Follow these simple principles and you’ll know that you can make a stylish, well-balanced mixed salad every time.
The ideal salad
The made salad is a surprisingly controversial beast. While many of us grew up with the traditional lettuce, cucumber, tomato and egg combination, fashions have changed.
In fact, salad can be such a theme of food snobbery that it is easy to feel uncertain when putting together even a simple garden salad to serve to guests.
How many different types of leaf do you put in? Is it going to be too bitter? Not bitter enough? Horror of horrors, is it overdressed?
Of course, a good mixed salad is the one that you and people around you enjoy, and no one else’s opinion should matter.
Nevertheless, there are some basic principles that make it easy to make a mixed salad that balances all the flavours and textures you want when you make up your salad bowl. Follow these simple rules and you will always serve your salads with pride.
Five elements of a great salad
A base of leaves
The first element of a great mixed salad is a base of good salad leaves. They can be all of one type but many of us like a good mix. Soft and sweet, fresh and crisp, peppery and bitter, red and green… There are so many salad vegetables from which to choose.
If you are picking leaves from your own pots or vegetable plot, try to pick them as early in the day as possible. Keep them in a cool place, or even in the fridge until you are ready to use them.
This may sound counterintuitive, but this is the point at which there is most water in the leaf and when the leaf is most crisp. If you are going to eat your salad in the evening, it will seem fresher if you pick your salad leaves at 7 in the morning than 7 at night.
Lettuce is the most obvious, but it comes in so many different forms. Iceberg and little gem and crispy and crunchy while butterheads and Boston are soft and floppy. Oak leaf looks pretty and comes in different colours while Batavia and frisée are, well, frizzy. Lettuce is generally mild and sweet in flavour.
Stronger flavours can be introduced with peppery watercress and American land cress, sharp rocket (rucola), and slightly spicy endives and red chicory (radicchio). Lollo rosso, a soft red lettuce, also has a peppery note, as do some tatsoi and mizuna.
Then there are the leaves that we sometimes cook. Baby spinach has a faint bitterness and makes a delicious addition. Kale and chard are robust leaves that add interesting notes to salads.
Herbs and baby leaves may be better sprinkled over the top at the end, but don’t neglect the delicious aniseed notes of basic, fennel tops and dill.
Helen’s Fuss Free Tip
If your salad is looking a bit tired, then dunk it in a sink full of cold water and leave it for 5 minutes, before draining and spinning.
You will be amazed at how much it crisps up.
Fruit and veg
It’s time to start adding some contrasting flavours and texture. Tomato, cucumber, avocado, beetroot, mushrooms, diced apples and pears… Think about the different qualities of their flavours and match them with leaves that provide a little bit of contrast.
Soft acidic tomatoes might suit crunchy sweeter lettuce leaves, while sweet beetroot goes well with the heat and assertiveness of watercress or rocket and earthy mushrooms are good with spinach.
Soft boiled eggs fit into the same texture set, and you can also add previously cooked vegetables such as steamed and cooled asparagus if you don’t like to eat it raw.
The more robust vegetables, like carrot and cabbage can be marinated in a dressing earlier in the day. This will allow them to absorb all that flavour without you sending the other components soggy by cutting and dressing them too early.
Toasted seeds and nuts are a great way to get crunch into your salad. Cob nuts, toasted almonds and roasted pumpkin seeds are all good.
If you like a variety, keep a jar of mixed seeds and nuts in the cupboard. They are also great on yogurt for breakfast.
You could make croutons. These can be the cubes of fried bread we all recognise from soup garnishes, or the toasted pieces of pitta bread that make a fattoush salad so good.
When you think about the balance of textures, remember that some vegetables, like carrot, radish and celery, are very crunchy too.
A burst of flavour
All that freshness and crunchiness needs some pops of concentrated flavour. If you are serving your salad on the side, then that probably comes from the main dish. If you are making a salad as a main meal, however, it needs more.
This may come from that one final centrepiece that you want to add on top – it’s a chicken salad, a tuna salad, a salmon salad. Or it could be something distributed throughout.
Spring onions (scallions) or sliced round onions, olives, sundried tomatoes and crumbled cheese are good choices. Think of the olives in a Niçoise salad, the anchovies in Caesar salad or the blue cheese sometimes added to a main course Waldorf salad.
