|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 4 to 6|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 13g||16%|
|Saturated Fat 2g||9%|
|Total Carbohydrate 4g||2%|
|Dietary Fiber 1g||5%|
|Total Sugars 1g|
|Vitamin C 9mg||43%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|
The simple green salad is the oft overlooked leafy backbone of millions of meals. Much more than just a means of getting in that recommended fifth serving of roughage, the green salad is a fresh and crunchy foil for everything from pizza to paella. It’s the adaptable and easygoing sidekick to rich foods and dishes with complex flavors.
It’s tempting to phone it in with salad: just buy a clamshell of greens and a bottled dressing and call it good. And sure, that’s better than nothing, but salad can be the jewel of the dinner table with even just a little care and attention. You can even create your own “house salad”—a tried and true combination to turn to time and again that will become a part of your cooking repertoire.
What Is a Green Salad Made Of?
The world of salads is inscrutable and vast. From fruit salad to taco salad to the jiggly (and often unnerving) roster of mid-century gelatin salads, it seems that almost anything can be a salad. This kind of sprawl can feel overwhelming, but I prefer to think of it as liberating. It gives me license to choose from a huge variety of ingredients when I’m putting together a salad.
That said, a green salad does have some limits, even if they’re murky. Surprising no one, green salads should be made mostly of salad greens. There’s no limit on which greens to use, but they should make up the bulk of the salad.
From there, a green salad can have a few simple additions, like fresh herbs or cut up raw vegetables, but keep it simple. Avoid weighing down the tender greens with too many extra bits and pieces. I limit myself to two or three extras.
Finally, a green salad needs a dressing, preferably something that will lightly coat the leaves without making things gloppy.
The Keys To a Perfect Green Salad
- Fresh, flavorful greens. No matter what kind of greens you choose, they should look perky and fresh. The leaves should not appear wilted or yellowed and absolutely never slimy (ew). If you prefer to buy greens in clamshells vs. heads of lettuce, scrutinize them closely. It can be harder to judge freshness with all that plastic packaging in the way.
- Acidity! Flat dressings make flat-tasting salads. When I’m whipping up a dressing I make it a little too sour and a little too salty, knowing that the flavor will be diluted once it’s tossed with the greens. Dip a piece of lettuce into the dressing to taste it for seasoning so you can get a better idea of how it will taste on the greens.
- Textural contrast. Even very crisp greens like romaine benefit from a sprinkling of toasted breadcrumbs or seeds, but tender greens like butter lettuce or baby spinach really need added texture.
- A touch of luxury. Choose one rich ingredient, like olives, avocado, cheese, or nuts for the most satisfying salads.
Let's Talk About Greens
Virtually any leafy green can make a great salad, but the type of greens you end up using should be pretty personal. Try all kinds of greens and find out what you like. You might discover that you’re fond of the soft leaves of butter lettuce or the peppery bite of arugula. You might prefer a classic green leaf lettuce or the supremely crisp romaine.
I highly recommend mixing different types of greens. Arugula or watercress can be too assertive on their own but they can be used judiciously to add flavor to mild greens. Radicchio’s bracing bitterness is a welcome addition to a romaine salad, and the color adds a touch of glam. Over time you’ll come up with a combination you never get tired of.
Top Tips for Salad Greens
- Wash them. Though not everyone feels this way, I am a believer that greens need to be washed whether they come in a clamshell or not. You can even wash greens in advance and keep them in a sealed bag in the fridge so there’s one less step to do when you’re ready to make salad.
- Dry them well. Wet greens make soggy salads. A salad spinner is a great tool for washing and drying greens well, but you can also lay the washed greens on a towel and gently roll it up to absorb excess water. Or bundle the greens in a kitchen towel, walk outside, and turn yourself into a human salad spinner. Drying the greens is doubly important if you’re washing greens ahead of time because excess moisture will cause them to spoil faster.
- Store them properly. If you decide to wash the greens in advance, after drying them place them in a plastic bag with a paper towel in the bottom and seal the bag. This prevents wilting, and the paper towel absorbs excess moisture. Storing heads of lettuce whole will also lengthen their shelf life.
