cucumber Bibb lettuce salad recipe
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Tips, tricks, rules, and reminders for making the best salad of your life.

Making a bad salad is easy: Throw together ill-matched ingredients of questionable freshness, and pour gloopy bottled dressing over the top. Bad salad, done. The good news is that making a good salad is easy too. Just follow a few simple guidelines and think about the components individually and how they’ll work and play together: You’ll be tossing sweet with salty, crunchy with juicy in no time. Or look at our salad recipes—consider them cheat sheets, direct access to quality salad time. And notice how they all balance at least a few different elements for a perfect salad symphony.

Salad Rules

In addition to balancing all the flavors and textures outlined below, pay attention to a few other aspects of your salad:

1. Everything in proportion. Ratios matter, not just so you get a balanced bite, but so you don’t crush your delicate greens (if you’re using them). Just add elements judiciously, since it’s always easier to add more than to take away. This is especially true for dressing; no one wants soggy salad (and if they do, they’re welcome to really pour it on their own plate). And it also applies to the size of your ingredients; sometimes you want to serve intact romaine hearts because it looks impressive, but then you have to break out the knife and fork. Most of the time, you should aim to keep all the pieces of your salad closer to bite-size, and flavorful additions like cheese should be in even smaller pieces so they don’t overwhelm any single bite. See an example of what not to do below:

bad salad

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2. Wash your greens, and dry them really well. Watery salad greens are a sure route to a sucky salad. Invest in a salad spinner or break out your paper towels—or try the nifty trick below!—and get as much moisture off of the leaves as you can before tossing them with other ingredients. Ignore this rule only if you’re making a salad without lettuce (which is a perfectly good call).


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3. Don’t toss everything at once (and don’t toss too vigorously). Toss your greens or other base ingredients with the dressing first to ensure every piece is coated, and then add any mix-ins. You can give the salad another gentle shuffle to distribute everything at that point, but you don’t want to obliterate any delicate components (like fragile berries or soft crumbles of cheese) or have all your heavier components (like toasted nuts or roasted beets) sink to the very bottom. Incidentally, your hands really are the best tools for this job.

4. Toss delicate greens at the last moment. Otherwise, they’ll get slimy and sodden. But if you’re dealing with sturdier stuff like kale, it can even benefit from a little massage with oil and salt, or your dressing of choice, before you compose your masterpiece. Same goes for cabbage. These sorts of salads will hold up in the fridge for a while too, but take them out 10-15 minutes before serving so they’re not ice cold (unless that’s what you’re going for).

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5. Don’t add warm elements to delicate greens unless you’re going for the wilted effect (which is definitely a legitimate option too!).

6. Consider serving your salad on a platter. Big bowls are a classic vessel for salad, but a large, shallow platter can also be a nice choice, especially if you want to artfully arrange your toppings instead of tossing them straight into the mix. This gives you a bigger canvas to work on, and the shallow depth means when people take a serving, they’ll actually get the proper proportion of ingredients.

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With those tips in mind, it’s time to move on to all the variations in salad ingredients. Shoot for a balanced bowl that combines at least two or three elements (creamy with crunchy; bitter with sweet) and you’ll absolutely make friends with salad.

Cuban green salad with avocados

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Related Reading: The Best Cookbooks Devoted to Salad


Salad Bases

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 (or even cooked grains, for that matter).

Play around with different lettuces, herbs, vegetables, even fruits, and let them inform what you add to them (i.e., delicate greens might not be the best match for ultra creamy blue cheese dressing, and bitter greens might not warrant the addition of grapefruit and a powerful vinaigrette—at least not without other elements like creamy cheese and/or sweet dried fruit along to harmonize with and temper them).

Delicate Leafy Greens

green salad

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Delicate greens generally take best to lighter dressings, like a simple vinaigrette or just oil, and a minimum of heavy add-ins so they don’t get literally weighed down (though delicate greens that also have a bold flavor, like arugula, can stand up better to such things).