Fruit such as fresh orange can serve this function too, or lardons of crispy bacon.
Remember you can introduce a bit more zing in the dressing if you prefer.
How to make a salad filling
If your mixed salad is a main course, you can’t just rely on light leaves and vegetables to see you through until breakfast. It needs to be substantial.
The difference between a salad that leaves you wanting and one that hits the spot is to have plenty of protein and some carbohydrates in the mix.
Protein is present in nuts, seeds, eggs, beans, cheese, meat and fish, so if you have followed the suggestions above it is probably already there. Just make sure there is enough to make you feel full.
If you want a bit more substance and protein, cooked grains are not just for grain salads, and quinoa is an excellent choice for making you feel full.
Blanched broad (fava) beans or canned chickpeas are also great vegetarian proteins to add to a salad.
If you are going to eat bread alongside your salad, you already have your carbs, but root vegetables like raw carrots also provide this. A few boiled and cooled new potatoes are delicious too.
Dress for dinner!
Every great salad needs a great salad dressing. I have put this last, as it is the smallest quantity and often the last thing to add to the plate.
If you are going to toss your salad in the dressing rather than making a carefully arranged layered salad, however, the dressing goes into the bowl first, so that you can add all the vegetables and gently turn them in the dressing.
The most basic salad dressings consist of a little oil and white wine or balsamic vinegar, or lemon juice. Whisk them together in the bottom of the salad bowl before adding your leaves, adding a little mustard and salt if you like. Making the dressing in the bowl avoids both waste and extra washing up.
Or make a big batch in a jam jar and keep in the fridge.
For a layered salad, drizzle your dressing over the top. This could be a French vinaigrette or traditional salad cream, a simple balsamic reduction or something like a Caesar dressing. You can buy your favourites but it is fun to experiment, making something new every time.
Salad dressings vary so much in texture and flavour, that it can be hard to know where to start. The basic elements are acidity, salt, sweetness, heat from mustard or chilli and cooling elements such as dill in yogurt or mayonnaise type dressings.
The most fragile herb salads will be overwhelmed with heavy emulsion dressings. Try lighter vinaigrette type dressings that will coat them without wilting them before you ever get to eat them.
Crunchy fresh leaves can take most varieties. Chunky, crunchy, robust root vegetables either suit a binding emulsion or benefit from being marinated for a while in advance.
Robust and bitter leaves like kale and spinach can take something sweet like honey and mustard or the powerful punch of a creamy, salty blue cheese dressing.
Assemble a salad as close to serving time as is practical for best effect. It’s fine to set it aside for half an hour to stand while you get ready. This gives the dressing the chance to soak in a little. The salad can be left somewhere cool while it waits.
Don’t make your salad hours in advance though, or the textures will suffer.
If you are making a salad for a picnic or for a packed lunch, pack the dressing separately in a small watertight pot.
Hints and tips
- Pick salad vegetables early in the day, because the texture will be better. The leaves become floppier throughout the day as water evaporates in the sun.
- For a tossed salad, make up the dressing in the salad bowl or add a ready-made one first. Then add all the elements that you want to toss, and turn them in the dressing with two forks. You can reserve some toasted nuts or seeds, or a main feature ingredient to set on top.
- For a layered salad, simply build it up element by element, making the most of contrasting shapes and colours for an attractive effect.
It’s not quite as simple as that, because while raw food contains more nutrients and cooking can kill some of them off, some of that goodness is more available to us in cooked food. That’s why it’s good to have a balance, and you definitely want some raw plant foods in your diet. Eating salad is a great way to boost your intake of many vitamins and minerals.
It’s the diet overall, in combination with how much you move, that helps you keep weight off. Salads can be a helpful tool in dieting because they are nutritious and you can keep them light on calories.
Do not, however, fall into the trap of thinking that because something is called a salad, or because much of the food is raw, that it is low in calories. A Caesar salad can be more calorific than a burger, and it’s mostly lettuce!
Make sure you include enough protein and a little carbohydrate.
A world of salads
There are, of course, many more types of salad out there. So many choices for sides or mains, lunch or dinner.
There are salads coated in mayonnaise, like the traditional Russian salad.
Explore and experiment, and find your perfect salad.