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The Sure-Fire, Scene-Stealing Side Dish

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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.

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Bright and feisty, just as it ought to be.
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.

How to Make the King of Composed Salads, Salade Niçoise, Without a Recipe

How to Make the King of Composed Salads, Salade Niçoise, ... by Caroline Lange

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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.

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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

My Classic Burger with Special Sauce

My Classic Burger with Special Sauce by Ashley Rodriguez

Dill Pickle Potato Salad

Dill Pickle Potato Salad by Marian Bull

Moroccan-Spiced Chicken and Rice with Dates and Pistachios

Moroccan-Spiced Chicken and Rice with Dates and Pistachios by Alexandra Stafford

Molly Stevens' Roasted Fennel, Red Onion, and Orange Salad

Molly Stevens' Roasted Fennel, Red Onion, and Orange Salad by Genius Recipes

Leg of Lamb with Garlic Sauce

Leg of Lamb with Garlic Sauce by ChefJune

Spring Fennel & Dandelion Green Slaw

Spring Fennel & Dandelion Green Slaw by seasonista

Rao's Meatballs

Rao's Meatballs by Genius Recipes

Shaved Brussels Sprout Salad with Red Onion, Lemon and Pecorino

Shaved Brussels Sprout Salad with Red Onion, Lemon and Pe... by Merrill Stubbs

Vietnamese Sugar Steak

Vietnamese Sugar Steak by savorthis

Kohlrabi Salad

Kohlrabi Salad by sassyradish


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.

Tags: maille, samin nosrat, kitchen confidence camp