Salad

A Guide to Making Cobb Salad the Way it Was Meant to Be

March 20, 2017

Despite falling under the considerably stuffy-sounding category of "composed salads," one that doesn't exactly scream fun, a Cobb Salad done right should never be a complicated affair. In my favorite of its various origin stories, the Cobb Salad was devised as a way to make a meal out of leftovers: A hungry man entered the kitchen of the Hollywood Brown Derby, a chain restaurant in Los Angeles, 'round about midnight on an ordinary day in 1937, and rummaged through the fridge.

Maybe the ravenous scavenger was the restaurant's chef, one Paul J. Posti; more likely, it was the owner, one Robert Howard Cobb (hence the name). In any case, he found cooked bacon and chicken, boiled eggs, blue cheese, a smattering of fresh vegetables and lettuces, and cobbled them together (my pun) to make a meal.

Finely chopping your Cobb: optional. Photo by James Ransom

This combination is the purists' Cobb: predictable, with all ingredients finely chopped and sprinkled in rows across the lettuce bed, a fortifying meal (4 proteins!) despite its prim appearance. (One variation of its origin story states that the eater of the salad had just undergone dental work, hence the mincing of ingredients.) Like Larry David's dinner companion, the self-proclaimed grandson of the the Cobb's inventor, you'd expect this composition—particularly the presence of bacon, egg, grilled chicken, and blue cheese—upon ordering a Cobb at any restaurant.

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It is safe bet on a strange menu, as reliably decent as onion soup.

But Cobbs can play the whimsy card, too! They can get wacky and unbuttoned, like the wake-you-up midnight snacks they were meant to be. The following is a guide to making one, whether you prefer that strictly expected combination or the result of a hangry dive through your own fridge.


step 1: greens

While restaurants might offer just one type of lettuce in their Cobbs, recipes more frequently feature a mix of talkative greens: watercress, chickory, endive, or all three, mixed in with crisp iceberg (or another mild leaf to contrast the feistiness).

Photo by James Ransom

Select and clean your greens, ideally in a range of flavors and textures. (I like a mix of watercress, iceberg, and endive.) If it you've got a toothache or like to eat salads with a spoon, finely chop this trifecta; or tear them into pieces; or keep them whole and leafy as they were born to be.

Toss the greens together, and spread them across a plate (for yourself) or platter (if entertaining). In the case of the latter, you're going to feel very much like Martha in a sun hat in the Hamptons, and you will like it.


step 2: vegetables

Non-negotiable: lusty raw vegetables atop your Cobb salad. There should be quite a lot of pungency in the mix; purists will expect raw red onion, chives, tomatoes, and avocado. But feel free to riff based on what you have—radishes would feel right at home, as would shaved fennel. In the summertime, you could buffer the requisite pungency with fresh corn, cucumbers, or English peas. Will it be a Cobb then? You decide.

(I say yes, so long as it's bright, assertive, and overly abundant.)

Photo by James Ransom

If you'd like to make a winter-leaning Cobb or have leftover roasted vegetables in your fridge, bring them out! Rob Cobb would have done the same.

Finely chop or dice your vegetables of choice, or if you'd rather leave them in big hunks, do so—I am not the boss of you. Then lay them across the salad in dramatic, self-contained stripes. This is the "composed" part of the Cobb in action—if you want to flick your pinky out while you're plating, that would be acceptable. (It will taste the same if you don't compose it and instead throw everything in a bowl willy-nilly... but what's the fun in that?)


step 3: roquefort

I've got to be honest here: Roquefort is Non-Negotiable Cobb Component #1, but if you use another kind of blue cheese, the world will keep turning and I will never know.*

*I wish I could tell the many detesters of blue cheese to use "any sharp, tangy cheese," or "any leftover cheese you happen to have in the fridge at all"—but there's something about the puckery punch of blue that no imposter can replicate.


step 4: protein

No less than three in addition to the cheese you just added: Crisped and crumbled bacon, hard-boiled eggs, and grilled chicken breasts (chopped into cubes) are the proteins you'd expect on a classic. If you poach and shred your chicken instead—or, gasp, use rotisserie in its place—nobody will cry about it. (The Brown Derby at Disney World uses turkey!) If you prefer a 6-minute egg, so be it. Swap bacon for crisp pancetta, if you must.

