Preparing salads is like preparing eggs: On paper it’s simple, but it takes practice to get it just right. “A fine salad is an art,” says James Beard in James Beard’s American Cookery. And so, like any artist, you’ll need to practice—to make salads again and again until you learn what works and what doesn’t. You’ll meet successes and failures. But what you can’t do is give up, because once you master salads, endless combinations of delicious and healthy meals await. So read our primer on what to put in a salad, and study these tips, then go develop your own artistic salad style. Don’t forget to study our salad hall of shame (what not to do!).
How to Salad Shop
“Good salads start with good ingredients,” write Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli in The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual.
1. Fresh, Fresh, Fresh
Limp, browning lettuces be damned. “Pursue perky, frisky greens—they’re a cheap thrill,” says David Tanis in A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes. All components (oil, vinegar, cheese, nuts, greens) should be as fresh as possible. Most prepackaged salad mixes are not fresh.
2. Younger Is Better
Mesclun mixes often contain tough, older lettuce leaves, as well as varieties that are meant to be sautéed, not eaten raw. When possible, buy younger, smaller lettuce leaves.
3. How Much Do I Buy?
“You should plan on a minimum of 2 cups of loosely packed greens per person, or slightly less if other ingredients are to be added,” writes Beard in his American Cookery.
How to Wash Salad Greens
1. Handle Your Greens Like a Newborn
If you roughhouse with your salad, it will wilt and bruise.
2. Grit and Moisture Are a Salad’s Nemeses
“Moisture will dilute the dressing, making the salad tasteless and soggy,” writes Tanis in A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes. Water will also repel the dressing from the leaves. So wash lettuce well ahead (several hours before serving is ideal) so it has enough time to fully dry. Here’s how:
• Fill a big bowl with cold water. Plunge the lettuce in the water and gently swish it around with your hands to release any dirt. Do not leave the greens submerged for more than five minutes or they will become waterlogged.
• Lift the greens out of the water and transfer them to a colander or salad spinner. • If you’re using a colander, give it a few shakes and let the lettuce drain a bit. If you’re using a spinner, fill it only halfway. If you overfill it, the lettuce leaves will get crushed and won’t dry. Empty the water between spins.
• Place the greens in a single layer on a clean kitchen towel or paper towel. Roll the towel up loosely and place it in a paper bag or a container with a lid.
• Place the lettuce in the vegetable bin of the refrigerator to keep it crisp and cool. Make sure the fridge temperature is not too cold, or the leaves will freeze and become limp and translucent.
How to Make a Vinaigrette
1. Two Tools, Five Ingredients
You will need a whisk and a bowl large enough to hold the whisk. Ingredients you should have on hand are oil, vinegar, mustard, salt, and pepper.
2. Play Around with the Ratio of Vinegar to Oil
It will change depending on the type of vinegar, oil, and greens used. Some oils are fruity; some vinegars are less acidic than others; some greens need less acid, some more. “We use a 2-to-1 to a 3-to-1 ratio of oil to vinegar. Or somewhere in between there,” says Dan Barber, the chef at Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York. Dip a lettuce leaf in your vinaigrette to taste and adjust the seasoning as needed.
3. A Touch of Mustard Helps Bind the Oil and Vinegar
This is a classic French technique. We recommend using Dijon or whole-grain mustard, although any style mustard will work.
4. If You’re Using Finely Chopped Red or White Onions, Shallots, or Garlic, Macerate Them in the Vinegar First
Let onions, shallots, or garlic sit in the vinegar with salt for a few minutes to soften, temper the bite, and combine the flavors. Then whisk in the oil and black pepper.
5. The No-Vinegar Vinaigrette
Try tossing very fresh and tender greens with just oil, salt, and pepper. That way their sweet, nuanced flavors can shine. “I’ve been doing a salad with no acid,” says Barber. “You really get to experience the greens.”
6. Make Extra Vinaigrette and Store It for Weeknight Meals
Mixing a dressing just before serving is ideal. But it’s so convenient to mix a large batch and store it in the refrigerator in a squirt bottle or a glass jar for everyday ease of use. Let it come to room temperature, shake, and serve.
How to Dress a Salad
1. Underdressing Encouraged
It’s better to underdress than overdress salads. Overdressing weighs lettuces down, making them limp and translucent within seconds. Plus, you won’t taste the greens, only the dressing.
2. Dress the Bowl, Not the Salad
Place your salad ingredients in a large, wide mixing bowl. Spoon or squirt the dressing around the inside upper portion of the bowl. Then, using your hands, grab the dressing from the sides of the bowl a little at a time and fold it into the leaves. Using your hands again, transfer the salad to a large serving bowl or individual plates. If you pour the dressing directly on the leaves, there’s no turning back: You’ve got a soggy salad. By dressing the bowl, you can incorporate a little dressing at a time.
3. About Using Your Hands …
Yes, I said to use your hands to toss the salad and plate it. You can use tongs or spoons, but then you’ll bruise the lettuce leaves. As far as plating goes, it’s so much easier to use your hands. Ever wonder how chefs manage to plate salad into beautiful mounds? They use their hands.
4. Taste Before Serving
You may need to add a little more oil or vinegar and a pinch of salt or pepper after you have tossed the salad.
5. Artichokes and Arugula Should Use Separate Dressing Rooms
When dressing a salad that includes both dainty lettuces and heavier items such as artichoke hearts or pieces of fruit, dress and season the heavier items separately from the lettuces. Then arrange them among the dressed lettuce leaves. Otherwise, the heavy items fall to the bottom and the delicate greens get crushed.