Fruit salad is a staple of hotel breakfast buffets and brunch spots (and hospital cafeterias and elementary schools) everywhere—but it’s rarely any good. From hard, unripe fruit—chunks of bland melon and mouth-puckering pineapple—to sad, squishy grapes, it’s often uninspiring at best, and at worst, actively disgusting. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are the basic rules to making fruit salad that doesn’t suck, and that in fact is good enough to be the star of the show.
In the summer, it’s pretty easy to make great fruit salad just by picking out what’s ripest and most beautiful, but there should still be some rhyme and reason to what you throw together—and there are still several ways to enhance it. Follow these guidelines and you’ll have the perfect partner to your weekend eggs Benedict or the ideal sweet yet healthy dish to pack on a picnic.
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Be Picky and Choosy, Not Beholden to Recipes
You may have your heart set on a specific type of fruit for your salad, but if you can’t find ripe examples of the form, you’ll have to go to plan B—so be sure to have a plan B, or else get comfortable with adapting on the fly. It’s always better to have no peaches in your fruit salad than to have crunchy, flavorless peaches, no matter what the recipe calls for. Since the fruit in your salad is going to be front and center, it needs to be as perfect as possible. If you’re not making your salad right away, you can ripen some items at home—and stop some from ripening further by refrigerating, if need be. But examine everything you can find at your fruit stall or produce section, and pick whatever’s freshest and best.
Balance Textures for Perfect Harmony
Think about how you want your fruit salad to feel—soft and luscious; firm yet tender; or actually crunchy? You can certainly combine soft fruit with firmer kinds for textural variation, but it can be a bit jarring to mix really soft fruit (think peak-season peaches) with super crisp (like apples). That said, rules were meant to be broken, right? The light crunch of dragon fruit can play wonderfully off of other, softer tropical produce like mangoes and lychees. Or crisp watermelon can vivify plush cantaloupe and slightly squishy (in a good way) kiwi.
If you go with a mix of softer fruit and want to add a little crunch another way, consider mixing in chopped toasted nuts, cacao nibs, toasted coconut, chia seeds, dried banana chips, hemp hearts, and other toothsome tidbits. Don’t forget about pomegranate seeds, either, a good way to add pops of color and crunch. If using anything that will get soggy, though, be sure to keep that element separate until just before you serve.
Along with crisp/crunchy and luscious/soft, a texture that doesn’t always turn up in fruit salads is chewy—but you can add sliced or diced dried fruit of any kind to liven things up, if that appeals to you. Think raisins, dates, currants, figs, even dried mango or pineapple, or dried cherries.
Enhance Flavors with Judicious Additions
Sugar and Acid: Even if your fruit is perfectly ripe and exuding sweet nectar as soon as you cut it, tossing everything with a little extra sugar and acid can help marry and enhance all the flavors. Adding sugar directly to fruit like cut strawberries, nectarines, and plums, will create its own syrup after a while, but you can easily make a simple syrup to dress everything too—this cold-shake simple syrup method doesn’t even require boiling, although heat is useful if you want to infuse further flavor into your syrup, like lemongrass, ginger, or mint, a great way to add some extra layers of goodness. You can even make syrup from other fruit: strawberry syrup, rhubarb syrup, or cranberry syrup. Or use maple syrup, honey, or agave. Additional acid, if you need it, can come from any citrus fruit, and adding some of the zest bumps up the fragrance too—but even a fruity vinegar can work, used sparingly. Champagne vinegar, raspberry vinegar, a good-quality balsamic (white balsamic as well)…don’t be afraid to experiment.
Alcohol: If you want to infuse a little booze, stir a scant spoonful or two of liqueur—or liquor—into your salad (limoncello, Grand Marnier, pear brandy, coconut rum, Frangelico, Pimm’s, tequila), or use sweet dessert wine. You can even combine techniques and dress your salad with, say, raspberry-rosé simple syrup. Since you don’t want a fruit salad that’s too soupy or syrupy, add all your liquids in very small quantities, especially if you’re using juicier kinds of fruit to begin with.
Herbs: For a fresh element, pick your favorite herb and add it—mint is a classic, but try basil too, even thyme, tarragon, rosemary, and other savory herbs. Trust your taste, and if you’re still nervous, nibble on a little bit of everything together first to be sure it works. As my Granny used to say, nothing beats a failure like a try!
Other Seasonings: Try scraping in some vanilla bean seeds for a sweet aroma, or stir in a dab of Greek yogurt for a creamier salad with a bit of tang. You can add small amounts of dry spices too, like cinnamon or coriander, or even chili powder for a Mexican-style fruit salad.
