How to Be a Cook Who Puts Together Glorious Salads

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Welcome to week two of Kitchn’s Cooking School! Today we’re covering all things salad. Salads have gone from side dish (or dieter’s curse) to star attraction and super-filling lunch or dinner staple. If you’ve ever pushed a sad pile of greens around your plate and wondered how to get the kind of mouthwatering meal-worthy compilation that the pros and restaurants manage, this is the day for you. By the end of this lesson you’ll have a handle on how to make even a simple pile of greens sing.

Why Salads?

Although they seem simple — you just put a bunch of vegetables in a bowl, right? — a filling, delicious, well-made salad can be hard to achieve. Like any dish, a good salad is a balance of flavors (salty, sweet, tangy, bitter, and umami) and textures (soft, crisp, crunchy, and chewy). Getting that mix to be well-balanced takes some skill. 

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Start Here: Salad basics

Often one forkful of a good salad tastes like a miniature meal: That means a variety of flavors and textures that all complement each other. When building out a salad, think about whether you have elements that are crunchy, soft, juicy, creamy, or chewy, as well as sweet, salty, bitter, and tart.

Choosing Ingredients

Since fresh vegetables are the star of the bowl, choose produce that’s in season and available right now — it will taste better and will be easier on your wallet. Lettuce is, of course, a popular base for a salad, but it’s by no means required. For example, in fall and winter veggies like Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, and winter squash all make delicious bases. During the summer, zucchini, or tomatoes and corn can be perfect bases.

Or if you’re craving some greens, try using something different like escarole instead of your go-to lettuce. You also don’t have to use vegetables at all: Whole grains, lentils, chickpeas or even beans make a hearty salad.

Then think about what the base offers, and ask how you can complement it: If your base is leafy, add some toasted nuts or seeds for crunch, and some cheese for umami. If it’s a grain base, try adding something with stronger flavors, like dried fruit.

Preparing Ingredients

We’ve covered the basics of cutting up vegetables on both day one and day three, but it bears repeating here: Bite-sized pieces make a major difference in how enjoyable a salad is. Forget those old-fashioned images of half-torn iceberg leaves with quartered tomato wedges perched on top. Think, instead, of the salads that make fast-casual lunch joints like Chopt or Sweetgreen so popular: When everything is properly cut, it’s more easy to get a lot on your fork, and harder for half the ingredients to get lost at the bottom of the bowl.

It’s also especially important to make sure your ingredients are washed and thoroughly dried. Any grit, dust, or dirt on the raw leaves and veggies will be off-putting, of course, but your dressing won’t stick as well to wet, watery leaves, and the salad will taste more bland than it really is.

Seasoning Salads

One of the simplest ways you can make a salad pop is to season the ingredients. Even before the dressing goes on, give everything from the tomatoes to the lettuce a quick grind of pepper and some salt. Then taste it, and see if it has enough.

Making Dressing

Making your own salad dressing is something every home cook should be able to do. Not only are salad dressings far too easy to make, but they also taste much better than the bottled stuff and you can build a dressing that matches the particular ingredients you have on hand.

Is the lettuce you’re using a little bitter? Maybe you want a dressing that’s a bit more creamy or sweet. Are your ingredients full of hearty carbohydrates (like a grain or potato salad)? You’ll want something bold, or with a little kick to cut through that.

Another important element of a good salad dressing is the emulsifier. The base of most dressings is an acid (vinegar or lemon juice) suspended in a fat (typically oil). This mixture of two liquids that don’t mix is called an emulsion. If those are your only ingredients, no matter how vigorously you whisk them together, they will separate within a few minutes. But certain ingredients, called emulsifiers, can help stabilize the dressing. The most common are Dijon mustard (like in many vinaigrettes), an egg yolk (like in Caesar dressing), mayonnaise (which is itself a stable emulsion) miso, or tahini. Watch the video above for more on how to create a stable dressing!

Here are 12 easy dressing recipes you can start with. Then mix and play with the ingredients to get the flavor you want.

If You Learn Just One Thing Today …

When and how you dress a salad is just as important as what you use to dress it. Hearty grain salads and potato salads should be dressed well in advance to let the flavors marry. More delicate leafy salads should, of course, be dressed just before serving. But for goodness sake don’t bring a dry salad out to the dinner table!

And to dress a leafy salad: Get a very big bowl. You can make a small amount of dressing right in it, or you can pour some you’ve made from a jar. Then place the lettuce on top of the dressing, and toss to coat. Finally, place your other ingredients onto the lettuce. Voilà!