- Keep them whole until the last minute. If you’re using large leafy greens, wait until you’re ready to assemble the salad to tear or cut them. Doing this prematurely will lead to discoloration and spoilage.
The Best Dressed Salad
Store-bought salad dressings are a boon to the busy cook, but hear me out: the best salad dressings are homemade. Why? They’re quick to make, super cheap, and customizable. My go-to homemade dressing is a squirt of Dijon mustard, a grated garlic clove, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper. I don’t even measure anything—just throw it all in a jar, shake, taste, and adjust as needed.
5 Salad Dressings That Take 5 Minutes to Make
Top Tips for Salad Dressings
- Lean on acid and salt. In my experience, dressings should be a little too acidic and salty when you taste them on their own. Remember that the flavor will literally be watered down once the dressing is added to the greens. Classic French vinaigrette proportions are 3:1 oil to vinegar, but I tend to make mine more like 2:1. Nothing livens up the flavor of a salad better than a zingy dressing!
- If you’re not sure, try it on a leaf. If you taste the dressing on its own and aren’t sure whether the flavor is right, dip a small piece of the salad green you’re using into the dressing and try that. It will give you a better idea of how the dressing will actually taste on the salad.
- Skip the sugar. Sugar is almost never the answer to correcting the flavor of a dressing. If it’s too sour, try adding another glug of oil and a pinch of salt instead.
- Let it mellow. Pungent alliums like garlic and shallots can be mellowed by letting them sit in the lemon juice or vinegar for even just 10 minutes before adding the other ingredients.
- Mustard and garlic help emulsify. Emulsifying oil and vinegar-style dressings is almost impossible to do at home. But adding a healthy squirt of Dijon mustard and a grated garlic clove will help the process. The dressing will eventually separate as it sits, but these ingredients ease emulsification in the short term.
Cool, crisp veggies are a must for all but the most austere green salads. They add flavor, texture, and interest to the mix and give you something to hunt around in the greens for. I love spearing different combinations of greens and veggies on my fork in search of the perfect bite.
You can go in all kinds of directions with salad vegetables, but above all choose the ones you like the best! Just because shredded carrots show up uninvited to every salad bar doesn’t mean you have to use them if you’re not a fan (I’m not, so I don’t). You can go with crunchy vegetables like radishes, bell pepper, cucumber, and onion or cooked vegetables like winter squash and beets. Even pickled vegetables can work well in salads, especially pickled onions and some types of peppers.
Top Tips for Salad Veggies
- Slice ‘em thin. Big chunky veggies weigh down tender greens and are more likely to end up in salad purgatory at the bottom of the bowl. I reach for my mandoline slicer to get thin, uniform slices in seconds. Just watch those fingers!
- Use restraint. Adding too many vegetables to your green salad has the same effect as adding super chunky ones.
- Different shapes = more interesting salads. I know I just said to slice veggies thin, but you can still play around with shapes. Combining thinly sliced radishes and small cucumber chunks in the same salad isn’t just more interesting to look at. It’s also easier to eat. I’ve also found that a bunch of thinly sliced vegetables tend to stick together, making it harder to disperse them throughout the salad.
- Ice water saves the day. If you have carrots or radishes that are a little wilted from sitting in the crisper too long, cut them up and throw them in a bowl of ice water for 10 to 15 minutes. You'll be amazed at how well they perk up.
How To Make Salads Taste Better: Toppings!
We’ve already discussed how different textures make better salads, and while you can achieve that with just vegetables and greens, salad toppings are where you can really make things interesting.
- Toasted Nuts or Seeds - Nuts and seeds bring quick and easy texture and flavor to salads. Pepitas are my favorite salad seeds, but sunflower seeds, chia seeds, sliced almonds, chopped hazelnuts or walnuts, and sesame seeds are all great in salads. Just make sure to toast them! Don’t miss out on those roasty toasty flavors.
