What makes a good salad great? We’re answering just that in The Great Salad Shake-Up, a mini-series on everything from the right lettuce for you (it’s out there!) to how to ditch the oil in dressing (yes, you can). BYO salad spinner.
If Samin Nosrat learned anything from her years at Chez Panisse, it was how to make a salad. From a distance, this seems like a no-brainer task: Combine lettuce and vegetables in a bowl, toss with dressing, ta-da. But that’s a good salad. What about a great one?
According to Nosrat, the answer hinges on a few things. Toss with your hands instead of tongs. Use seasonal produce. And, of course: "Taste everything all along the way,” she told me.
But the biggest one is what Nosrat calls her ideal salad checklist. It has five components and, as you might guess from the title of her award-winning cookbook (and Netflix show of the same name), salt, fat, and acid are three of them. The other two are crunch and umami.
As Nosrat writes in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, salads become classics because they check off these boxes. And when one ingredient can accomplish two things (say, anchovies lending salt and umami)? Even better.
Before we get into the salads themselves, though, let’s review our ingredient possibilities. Note: This list is a drop in the bucket compared to everything you could put in a salad (which is everything, right?), but it’s a good starting point. And remember, these can be applied to the salad itself or the dressing.
- Salt. Tinned fishes, like anchovies and sardines. Cured meats, like salami, prosciutto, and bacon. Pickles, capers, sauerkraut, kimchi, and their brines. Olives of all kinds (I like oil-cured best). Cheeses, like feta, Parmesan, and pecorino. Soy sauce and miso (the darker, the more intense). Fish sauce. Oh, and salt (always salt your salad before you toss).
- Fat. Oils, like extra-virgin olive, canola, grapeseed, avocado, and walnut. Mayonnaise! Nuts, seeds, and their butters. Any meat, like cured pork (see Salt, above), rotisserie chicken, and fish, especially oily varieties like salmon. Eggs (say, hard-boiled in the salad, or soft-boiled in the dressing). Yogurt, sour cream, and buttermilk. Cheese, especially creamy ones like Brie or goat. Ripe avocado.
- Acid. Vinegars, like red wine, white wine, rice, and malt. Freshly squeezed citrus juice. Tomatoes and ketchup (hello, Russian dressing). Fresh and dried fruit (bonus points for pickled dried fruit). Pickles, capers, sauerkraut, kimchi, and their brines (see Salt, above). Sourdough bread (for croutons or, yes, dressing). Yogurt, sour cream, buttermilk (see Fat, above), and cheese, especially funky ones like aged gouda or blue.
- Crunch. Fresh vegetables! Cucumber, radish, carrot, zucchini, fennel, broccoli, cauliflower, corn. Crisp lettuces, like iceberg, romaine, and radicchio. Snappy fruits, like apple and pineapple. Croutons. Fried onions or shallots. Roasted nuts. Bacon.
- Umami. Tomatoes in all forms—fresh, sun-dried, roasted, ketchup. Dried mushrooms, mushroom bacon. Aged cheese, especially Parmesan. Nutritional yeast. Soy sauce. Fish sauce.
To learn how to mix-and-match ingredients like a pro, just ask some of your favorite recipes for advice. For instance, in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Nosrat breaks down a wedge, Caesar, cobb, and Greek salad.
Here’s the same breakdown with four popular salad recipes on Food52. The “bonus” category are rogue ingredients that don’t fit into any of the others (be rebellious!).
And with that, you’re up. Use the ideal salad checklist the next time you’re throwing this and that and a few of those into a bowl, and you’ll end up with something you love. Just promise you’ll come back and tell me about it, okay?