These get piled into lanes across the salad, too.

Composing turns out to be very easy indeed. Photo by James Ransom

What's that? Tempeh bacon for the real bacon? Chickpeas for the chicken? I can't publicly condone a vegetarian—or, shriek, a vegan—Cobb without fear in my heart; Deb Perelman might come after me. But let's just say, flavor-wise, they'd get the job done.


step 6: dressing

With so many assertive ingredients in your Cobb, a simple red wine vinaigrette (mustard, red wine vinegar, and olive oil, briskly whisked) is all you need to bring it together. But, as those who order Cobbs with frequency will tell you, there are competing ideas about what's best, and what's classic, to drizzle atop it.

Photo by James Ransom

I say avoid others' opinions. What's in your fridge? Blue cheese dressing would be very Steak House Cobb of you, and French dressing is an apparent classic. I can't actually think of a dressing that would ruin a Cobb.

Serve it on the side, or spoon it across the top before serving. You'll only toss your Cobb at this point if you're a real rule-breaker; the classic way is to present it is neatly composed. Eat it with a fork and knife, as well as a white dinner napkin in proximity; or with your fingers (bacon dipped in salad dressing is a very good late night snack). I like mine somewhere in between prim and irreverent, with the ingredients in big hunks and not-too-perfect, Cobb-like rows.

What's your ideal Cobb? Tell us in the comments.

8 Comments

rrlass August 11, 2017
Adding onion to a Cobb salad is an infamnia. For shame.
 
Patsy W. April 30, 2017
Where can the lovely platter that this yummy Cobb salad fills be found? Is it available for purchase?
 
AntoniaJames March 21, 2017
May I respectfully suggest that a rotisserie chicken, used to maximum advantage, can actually be better in this context than grilled chicken? Let me explain.<br /><br />You know how rotisserie chickens come in plastic boxes with little grooves on the bottom? Those grooves catch all the yummy herbs and brown bits from the chicken, not to mention the juices. Take the chicken out and put it on a cutting board, preferably one with grooves of its own around the edges to keep the juices from running away, and remove the meat for the salad. Then slosh about a half cup of nearly boiling water into the bottom of the chicken container, loosening any extra bits that are holding tight and dissolving any gelatin that's formed from the chicken juices. Drizzle a bit of that fragrant, warm liquid over the chicken and (this is key) toss the rest, along with any juice from the cutting board, with the greens. You could also use it as the base of the salad dressing. <br /><br />The key is to toss the lettuce while the juices are just a little hot. I discovered this when using a rotisserie chicken to make Merrill's mother's chicken salad with warm potatoes (great concept). <br /><br />In the words of the late, great Judy Rodgers, "Try this." ;o)
 
Author Comment
Amanda S. March 21, 2017
Oh my. That sounds excellent!
 
Catherine March 20, 2017
Of course Cobb salad is delicious. I know I'm going to sound like the grumpiest, meanest, most uncharitable person, but I wish that the staff of this website was a little more diverse because in my experience few people need to be convinced. Most of the foods that are 'rediscovered' in posts here have been proudly served and devoured at many potlucks, dinner parties, barbecues, and holiday meals for decades. <br /><br />As a member of a military family, I've met people from all over the country and people fight to showcase their families' classic recipes. They are definitely disappointed by the Walmart version, but that doesn't mean the dishes have fallen out of favor or have become outdated or uncool. I appreciate the jazzed up recipes (and this one looks delicious) because they are fresh and inspiring. However, the written narrative that includes a defense of classic American dishes is a little old. Maybe if there were more writers from different age groups, races, or parts of the country there would be a fresh perspective that might tell the story with a different angle.
 
Kenzi W. March 20, 2017
Hi Catherine. Wanted to chime in here to tell you that we've been working very hard at just that—one of our biggest goals as an editorial team in 2017 is to continue to diversify both our contributors and the subject areas we tap them to cover. Since January, we've brought in over 25 new voices, many of them from different places, different backgrounds, different races, and different genders. Thanks for reading—I hope you stumble on some of that soon!
 
Samantha W. March 20, 2017
That is a very beautiful Cobb salad, indeed.
 
inpatskitchen March 20, 2017
I love to sub shrimp and chunks of lobster meat for the chicken....company worthy!!