- Cheese - Crumbly dry cheeses are best for salads. Think parmesan shavings, crumbled feta or blue cheese, or fresh goat cheese (chèvre). For extra credit, make frico (cheese crisps) with grated Parmesan. Or you can cube up some halloumi and brown it in a skillet for crunchy, salty cheese croutons.
- Olives - All kinds of olives, even marinated ones, are great in salads. Just make sure they’re pitted. To easily pit an olive, crush it under the side of a knife and pick out the pit.
- Cooked Grains or Beans - Don’t weigh down your salad under a pile of either of these, but a handful of quinoa or chickpeas makes a salad more interesting and filling. For more flavor, stir salad dressing into the grains before adding them to the salad (even better: do this while they’re still warm). For beans, a quick stint in a skillet with a little olive oil and garlic works wonders to expel that canned bean taste.
- Breadcrumbs or Croutons - Breadcrumbs > croutons. There, I said it. Crumbs give a pleasant crunch, coat lettuce leaves better, and are easier to eat than croutons. Toast the crumbs in a skillet in a little olive oil with a smashed garlic clove and thyme and rosemary leaves. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Avocado - Nothing makes a salad feel more satisfying than little chunks of rich, creamy avocado. They’re best scattered on top of the dressed salad, as tossing them can make them mushy.
- Berries, Diced Apple or Pear - I’ll admit that I’m not the biggest fan of fruit in my salad, but occasionally I’ll throw in some super crisp cubes of tart apple (think Honeycrisp, Pink Lady, or Ashmead’s Kernel). Apple pairs especially well with fennel and arugula.
- Crispy Baked Prosciutto - There’s nothing like crispy cured meat to add satisfying richness to a salad. To make crispy prosciutto, lay the prosciutto slices flat on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake at 375 F for 10 to 15 minutes. Let cool and crumble. You can also top salads with crumbled crisp bacon or crispy chicken skins.
How To Create Your Own House Salad Recipe in Three Steps
- Start with a relatively “fluffy” salad green (mixing and matching encouraged) like butter lettuce, spring mix, or romaine.
- Make a simple dressing. Oil and vinegar or lemon juice-based dressings are preferred for lighter lettuces; more robust greens can stand up to more robust dressings.
- Pick a veggie and a topping or two to add in but keep it simple! Avoid weighing down the greens with a bunch of stuff.
- Butter lettuce with a lemon-Dijon dressing, sliced radishes, chives, and toasted breadcrumbs
- Romaine and radicchio with cucumbers, olives, and Italian dressing
- Red/green leaf lettuces with pickled red onion, toasted pumpkin seeds, and oil and vinegar
- Arugula with shaved Parmesan, Marcona almonds, and red wine vinaigrette
"This simple salad came together very quickly. The dressing was bright, and not overwhelmingly tart. Overall, the salad was very well-balanced, with just the right combination of colors and textures, making it deliciously refreshing and visually beautiful." —Diana Andrews
For the Dressing:
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, more to taste
1 clove garlic, minced or grated on a rasp
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon fine salt, more to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
For the Salad:
5 ounces spring mix, about 9 lightly packed cups, washed and dried
1 lightly packed cup baby arugula, washed and dried, optional
4 large radishes, thinly sliced
1/2 medium English cucumber, quartered lengthwise and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/4 cup toasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
2 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh chives, or 1/4 cup packed flat-leaf parsley leaves, optional
Steps to Make It
Gather the ingredients.
For the dressing, add the lemon juice and garlic to a pint-sized mason jar and let sit for 5 minutes. This mellows out the garlic a little bit. You can do other salad prep tasks while you wait.
Add the oil, mustard, salt, and pepper to the jar. Screw a tight-fitting lid onto the jar and shake the dressing vigorously. Taste the dressing by dunking a lettuce leaf into it. Add more lemon juice or salt as needed. Set the dressing aside while you finish assembling the salad.
Combine the spring mix, arugula, if using, radishes, and cucumber in a large bowl. Add enough dressing to lightly coat, and toss to combine (your clean hands are the best tool for this job, but tongs work well).
Sprinkle the salad with pumpkin seeds and chives or parsley leaves, if using. Serve immediately with the remaining dressing.