Back to Basics

The Sure-Fire, Scene-Stealing Side Dish

April  8, 2017

Acid is one of the essential elements of cooking, so we partnered with Maille to share tips on how to use it in your everyday cooking.

Use a salad to balance everything else, no matter what you’re eating. This reads uncomfortably like dieting dogma, I know, but what I mean has nothing to do with all that business and everything to do with this: Salads are punchy and sharp, and that acid is just what your palate calls for alongside a beautiful, cheesy pizza, or a chicken roasted with butter and the potatoes that caught its drippings, or a noodle soup rich with coconut milk.

Bright and feisty, just as it ought to be. Photo by Julia Gartland

Samin Nosrat, author of cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, had her salad epiphany while working on a dinner with Alice Waters (can you imagine!): At the end of the night, she and the line cooks felt as though they’d never tasted anything more miraculous, more perfect than the salad that was served, a bright, delicious concoction that, to the parched, exhausted cooks, seemed perfectly seasoned—but Alice, who’d been out eating the full meal of which the salad was just one course, told them on a trip back to the kitchen that it could’ve used more acid: “On a plate with all of that other stuff (“grilled lamb and shelling beans, garnished with a decadent sauce, following courses of creamy lasagna and rich shellfish soup”) it wasn’t doing its job—a salad should relieve your palate and leave it clean.”

Salads—or any vegetable side—are often the afterthought to the “main” course, whatever that may be. But the salad plays a much more important role than we give it credit for! The salad is the supporting actor who steals the show, the thing that’s unlike the others, the something that throws the rest of a menu into contrast and keeps the palate interested and awake. Simply said, the main course simply won’t be as enjoyable without a zippy something alongside. It’s lots of varying tastes and textures, after all, that makes eating so enjoyable.

This doesn’t mean that every salad has to come screaming around the corner on two wheels: Its boldness should match the rest of the meal. The result might be a hunky Cobb salad or it might be “a billowing nest of herbs or tiny arugula leaves tossed with a whisper of dressing,” as Samin says. An acidic main will need a less vibrant salad; a pile of fried chicken, though, will want a pile of vinegary slaw to match.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“This is why Korean cuisine, not to mention other Asian cuisines feature salads and pickles as side dishes more so than appetizers. It's a great palette cleanser especially when eating heavy foods. ”
— Michael L.

So: Don’t forget about the salad! Take into consideration what you’re eating, how rich it is, and how the salad will fit into the meal. Think about different kinds of acid—Rice vinegar! Mustard! Fish sauce! Blue cheese! Capers! Pickles!—or consult the really helpful “World of Acid” wheel in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, which shows the acids that are popular in regional cooking all over the world. And then dress accordingly. Your palate will thank you.

A Few Possible Pairings

Photo by James Ransom

All April, Kitchen Confidence Camp takes us through the four essential elements of cooking, inspired by chef and author Samin Nosrat's cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. Follow along here.

We partnered with Maille to share tips for how to add some oomph to your everyday cooking with acid-forward #FlavorHeroes, like their mustard and pickles.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Lesa Sullivan-Abajian
    Lesa Sullivan-Abajian
  • Michael Lee
    Michael Lee
  • LLStone
Writing and cooking in Brooklyn.


Lesa S. April 11, 2017
Yeah, bit of a bait n switch there.
Michael L. April 8, 2017
This is why Korean cuisine, not to mention other Asian cuisines feature salads and pickles as side dishes more so than appetizers. It's a great palette cleanser especially when eating heavy foods.
Michael L. April 8, 2017
LLStone April 8, 2017
Is there a link to the recipe?
LLStone April 8, 2017
Disregard. I read "Don't forget about *this* salad" instead of *the* salad! :)