Salads 101: Everything You Need to Know

Salads 101

This summer I’ve become a salad fanatic. Believe it or not, I was terrible at making salads before I went to culinary school.

It was my shameful secret. I knew about the different tastes (sweet/salty/bitter/sour), but I didn’t realize that paying attention to such a simple cooking principle would have such a dramatic effect on my final product.

Also, I didn’t realize the importance of adding texture and color, or that the trick to making salads truly filling was to add protein and healthy fat.

I’m going to break everything into categories to describe how I make salads. Even the picky eaters in my family enjoy my salads, so I think you will too!

Pick and choose from this list, but try to add something from as many categories as possible to create a good balance.

Bitter:

  • I’m starting with bitter because I almost always use bitter greens. Salads taste so much better to me when I use baby arugula, watercress or radicchio (arugula is my favorite and a staple in my kitchen).  You can also mix greens to soften the bitterness, for example using a combination of baby spinach and radicchio. Lettuce just doesn’t cut it for me these days!
  • Radishes (a great addition if you use a milder green)

Sweet:

  • Any fresh or dried fruit that appeals to you. I almost never make a salad without some kind of fruit. My recent favorites have included mango slices, cherries, or red seedless grapes, sliced in half.
  • Tomatoes. I prefer smaller tomatoes cut in half.
  • Beets. They’re your friend. If you’re unfamiliar with how to prepare beets or are short on time, Many grocery stores sell wonderful steamed, peeled beets in the produce aisle. There’s no shame in buying prepared ingredients, especially if it helps you eat healthy.
  • One of my standard dressings is balsamic reduction. It’s delicious, and a little goes a long way. What I really love about balsamic is that you don’t need to use olive oil with it. I’d rather get my salad fat from nuts and cheese. They add more flavor. I’ve included instructions on how to reduce balsamic vinegar at the bottom of this post.

Salty:

  • Always add a sprinkle of salt to your salads. I prefer adding coarse salts like kosher. You can also use a fun salt, such as Hawaiian Black Lava Salt or any other finishing salt. It adds color and crunch.

Sour:

This is probably the least important category as far as salads go, in my opinion. You’ll often get enough acidity from your vinaigrette. But here are some options that will definitely add more delicious flavor:

  • Grapefruit wedges
  • Cranberries (if you can find them, fresh cranberries add an especially sour note)
  • Lemon juice

Protein:

Do not skip the protein if this is a main meal. Fiber from the fruits and vegetables will help fill you up, but protein (and healthy fat) will really hold you over until the next meal.

  • Hard-boiled eggs. Get an Egg Slicer and spread out thin slices of egg on the salad.
  • Toasted nuts. Another absolute essential for me. Right now I’m loving toasted slivered almonds. But I also love using walnuts, pine nuts, pistachios… really anything will work. Buy them raw and toast them in the oven at 350 until they’re golden brown and smell delicious.  Keep an eye on them because they can burn quickly.  Nuts also provide healthy fat and crunch.
  • Bacon
  • Chicken
  • Whole grains. A friend of mine mentioned that she adds cooked quinoa directly to her salads and I thought it was a brilliant idea! It mixes in with everything else and adds so much nutritional value. I prefer using something slightly heartier, such as farro.

Fat:

  • Avocado
  • Cheese. Goat or Roquefort are my favorites. Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano are also great and add saltiness. These might not be the healthiest fats but a little goes a long way. Buy whole cheeses for best results, nothing “pre-crumbled.” It will stay in your fridge for a long time so it’s worth the investment.
  • Toasted nuts (see above)

Crunchy:

  • Celery
  • Broccoli
  • Toasted nuts (see above)
  • Coarse salt (see above)

Additional tips:

  • Make your salad visually appealing. Add as many colors as possible.
  • Keep salad fixings prepped in your fridge and pantry. I have everything ready to go so I can make a delicious salad in no time. Toasted nuts will stay in the refrigerator for weeks in an airtight container. Keep hard-boiled eggs, bacon and chicken cooked and ready to go in the fridge.
  • If you don’t want to use balsamic reduction, there are so many great recipes online for salad dressings. Olive oil and lemon juice make a great combination. Tahini is a great add-in.
  • Drizzling the balsamic reduction looks much more appealing than tossing it like a standard dressing. Make a restaurant quality salad.
  • Have fresh herbs? Try adding them!
  • Scallions and shallots are great for adding a mild onion flavor. Use sparingly.
  • When I make a salad, I just throw in whatever I have on hand that looks delicious and follows the basic guidelines above. Need a bit of inspiration to get started? Here are a few simple salad combinations:
    • Radicchio & baby spinach, hard-boiled eggs, bacon, Roquefort cheese, avocado, tomato
    • Arugula, baby beets, mango, avocado, goat cheese, toasted almonds
    • Arugula, chicken, grapes, celery, scallions, toasted walnuts

There are endless possibilities. So tell me, what do you like to add to your salads?

Balsamic Reduction:

Reduced balsamic vinegar is one of my kitchen essentials. I use it in salads, over roasted vegetables, on strawberries, on cheese… it’s just delicious, inexpensive and versatile.

I keep it in a squeeze bottle in my kitchen (this is also how I keep my olive and canola oils). Balsamic reduction does not need to be refrigerated.

And it’s so easy to make! I recommend reducing an entire bottle at once, since it has a long shelf life.

Use a sturdy saucepan and bring the vinegar up to a simmer (you may want to open a window, the smell can be intense). Reduce the vinegar until it reaches a syrup consistency.

A good indicator is when the liquid has reduced to 1/3 its original volume. Allow the liquid to cool and then store it in a squeeze bottle (you can find them online or at Bed, Bath and Beyond). Enjoy!

About Jennifer Farley

Jennifer graduated from the Culinary Arts program at L’Academie de Cuisine, and has worked professionally as a line cook, pastry chef, and cooking instructor. Her cookbook, The Gourmet Kitchen, was published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster.

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