Salt: Adding a noticeably salty note isn’t necessary, but it can be intriguing; while it’s perhaps not super common in fruit salads, we’re well used to salty-sweet in baked desserts, so it makes sense. You can try a scattering of salted nuts, crumbled bacon, shaved hard cheese (like Parmesan or extra-aged gouda), or even just finish each serving with a sprinkling of flaky sea salt to offset the other flavors. Even if you don’t want to taste the salt, adding a pinch to any fruit salad helps enhance the flavors.
Keep Timing in Mind
Some fruit is sturdier and will hold up well in the fridge even after being cut and mixed with other ingredients—melons in particular; they won’t brown or lose their structure. More fragile berries, however, will turn to mush fairly fast, and lush stone fruit can turn too soft and sludgy in the fridge or cooler once cut; sliced bananas will definitely get slimy. So if you’re packing your fruit salad to eat somewhere else, choose components that can sit a while without suffering, or bring them all along separately and mix them together once you get wherever you’re going. The longer the salad sits, the more liquid will collect, but you can always pour off the excess and add it to cocktails; simply stirring it into Champagne is nice. Super-chilled fruit salad can taste a bit blunted, so let it sit out at room temperature for at least 10 or 15 minutes so the flavors are bright.
Expand Your Definition of Fruit Salad
The term “fruit salad” usually refers to a jumble of different fruits and little else, but you can also craft savory salads that include lots of lovely fresh fruit. Both leafy green salads and heartier grain salads benefit tremendously from the addition of ripe fruit. You already know (and probably love) the pear and blue cheese salad with candied walnuts, but don’t stop there. Take our Shaved Fennel and Strawberry Salad for example; peppery arugula, shallots, fennel, balsamic vinegar, pine nuts, and pecorino cheese are all pretty standard, but add sweet, soft strawberries and it’s taken to a whole ‘nother level. Toss peaches with grilled corn kernels and mixed greens, plus avocado and salted pepitas for a great summer salad. Add a little of whatever’s in season, because eating more fruits and veggies is always a good thing.
Try one of these fruit salads as a starting point, or simply for inspiration.
Fresh mint, lime juice, a little sugar, and a pinch of salt are all that you need to spotlight fresh watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew. This is a perfect choice for all your picnics and summer barbecues. Get our Triple Melon Fruit Salad recipe.
While berries are still at their best, combine them in another simple summer fruit salad. This one uses orange juice for the acid, but you can get creative. Try using a flavored simple syrup that complements all the fruit, and feel free to switch up the fresh herbs too. Get our Summer Berry Salad recipe.
A vanilla bean syrup is lovely with ripe summer stone fruit—peaches, apricots, plums, and cherries here, but grab whatever’s looking and smelling best at your market. Chopped pistachios add a bit of crunch. If your gathering is adults-only, this would be a perfect time to add a splash of booze. Get our Summer Stone Fruit Salad recipe.
Grilled fruit is a revelation, and grilled watermelon is a perfect marriage of two summer traditions. Tossed with salty feta, sweet-sharp orange and lime juice, and refreshing mint, this is a perfect side dish that proves fruit salad isn’t just for dessert (or pairing with pancakes at brunch). Get our Grilled Watermelon, Feta, and Mint Salad recipe.
Quinoa (which happens to be a great breakfast dish, if you’ve never tried it outside of lunch and dinner hours) adds protein and texture to fruit salad, with a zesty honey-lime dressing to tie it all together. Get the recipe.
Petite, sweet mandarin orange segments make a great addition to fruit salad, like this tropical version with pineapple, mango, and kiwi. You can try star fruit, papaya, guava, and other fruit too, whatever looks best. Plenty of lemon, lime, and orange zest (and juice) makes the mix even brighter, while poppy seeds add a nutty crunch. Get the recipe.
Sticking strictly to fruit of similar shades can be striking, and this one is even more alluring thanks to Chinese five spice powder, which has an inherent sweetness (as well as spicy and earthy notes). Passion fruit seeds are optional, but add a great textural element as well as flavor, and are a good addition to any number of other fruit salads too. Get the recipe.
Summer may be the best time for fruit salad, but it doesn’t have to hibernate during the winter. Many citrus fruits are actually best during colder months, so making them the base and tossing them with brown sugar, lime juice, ginger, and passion fruit juice is a smart move. Get our Zesty Lime and Ginger Winter Fruit Salad recipe.
Related Video: 5 of the Most Bizarre Fruit Hybrids
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