrates the season’s fresh produce without masking it in too many ingredients, go for the green bean and tomato salad. A tangy vinaigrette, some herbs, and you’re good to go. Get our Green Bean, Tomato, and Shallot Salad recipe.
Not all potato salads need to be slathered in mayonnaise, such as this one bursting with fresh-herb flavors. It’s also pretty with small red potatoes, which can be more tender and cook faster. Get our Herbed Potato Salad recipe.
For those of you who crave good, crusty bread, you’ll love the idea of having it not just on the side of your salad, but in your salad, the way they do for this Tuscan recipe. You need day-old, kinda stale bread so it holds its crunch. The more time the flavors have to meld, the better. Get our Panzanella Tuscan Bread Salad recipe.
The salad inspired by the French Riviera is a meal salad, although a light one. The potatoes, green beans, hardboiled egg, and tuna bring fiber, heft, and protein to the plate, dressed in a light vinaigrette. Get our Niçoise Salad recipe.
You get your protein through the tofu and roasted, salted peanuts. You can make your own tofu if you’re feeling really ambitious, but make sure it’s extra firm. The ginger-miso vinaigrette brings a zesty umami coating to the whole greens-based shindig. Get our Tofu Salad with Miso-Ginger Vinaigrette recipe.
Sometime you crave a simple Greek salad: Oh, that salty crumbled feta! Combined with briny, pitted black olives, Romaine lettuce, good quality tomatoes and red onions, you’ve got yourself a good gathering of components. Get our Basic Greek Salad recipe.
Classic basil pesto pairs up with sweet cherry tomatoes and rich mozzarella in a picnic-ready pasta salad that’s not too heavy. Get our Classic Pesto Pasta Salad recipe.
The big trend in salad these days: grains. The more grains in your salad, the better. Ancient grains? Perfect, throw them all in. Try some of these grain salad ideas in our 11 Grain Salads Great for Dinner, and Even Better the Next Day for Lunch gallery.
Lettuce-based salads are best when dressed immediately before serving. But if you’re making a pasta salad, potato salad, or even a hearty kale-based salad, you can make them the night before (or even a day or two in advance) and they’ll hold up well in the refrigerator.
Another great tip? If you want your lettuce to last longer in the refrigerator, store it in a Tupperware with some paper towels to absorb any moisture. This will keep the lettuce fresh for as long as possible and you’ll have no excuse not to have a fantastic salad on the table in only a matter of minutes.