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. But a salad can also be a meal and not a mere side dish. And the true beauty of salads? There aren’t really a lot of rules for what can or can’t be included either way. Chopped vegetables? Sure. Meat? Cheese? Hardboiled eggs? Add them all in! Even fruit fits. And a truly great salad is a work of art.
The Salad Days…of Salad
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. But as a side dish or a main course, other types of salad definitely have the edge of being able to be made ahead (potato salad and pasta salad are prime examples, but even kale salad will hold up in the cooler or fridge). Salads composed of simply the freshest vegetables you can find (summer tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, etc.) are also wonderful, lettuce or not.
Related Reading: 11 Chunky Summer Salads That Skip the Lettuce
Salad became extremely popular in the United States in the 1920s, when cookbooks devoted to only salad were published (the trend’s coming back and we love it), 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.
Salads have also had plenty of pop culture moments—who can forget the catchy assertion from “The Simpsons” that “You don’t win friends with salad” (or the entire “Seinfeld” episode that revolved around “a big salad”)? Going back even further, the phrase “salad days” (used to refer to one’s green youth) dates back to 1606, when Shakespeare turned the phrase in “Antony and Cleopatra.”
Salads have staying power for sure, and they have infinite variations, but there are some basic rules you can follow to ensure you banish bad salads.
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. Then, consult Our Best Salad Recipes, Rules, Tips & Tricks. It covers the following basics in way more depth, plus includes general salad rules to live by and lots of gorgeous and delicious salad recipes.
But at a glance, these are the key components of any salad that you should aim to balance in perfect harmony (leaning on the side of lighter and brighter for the hotter months of the year):
The most important part of the salad is the base, whether it is delicate leafy greens, hearty greens like kale, thinly sliced cooked or raw vegetables, grains, or a combination of the the above. Play around with different lettuces, vegetables, even fruits, and let the base will inform what you add to it next.
Pro-Tip: If you want your lettuce to last longer in the refrigerator, store it in an airtight lidded container 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.
VeggieZips Produce Storage Bags, 22 for $13.99 on Amazon
You can also try these breathable, zip-top storage bags with moisture-absorbing liners to keep your greens, herbs, and other produce fresher longer.
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 (just for starters). And you can add lots of other things to it to change the texture and flavor.
On the subject of vinaigrette, stop using the old 3:1 ratio and go for 2:1 instead (let Andy Swallow, founder of Mixt Greens, explain):
Plus, there are plenty of other salad dressing styles to choose from.
You don’t have to include something from every category in every salad, but it’s nice to balance at least a couple elements from these six flavor families in your bowl or on your plate:
1. Salty (cheeses, cured meats, capers, olives, anchovies)
2. Sour (tomatoes, kumquats, grapefruit, pineapple, dried cherries or cranberries, or pickled foods)
3. Sweet (dates, plums, golden raisins, apples, pears, citrus, stone fruit, grapes, berries, figs, melon, roasted beets or sweet potatoes)
4. Bitter (broccoli rabe, radicchio, grapefruit, radish, endive, garlic, eggplant, arugula)
5. Umami (nori, cured or smoked meats and fish, aged cheese, fermented foods like black beans or kimchi, mushrooms, miso, tahini)
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. Additional textures you should think about including are: crispy, creamy, chewy, and juicy.
See How to Troubleshoot Your Salad for more tips, tricks, and superb salad recipes.
Those Other Summer Salads
As with green salads, grain salads, and veggie salads, when it comes to finding your perfect salad, the key is experimentation, but always attempting balance.
While it may a keto BBQ no-go, potato salad is an absolute must for most cook-outs and summer gatherings, so here’s all our best potato salad content in one place to refer back to as needed:
- Should You Use Waxy or Starchy Potatoes for the Best Potato Salad?
- How Long Can Potato Salad Stay at Room Temperature & Still Be Safe to Eat?
- Japanese Potato Salad Is Our New Favorite Thing
- Creamy Scandinavian Spuds to Spicy Korean Kimchi: 11 Potato Salad Recipes from Around the World
- Picnic-Perfect Potato Salads That Don’t Use Mayonnaise
- Skordalia Is the Garlicky Potato Side Dish That’s Even Better Than Salad
Jockeying for position as the top BBQ side star, pasta salad is another dish that’s easy to mess up, but not if you follow our recipes and tips:
- 9 Summer Pasta Salad Recipes for Every Picnic, Potluck, and BBQ
- 8 Gluten-Free Pasta Salad Options—Plus How to Use Them to Their Best Advantage
The time is ripe for making fruit salad, what with all the gorgeous summer stone fruit and berries on display at farmers’ markets. Always go with what looks (and tastes) the best, but check out these tips and inspiring ideas too:
- How to Make Fruit Salad That Doesn’t Suck: Simple Rules, Tips & Tricks to Avert Soggy Disaster
- 18 Secret Ingredients for Fruit Salad, Including Ina’s Favorites
Even More Summery Salads
Beyond all of the above, you’ll want to make sure you showcase summer’s best ingredients in every way possible, and salads are no exception. So here are some recipes that rely on the best seasonal produce you can find.
Heirloom tomatoes may be THE best seasonal food thing of summer. When they’re ripe, they don’t need anything other than some fresh herbs, sea salt, cracked pepper, and good olive oil. If you can get a mix of colors, your salad will not only be more beautiful but boast different flavors too so you can appreciate the full range of the tomato. Get our Herbed Heirloom Tomato Salad recipe.
Related Reading: Why Are Heirloom Tomatoes So Expensive?
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 (and again, heirloom tomatoes are tops). Don’t skimp on the quality of your fresh mozzarella either. Get our Caprese Salad recipe.
The usual Caprese formula also works beautifully when you swap in stone fruit for tomatoes; peaches or nectarines (or a combo of both) will work, but pick whatever is ripest. You can use creamy burrata for an extra decadent salad too. Get Joanna Gaines’s Peach Caprese Salad recipe.
A creamy (but healthy) avocado-based dressing with smoky chipotle—dairy-free!—is perfect over fresh summer produce, including juicy tomatoes and crisp corn. Tomatillos and jicama add even more crunch for a refreshing bite. Get our Tomato, Tomatillo, and Corn Salad with Avocado Dressing recipe.
Related Reading: 9 Corn Salads Perfect for Summer
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. Make sure to use high-quality, oil-packed tuna (Sunkist ain’t gonna cut it), or swap it out for fresh grilled tuna steaks. It is summer, after all. 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. This is perfect for a beach picnic. 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.
Grains, in this case bulgur, can be the base of the salad or add more heft to a greens-based salad. Here, the bulgur mingles with a hefty amount of minced scallions, mint, and parsley, plus some juicy diced tomatoes and toasted pine nuts for a (non-traditional but delicious) roasty crunch. Get our Tabbouleh recipe.