Chefs’ Secrets to Sensational Salads

How to elevate salads to elegance.

By Kevin RR Williams

RECIPE Like me, I'm sure you've consumed more than a fair share of "house salads." You know, the ones that come with your dinner entrée. With some variation, they often feature iceberg lettuce, cherry tomatoes, dry carrot shavings and a few croutons with a dollop of dressing. Did you know that house salads ("side salads" or "dinner salads") are primarily offered because they can be quickly assembled by the server? This gives hungry diners something to munch on while the kitchen prepares the real food. So essentially they're decoy meal appendages.

Nip Mediocre Salad In the Bud

Unfortunately, the mediocre salad model is replicated and engrained in the minds of future generations each evening that parents tell their children, "Wash your hands and make a salad. Dinner is almost ready." With little preparation, lettuce and tomatoes are tossed into a large bowl alongside a bottle of salad dressing. Growing up with mundane salads over the years, we might learn that they are part of a complete meal but not actually crave them. "House salads" should not be served in your house and should be banned from restaurants as well because they mislead diners into underappreciating salads in general.

Chain restaurants are offering more salad choices by enticing customers with piles of meat and sodium-rich high-fructose dressings with chemical stabilizers. Their calories and sodium levels can rival a burger and fries. [1] Salad bars often nurture a mentality that more is better; we pile as much as we can on a plate to get our money's worth with no calorie cap. At upscale restaurants we can receive a skillfully prepared salad from an actual chef — at a premium price. Our aim is to reach or exceed the level of this last option for the salads prepared at home. By shopping for salad ingredients ourselves, we take control of both the flavor and nutrition. We can separate the mundane from the magnificent.

Six Tips For Impressive Salads

With thousands of vegetables in the world there is no reason for salads to be boring. We can mix colors, texture and flavors in an infinite variety of ways. Here is a fast-track culinary course in salad making. It can take years to learn these tips on your own, hours to practice them in class or minutes to read them below. This is not a recipe, per se. These are principles designed to elevate the quality of salads to fine cuisine. So in six steps, here's everything you wanted to know about salads but were afraid to ask:

