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.
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:
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).
OXO Good Grips Little Salad & Herb Spinner, $27.95 on Amazon
One of the best reviewed salad spinners for a reason.
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).
Lipper International Acacia Wood Serving Bowl, $22.89 on Amazon
An elegant vessel for serving your salad.
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.
Black & White Wink Tray, $20 on Amazon
Draw all eyes to your salad on an equally stunning tray.
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.
Related Reading: The Best Cookbooks Devoted to 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 (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
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).
- Mixed Greens Salad (pictured above)
- Watercress Salad with Manchego, Membrillo, and Almonds
Hearty Leafy Greens
Examples: young kale, romaine, radicchio, Belgian endive, curly endive, frisee, dandelion, spinach, escarole, Bibb lettuce, little gem lettuce, butter lettuce, young chard
- Bitter Greens Salad with Caper Vinaigrette (pictured above)
- Chicory, Tangerine, and Pomegranate Salad
- Cucumber and Bibb Lettuce Salad with Creamy Horseradish Vinaigrette
Sliced Raw or Cooked Vegetables or Fruits
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
- Shaved Fennel and Pistachio Salad (pictured above)
- Radish and Wax Bean Salad with Crème Fraîche Dressing
- Shaved Carrot Salad
Related Reading: Chunky Summer Salads That Skip the Lettuce
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).
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)
Egg-Based Salad Dressing
The formula for these is simple: acid + egg (whole or just the yolk) + oil + salt + pepper.
Creamy Salad Dressing
Swap out the egg and oil above for just acid + creamy ingredient + salt + pepper.
Vegetable-Based Salad Dressing
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
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.
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.
- Shaved Celery, Celery Root, and Radish Salad with Parmesan and Anchovies (pictured above)
- Shredded Kale Salad with Tomatoes, Feta, and Mint
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).
- Chicory, Tangerine, and Pomegranate Salad (pictured above)
- Bok Choy and Pineapple Salad with Peanut Dressing
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.
- Roasted Delicata Squash Salad with Ricotta and Pumpkin Seeds
- Fig and Arugula Salad with Honey-Mustard Vinaigrette (pictured above)
Bitter elements include broccoli rabe, radicchio, grapefruit, radish, endive, frisee, garlic, eggplant, and arugula.
- Tangy Apple and Beet Salad with Radicchio (pictured above)
- Salade Lyonnaisey
- Beet, Orange, Radicchio, and Black Olive Salad with Fresh Herbs
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.
- Chilled Tofu Salad with Miso-Ginger Vinaigrette
- Steak and Bacon Salad with Blue Cheese (pictured above)
- Falafel Salad with Lemon-Tahini Dressing
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.
- Chicory and Arugula Salad with Honey Vinaigrette
- Snap Pea Chopped Salad with Thai Vinaigrette (pictured above)
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.
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.
- Fennel-Apple Slaw
- Kale Apple Salad with Poppyseed Dressing (pictured above)
- Tomato, Tomatillo, and Corn Salad with Avocado Dressing
- Shaved Asparagus Salad
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.
- Romaine and Watercress Salad with Cilantro Vinaigrette and Queso Fresco
- Roasted Beet, Shaved Fennel, and Avocado Salad with Ricotta Salata (pictured above)
- Roasted Butternut Squash and Kale Salad with Tahini Vinaigrette
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.
- Watercress and Arugula Salad with Blue Cheese, Dates, and Almonds (pictured above)
- Lentil Salad with Goat Cheese Crostini
- Rye Berry Salad with Fried Onions, Carrots, and Herbed Kefir Dressing
- Pear and Spinach Salad
- Persimmon Salad with Rice Flakes (pictured above)
- Shaved Fennel and Strawberry Salad
- Moroccan Zucchini, Grape, and Bell Pepper Salad
What’s your favorite salad to make? Let us know in the comments!