Examples: arugula, mâche, mesclun, watercress, red leaf lettuces; fresh herbs (like chervil, chives, tarragon, parsley, dill); pea shoots; edible flowers

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Hearty Leafy Greens

Bitter Greens Salad with Caper Vinaigrette

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Heartier greens can stand up to thicker dressings, like Caesar, Green Goddess, or a puréed avocado dressing, as well as chunkier mix-ins and toppings, but also work with sprightly vinaigrettes.

Examples: young kale, romaine, radicchio, Belgian endive, curly endive, frisee, dandelion, spinach, escarole, Bibb lettuce, little gem lettuce, butter lettuce, young chard

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Sliced Raw or Cooked Vegetables or Fruits

shaved fennel salad recipe with pistachios

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Thinly slicing raw vegetables like celery root or artichoke, or fruits like apples and pears, can make a delicious and substantial salad base. Same with sliced cooked vegetables, like potatoes and beets; they can take pretty much any additions you want to throw them at, but remember to balance your flavors and textures.

Examples: cabbage, fennel, radish, celery, cucumber, celery root, artichoke, carrot, jicama, roasted beets, Napa cabbage, boiled potatoes, mushrooms, zucchini, summer squash

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Related Reading: Chunky Summer Salads That Skip the Lettuce


Salad Dressings

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 (or, again, a combination).

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, liquid aminos, anchovies, fish sauce, or Worcestershire sauce. For a touch of sweetness, add maple syrup, honey, or another liquid sweetener. And if you want extra texture, try adding finely chopped ingredients like herbs and nuts (see our Pistachio Caper Vinaigrette for an example).

Vinaigrette

walnut oil vinaigrette recipe

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The basic composition of a vinaigrette is acid + optional binder (a touch of mustard) + oil + salt + pepper. You can whisk them together or just shake them up in a tightly lidded jar, which you can then also use to store it. And don’t stick to the standard ratio of 3:1 fat to acid; take Andy Swallow’s advice (he’s the founder of Mixt Greens, so he knows what he’s talking about) and try a 2:1 ratio instead:


Acid Examples: vinegar (red wine, white wine, champagne, sherry, tarragon, rice wine, and balsamic); citrus juices

Oil Examples: olive oil, peanut oil, grapeseed oil, sesame oil, almond oil, walnut oil, pistachio oil, pumpkin seed oil

Binder Examples: mustard (Dijon, whole grain, honey)

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Egg-Based Salad Dressing

Caesar Salad Dressing recipe

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The formula for these is simple: acid + egg (whole or just the yolk) + oil + salt + pepper.

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Creamy Salad Dressing

tomato corn salad with tomatillo and chipotle dressing

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Swap out the egg and oil above for just acid + creamy ingredient + salt + pepper.

Creamy ingredient examples: yogurt, crème fraîche, Mexican crema, sour cream, buttermilk, silken tofu, mascarpone, cream cheese, tahini, miso, coconut milk

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Vegetable-Based Salad Dressing

sherry tomato vinaigrette recipe

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Choose your preferred puréed vegetable and add: acid + oil or creamy ingredient + salt + pepper.

Veggie Examples: avocado (though it’s technically a fruit), English peas, sautéed tomato, roasted garlic, grilled peppers, caramelized onion

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Salad Flavor Profiles

Mixing up the flavors that appeal to you and finding a balance are the keys to salad innovation; you can add any of these elements (in concert or alone) to make your salad sing.

Salty

Shaved Celery, Celery Root, and Radish Salad recipe

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Think cheeses (goat, feta, blue, mozzarella, queso fresco, cheddar, manchego, parmesan, pecorino, ricotta salata); cured meats (pancetta, prosciutto, bacon, salami, speck); capers; olives; and anchovies.

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Sour

Chicory, Tangerine, and Pomegranate Salad recipe

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Think tomatoes; fresh acidic fruit (kumquats, grapefruit, pineapple); dried fruit (cherries, cranberries); pickled foods—and, of course, vinaigrettes also count (though they can be more or less sour as you please).