  1. More Greenery: Unless you grow it organically yourself, retire the iceberg lettuce. It's a common supermarket staple not for its high nutritional value but because the heart of it survives transportation well. Reserve this leaf for lettuce wraps, as an alternative to carbohydrate-rich bread or the occasional wedge salad.
    Shop for lettuce greens that are higher in vitamins and minerals and contribute different flavor profiles like spinach (iron-rich mild flavor), red leaf or oak leaf (mild nutty), butter leaf or "Bibb" lettuce (buttery sweet), red cabbage (sweet), curly endive (decorative and peppery), watercress (peppery), arugula (peppery), and radicchio (bitter). [2] Bean or alfalfa sprouts can also add diversity and protein. Pre-washed mixed greens are available but it's fun to shop at local farmers' markets and mix your own.
    • Farmers' market organic greens generally have more nutrition and a longer shelf life than the supermarket variety.
    • Kale and Swiss Chard are packed with nutrition [3] but can be very fibrous and acerbic; bitter greens can be enhanced by sautéing with salt and pepper, then cooling in the freezer for a 10 to 20 minutes before adding to salads.
    • More than two types of greens are rarely required for a single salad. However, for extra flavor, blend in a fresh herb like basil, dill, cilantro or mint.
  2. More Color: A spectacular salad is entertainment for the eyes as well as the tastebuds. Include contrasting colors to make it more vivid. Red is the opposite of green. This means when the two colors are placed next to each other they vibrate. Include varying shades of green lettuce, herbs, sugar snap peas, Persian cucumbers or scallions. Then select vivid variations of red, like sweet red onion, cranberries, red cabbage, carrots, bell pepper, we create visual excitement. This actually stimulates gastric juices to improve the dining experience.
    • If some vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower or carrots are too fibrous, they can be blanched by placing them in boiling water for a minute or two before submerging in ice water to halt the cooking. Alternatively, they can be steamed before cooling. Blanching greatly intensifies the color of broccoli in particular.
    • Most people have never really tasted real vegetables. Perform this test: purchase a supermarket cucumber. Then go to a farmers' market and select a Persian cucumber or, when in season, a lemon cucumber. The farmers may cut a piece for you to taste. The difference is night and day. Supermarket cucumbers will taste much more diluted. The same is true for traditional salad tomatoes and Heirloom tomatoes or corn on the cob. It makes sense that you get better results from tastier ingredients.
  3. More Or Less Water: Once plants are plucked from the ground, they begin to dry out and wilt. They respond to fresh water. However, most vegetables and lettuce greens don't survive well in water and dark refrigerators. There's no photosynthesis going on there. However, roots and fibrous plants like carrots and celery are sweeter and crisper when cut and refrigerated in water.
    • Farmers' market vegetables generally have more nutrition and a longer shelf life than the supermarket variety.
    • To perk up lettuce the night before use, separate and rinse the whole leaves well, drain them in a covered colander to dry before placing in a Ziplock bag with a paper towel to absorb any additional moisture.
    • Greens should be dry prior to salad assembly so the dressing adheres to the leaves. If you didn't get a chance to prep them the night before, dry them with a cloth towel if necessary.
  4. More Texture: Cutting each vegetable in a slightly different shape stimulates our eyes and intrigues our mind to distinguish components. In a "chop salad," everything is cut very small. People enjoy them because each forkful is packed with different ingredients. Even when not making a chop salad we should include a variety of flavors in each forkful. So cut them into bite-size pieces.
    A few knife skills come in handy. [4] You might chiffonade some basil or one of the lettuce greens. You don't want to overpower diners with large chunks of onion so scallions should be sliced small (green part is milder than white) and red onions should be paper-thin slices. Use julienne cuts for some items like carrots. Round grapes can be halved, Mandarin (Clementine) orange segments may be separated and dried cranberries can be served whole.
    • The seedy part of cucumbers have a tendency to produce much water. This can make a salad soggy. Cut the cucumber lengthwise and scrape out seeds with a spoon to prevent this.
    • Some tomatoes are meaty while others are seedy and sloppy. If you choose to add juicy tomatoes, drain them before adding to salad.
    • Include a variety of ingredients in different proportions. You might have mostly lettuce, very little onion, and other vegetables with quantities in the middle.
    • You can even grill corn, sear zucchini slices or roast some potatoes to add as toppings for more flavor dimension and texture.
  5.  Fatoush Salad
  6. More Flavor: Salad dressing generally dominates the flavor of the salad, particularly when it is poured in excess over the finish product. Bottled dressings are quite high in sodium, sugar, calories, chemical stabilizers and preservatives. Dressing should enhance, not overpower the flavor of salad vegetables. It is best to prepare your own, which is actually simpler than it sounds. The basic components are oil and acid at approximately a 3:1 ratio. The lessor acidic component can be wine, rice vinegar, apple cider vinegar, lemon, lime, orange or grapefruit juices.
    • Pour one eighth cup of acid into a bowl. Whisk in one quarter cup of extra virgin olive oil, drizzling in a little bit at a time until smooth.
    • Salt and pepper to taste. Don't use a spoon or finger in to evaluate flavor. Dip one of the vegetable pieces to get a better idea of how they match. Remember some lettuce greens are peppery while others are sweet so balancing the dressing may require some fine tuning.
    • For a creamier dressing, a teaspoon of mayonnaise or Vegannaise (with olive oil) or avocado homogenizes well. Alternatively, sour cream, yogurt, brown or dijon mustard can also be used sparingly.
    • Citrus vinaigrettes taste better with orange juice and with a hint of sweetener like pure maple syrup, honey, or agave. Saltiness and sweetness are not mutually exclusive; combine them to excite more taste receptors.
    • As a general guideline, toss the salad in a large bowl. Just prior to serving, whisk and then drizzle in the dressing about a tablespoon at a time, mixing with clean hands so you can tell when leafs are well coated but not soggy. There should be no puddle of juice in the bottom of the bowl. In some salad variations you may wish to coat one or two ingredients like lettuce while leaving others dry, sprinkling them with a spice or using a different marinade.
    • An extremely simple dressing is a balsamic reduction. Bring some balsamic vinegar to a boil in a small pot and then reduce the heat to simmer until it thickens. Using a toothpick, measure the depth when cold. Measure again after simmering and remove when it is between one half and one third its original volume. The vinegar sweetens and explodes with flavor, requiring no other ingredients. Drizzle sparingly over salad greens.
  7. More Presentation: Plating is the art of arranging foods on a serving dish in a creative and appetizing manner. At the basic level, it includes keeping drips and fingerprints from the edges of a plate. Beyond that we arrange colors and textures with either symmetrical or asymmetrical balance. You might sprinkle the salad with feta or parmesan cheese, lemon or lime zest, add a crunchy element like toasted pita chips on a Fatoush [5] or strategically place vegetables. Either use a plate large enough for the salad to command attention without being crowded out by the main entrée or serve it on its own dish.

Let's recap these tips learned in culinary school and from personal experience. The first two steps basically involve shopping for suitable leafy and complementary colored vegetables. Steps three and four include prepping vegetables to optimize textures. Generally, less than nine ingredients are sufficient. Step five explains how to make dressings from scratch. Step six is getting it on a plate with finesse.

Once you have the basics down, you may get more creative — guided by what is in season or what you have in your pantry. For example, you can make a salad without lettuce or add ingredients other than vegetables like nuts quinoa, couscous, tofu or tempeh. With a little practice, you'll be impressing others by serving healthy gourmet salads as a highlight of the meal, if not the main course.

Tags: chart, cooking classes, dietitians, lessons, nutritionists, vegetarians, vegans

  1. The Unhealthiest Salads in America. ^
  2. Beyond Iceberg Lettuce: 5 Different Greens To Try In Salad. ^
  3. What's New and Beneficial About Swiss Chard. ^
  4. Kitchen Fundamentals: Basic Knife Skills. ^
  5. Fatoush Salad: Open Sesame Grill. ^