The Basic Formula for Green Salads

The perfect green salad
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A perfect green salad strikes just the right balance of textures, flavors, and colors. If you're the kind of cook who finds formulas reassuring, this basic salad formula takes all the guesswork out of making a perfect salad.

  • 01 of 06

    Use Two (or at Most, Three) Types of Lettuce

    Variety of salad greens
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    The main ingredient in a green salad is the lettuce. But just as lettuce by itself is not enough for a salad, using only one kind of lettuce in a salad can be dull. Consider a dull salad a missed opportunity.

    A salad generally comes at the beginning of a meal, so it should wake up your taste buds and stimulate your appetite. Make it vibrant and enervating. One way of achieving that is to use different varieties of lettuce to highlight contrasting flavors, textures, and colors. 

    The most common types of lettuce for salads include iceberg, green leaf, red leaf, and romaine. A good rule of thumb for a salad is to feature any two of these. Try one leafy variety and another that's a bit more crunchy. 

    Romaine is especially versatile since it's leafy at one end and crunchy at the other. Bibb (sometimes also called butter or Boston), arugula, frisée, and even fresh spinach are excellent choices for second (or third) lettuces.

    You can certainly add a handful of bagged salad greens for contrast. Even though most prepackaged salad greens are prewashed, it's still a good idea to check for bugs.

  • 02 of 06

    Cut the Lettuce Into Bite-Sized Pieces

    Chopped lettuce on cutting board
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    Another part of the lettuce equation is how to prepare the greens. Your lettuce should be cut into bite-sized pieces. (The same goes for the other ingredients in a salad) There is no reason not to use a knife and cut the greens. The clean edges of chopped lettuce look nice and it's much easier to get uniform sized pieces using a knife rather than tearing.

  • 03 of 06

    Consider Tomatoes

    Sliced tomatoes on cutting board
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    Consider the season and type of tomatoes. Classic hothouse tomatoes are a fine choice, but they're heavy and watery and can weigh a salad down with extra liquid. Cherry tomatoes are much better; slice them in half before adding them. Trying to get a fork into a whole cherry tomato is just aggravating. A serrated knife happens to be the perfect tool for slicing tomatoes.

  • 04 of 06

    Balance the Ingredients

    Salad bar
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    Don't fall victim to "salad bar syndrome," where you load it up with too many ingredients. A good salad strikes the perfect balance of textures, flavors, and colors. But it's tough to balance something with 17 separate ingredients in it.

    To keep it manageable, in addition to the lettuce and tomatoes, a green salad should include one or maybe two additional vegetables. Sliced red onion is a great choice since it contributes to color, crunch, and pungency. A second one could be sliced bell peppers, shredded cabbage, shredded carrot, or sliced cucumbers. Also, strive for a blend of colors as well as flavors and textures. Instead of green bell peppers, try orange or yellow ones.

    Finally, instead of chopping your salad veggies into little pieces, slice them into bite-sized strips or shred them. Diced veggies invariably settle to the bottom of the bowl when you toss the salad, but strips and shreds are more likely to remain distributed throughout.

    Continue to 5 of 6 below.
  • 05 of 06

    Keep It Cool and Crisp

    Woman holding colander filled with lettuce
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    It's important that your lettuce be crisp. Crispness has to do with freshness, of course, but how you store your lettuce will determine how long it stays crisp. 

    Keep it in the fridge, in a colander, or salad spinner basket (you can also use the spinner to dry the greens after you wash them) with some damp paper towels over the top. Salad greens need air circulation. Sealing them up in plastic bags will actually cause them to wilt faster. 

    Wet salad greens are another no-no. If your lettuce is dripping wet, your salad dressing will just slide right off the leaves and pool at the bottom of the bowl. A green salad should be served chilled. Warm greens are wilted greens. And one of the quickest ways to warm your greens is to serve them on a warm plate.

    Try chilling your salad plates. It's easy! Just refrigerate them for about 30 minutes, and they'll be nice and cool when you're ready to serve. Your salad and your guests will thank you.

  • 06 of 06

    Serving (and Dressing) the Salad

    Pouring dressing over salad
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    Hold off on dressing the salad until right before you serve it, otherwise it'll get soggy. You just want to lightly coat each piece of lettuce. Spoon the dressing over the salad and gently toss. Add more dressing if necessary and toss again until everything is lightly coated. For best results, use a vinaigrette dressing like this cumin-lime vinaigrette salad dressing, because mayo-based dressings like blue cheese or ranch will weigh down the salad too much (although persuading a blue cheese or ranch fan of this is a hard battle).

    Finally, if you're a crouton person, add them at the very end, after the salad has been dressed, and after each salad is plated. That way they start off on top and won't get soggy.