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Sweet

Fig and Arugula Salad with Honey Mustard Dressing

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Ingredients-wise, you can go with 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); and even sweeter vegetables (roasted beets, sweet potatoes, squash, red bell peppers, sugar snap peas, carrots), as well as things like candied nuts. For dressings, consider those with honey, sugar, agave, pomegranate molasses, maple syrup, and fruit juices.

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Bitter

Tangy Apple and Beet Salad

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Bitter elements include broccoli rabe, radicchio, grapefruit, radish, endive, frisee, garlic, eggplant, and arugula.

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Umami

steak and bacon salad with blue cheese

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Umami implies savory or meaty and usually involves salt, proteins, fermentation, or a combination of these. Try seaweed; fresh cooked meats (ham, chicken, turkey, steak); cured meats (salami, pancetta, bacon, speck); fresh, smoked, or cured fish (including sardines and anchovies); smoked foods (cheese, tofu, paprika, or salt, in addition to the aforementioned bacon and smoked salmon/fish); aged cheese; fermented foods (black beans, kimchi); and mushrooms. In dressings, look for ingredients like miso, broths, stocks, peanut butter, Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, smashed anchovies, and tahini.

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Spicy

Snap Pea Chopped Salad with Thai Vinaigrette

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Watercress, upland cress, arugula, mustard greens, and other salad leaves can provide a spicy element, as can add-ins like chile peppers (fresh, dried, or in adobo), black peppercorns, and ginger. For dressings, bring in Sriracha, Tabasco, horseradish, or wasabi.

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Salad Textures

Crunchy is sort of expected in a salad; that’s what you get from raw vegetables. But mix and match with other textures too, whether they amplify the crunch or contrast it.

Crunchy

Kale Apple Slaw with Poppyseed Dressing

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Raw, charred, or par-roasted veggies (squash, bell peppers, beets, corn, scallions, onions, sugar snap peas, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, fennel, radish, celery, cucumber, celery root, artichoke, carrot, and jicama); toasted nuts and seeds (almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, pepitas, pistachios, peanuts); other crispy stuff (croutons, frico, tortilla chips, breadcrumbs); poppy seeds; bean sprouts; sliced firm fruit (apples, pears, Fuyu persimmons); and pomegranate arils all bring the crunch.

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Creamy

roasted beet salad with fennel, avocado, and ricotta salata

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Besides topping things off with creamy dressing, you can toss in soft cheeses (goat, feta, blue, mozzarella, burrata, queso fresco); eggs (poached, soft-boiled, or hard-boiled); beans (cannellini, kidney, chickpea or garbanzo); avocado; tofu; boiled potatoes; and roasted veggies like sweet potatoes, eggplant, and squash.

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Chewy

Watercress Arugula Salad with Dates and Almonds

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A chewy nuance can be achieved with whole grains (farro, barley, rice, bulgur, quinoa, couscous, wheat berries, kamut), either as the base of or an addition to your salad, and with dried fruit (thinly sliced dates and plums, cherries, raisins or sultanas, cranberries). While not necessarily chewy, per se, lentils, meats, beans (chickpea or garbanzo, edamame), and olives will also add a “toothy” element.

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Juicy

Persimmson Salad recipe with Sesame Dressing and Rice Flakes

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Try tomatoes, cucumber, and other fresh fruit (apples, pears, stone fruit, tropical fruit, grapes, berries, figs, melons, persimmons)—and yes, the first two are indeed both fruits, not vegetables.

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What’s your favorite salad to make? Let us know in the comments!

Jen is an editor at Chowhound. Raised on scrapple and blue crabs, she hails from Baltimore, Maryland, but has lived in Portland (Oregon) for so long it feels like home. She enjoys the rain, reads, writes, eats, and cooks voraciously, and stops to pet every stray cat she sees. Continually working on building her Gourmet magazine collection, she will never get over its cancellation. Read more of her work.
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