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How to Make a Salad That Doesn’t Suck

Someone eating a salad over a computer keyboard.

Say goodbye to soggy greens and token tomatoes. Ditch that vapid bowl of veggies for something with a little more pizazz. If you follow our suggestions, the next salad you make will be one you actually can’t wait to eat!

We all know we should eat more greens, but sadly, they don’t always look that appealing. A plate piled high with bruised iceberg lettuce, whole tomatoes, dried-out carrot shreds, and way too much red onion is an all-too-common sight.

Making a salad that tastes yummy is both an art and a science. Iconic salads, like the cobb, wedge, and Caesar, all share specific characteristics that make them memorable. And, lucky for you, we’ve got the magic formula!

The Secret Formula to Create a Delicious Salad

So what exactly is it about, say, a cobb salad, that earns it a place on almost every lunch menu? We would argue that all classic salads share some common attributes in terms of flavor and texture.

And, as promised above, we can break those shared elements down to the following straightforward formula: creamy + crunchy + umami + acid = fantastic salad.

For example, in a classic cobb, you’ll find the following ingredients:

  • Creamy hard-boiled egg and blue cheese
  • Crunchy bacon and greens
  • Acidic tomatoes and dressing

The umami flavor comes from the aged cheese and cured bacon. Notice how the ingredients strike a balance between the different flavor and texture components. That’s what you want to aim for with any bowl of greens.

Choosing Your Greens

A mixed green salad with arugula, mesclun, and mache on a plate.

To prepare a salad that doesn’t suck, you first have to choose your greens. We recommend hitting your local farmer’s market for unique, organic produce. Below, you’ll find a variety of greens you can try, but it’s hardly an exhaustive list:

  • Arugula
  • Butter lettuce
  • Cabbage
  • Dandelion greens
  • Escarole
  • Kale
  • Mesclun
  • Microgreens
  • Romaine
  • Spinach
  • Sprouts

Toppings and Dressings

A bowl of salad with bacon and three deviled eggs on top.
Vezzani Photography/Shutterstock

Of course, you also want to add toppings that work together and that you enjoy. Technically, romaine lettuce, Thai peanut dressing, umami-rich roasted tomatoes, and capers check all the boxes. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they mix well.

As long as you maintain the balance between crunchy, creamy, acidic, and umami, though, your salad will be a winner! Below is a list of salad toppings divided by category—feel free to mix and match:

  • Crunchy:
    • Bacon
    • Cucumber
    • Nuts and seeds
    • Hearts of palm
    • Raw vegetables (bell peppers, broccoli, carrots, and so on)
  • Creamy:
    • Any cheese
    • Hard-boiled egg
    • Avocado
    • Some dressings (like ranch, French, and so on)
  • Acidic:
    • Pickled onions
    • Tomatoes
    • Olives
    • Cornichons
    • Fruit (especially citrus)
    • Some dressings (balsamic vinaigrette, ginger and sesame, and so on)
  • Umami:
    • Bacon
    • Beef
    • Aged cheese
    • Anchovies
    • Sun-dried or roasted tomatoes
    • Mushrooms

You’ll notice that some salad dressings are acidic and some are creamy. Which you choose is entirely based on personal preference.

However, we recommend that if there’s nothing else creamy in your salad, go with a creamy dressing, like ranch or Caesar. Likewise, if you already have several creamy elements in your salad, dress it with an acidic vinaigrette.

How to Prepare, Assemble, and Store Your Salad

Someone sprinkling salt on a salad.

Now that you know what goes into a great salad, it’s time to build one! When preparing your salad, the following tips will ensure it comes out perfect:

  1. Cut all produce to bite-size: Ideally, you want each piece to fit on your fork and in your mouth.
  2. Season greens with salt and pepper: Do this before you add the toppings and dressings. If you’ve never done this, you’ll be surprised how much of a difference well-seasoned greens can make.
  3. Lighter items go on top: Layer your salad with heavier items on the bottom, then the greens and lighter elements on top. This is especially helpful if you’re taking your salad on the go to school or work.

Always store washed greens with circulating air. If you prep your salads in advance or store undressed leftovers, do so in a container that allows airflow, while maintaining moisture.

We recommend either a colander or food-grade storage container with the lid off. Just be sure to cover the top of either with a damp paper towel. This allows the air to circulate while keeping the greens moist.

Salad sometimes gets a bad rep. However, it’s the healthiest meal you can eat. Now, you also know they can taste incredible, too, given the right mix of flavors and textures. So choose your favorite ingredients, pay attention to balance, and enjoy the tastiest salad you’ve ever had for dinner tonight.

Lauren Sakiyama Lauren Sakiyama
Lauren Sakiyama is a freelance writer with over a decade of experience in the hospitality industry. She has managed restaurants, country clubs, and large-scale event operations, but her passion has always been about the food. Read Full Bio »
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