What You Don’t Need to Learn

If you’ve looked up a basic vinaigrette recipe recently, you’re probably familiar with the easy-to-remember 3:1 ratio of oil to vinegar. It’s in most recipes — even our own.

But here’s the thing: That ratio is not a rule. It’s just an idea, or a place to start. Plenty of delicious vinaigrettes have far less (or far more) vinegar. Or they use hardly any oil. Or they skip the oil altogether in favor of, say, fish sauce and honey. Making a delicious salad dressing is less about learning a right way to do something, and more about tasting your way around — which you should do, frequently, every time. The recipe is just a jumping-off point!

Level Up! Salad Pro Tips

Don’t forget the fat! Not only does fat add more flavor, but it also makes salad more filling. Avocado, nuts and seeds, smoked salmon, tinned fish, olives, or cheese all work.

Warm it up: Pop your vinaigrette in the microwave for about 30 seconds, heat it on the stovetop, or whisk it together in a warm skillet. It’ll make the salad taste more satiating and feel kinda fancy. The same goes for some of the ingredients — not all salad ingredients have to be cold. Try adding roasted vegetables or steamed, warmed beans, or a cooked protein.

Give greens a boost: Have fresh herbs lingering in the crisper? Mix them with salad greens for added flavor.

Cut the onion bite: Raw shallots or onions are a classic dressing ingredient, but to cut the pungency and bite, let them sit for a few minutes in the vinegar (or the full dressing). The acid will mellow them out.

Our Favorite Gear

We have recommendations for basic gear on our equipment checklist, but here are a few more tools that can save time, and frustration.

  • Spinner for both washing and drying greens (a colander also works).
  • Mandoline for slicing vegetables.
  • Mason jars have dozens of uses, but shaking up and storing dressing is a big one.
  • Microplane makes grating garlic or zest for dressings easier.
  • Tongs make tossing salads much easier.

5 Essential Salad Recipes

All of our assignments have three options, depending on how much time you have today. Do what you can; come back for more later!

15-Minute Assignment: Watch & Read

If you haven’t yet, watch the crash course video above. After that, read these basic primers. If you could pick just one thing from all this information, what would you like to try first?

  • For Better Salads, Think Bigger Bowl
  • 5 Reasons Your Salad Probably Tastes Better at a Restaurant
  • Ina Garten’s Smart Tip for Dressing a Salad

30-Minute Assignment: Practice!

Make a simple green salad. Rinse and thoroughly dry a head of lettuce, then chop it into roughly even bite-sized pieces. Divide the lettuce into two parts. Leave one part unseasoned, then season the second part with salt and pepper, tasting the leaves to check the seasoning. Now make a basic vinaigrette: Start with 1/4 cup of vinegar, and add the oil one tablespoon at a time, and vigorously stirring the ingredients to combine. Dip a leaf into the dressing and taste after each tablespoon. Tasting the dressing on a spoon won’t tell you if it works on the greens themselves. Stop when it tastes good, and then add any desired extras.

Check your work: Dress both the seasoned and unseasoned leaves, and taste: What does the seasoning add? Which tastes better to you? How many tablespoons of oil did you end up adding to the dressing? Optional extra: Warm the dressing, and compare it on a third portion of lettuce.

60-Minute Assignment: Stretch Yourself

Make a classic Cobb salad from scratch. (If you want to keep it vegetarian, try this Mediterranean-style chopped salad instead.) Mix the vinaigrette using the same process as in the 30-minute exercise. Then carefully wash, dry, and cut the greens, and prepare the other ingredients: bacon, chicken breast, and eggs. Practice your day one knife skills on the vegetables as well as your day two heat and oil skills on the bacon and chicken. Try to get all the ingredients roughly evenly sized, and season them well. Divide the salad into three portions. Leave one portion undressed, then toss one in the room-temperature dressing. Warm the dressing before tossing the third portion in it.

Check Your Work: How evenly did the ingredients turn out? How much oil did you end up adding to the dressing? Taste the undressed salad first, and write down your description of the textures and flavors. Now taste the other two portions. Which do you prefer? How does warming affect the flavor of the overall salad?

What It Takes to Be an Salad Specialist

Salad-making is deceptively simple, but the fun is in the endless variation. While almost all cooking allows for a degree of personal touch, a salad is practically a blank slate: If you remember to include a variety of flavors — and try to keep the dressing balanced between fat, tart, sweet, and savory — then the only real limits are your own imagination.

Meet Your Classmates

Follow your fellow classmates and share your questions and progress on Instagram and Twitter with #kitchncookingschool.

You can also join your Kitchn Cooking School cohort in our Kitchn Facebook group, which is devoted to all things Cooking School this month.

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