A few months ago I was talking with co-workers about my obsession with salads. We got to talking about how for some reason ordering a salad out at a restaurant feels so different from making one at home. What is it about restaurant salads that taste that much better when they’re just lettuce and toppings like at home? After doing my own investigation – really just brining a lot of salads to work for months and ordering them at restaurants often – I think I’ve cracked the code.
The best salads check six boxes to fulfill their gourmet status. While chefs or recipe developers may not use this exact system, I came up with this list to help me take my salads to a gourmet level. Balancing textures, flavors, colors and toppings will result in a well-thought out meal, not just a random collection of vegetables and lettuce. You can use this general framework with any salad you make – or even quinoa or rice bowls too!
The base to a salad is something green. Pick the one that will compliment the flavors you are looking for – like Romaine or spinach – or pick a green that will serve as a base for the flavor like peppery arugula or leafy kale. I keep a bag of greens in my fridge each week to ensure I always have lettuce on hand for spontaneous salads.
The absolute worst part of eating a salad for lunch is getting hungry again two hours later. To combat this, we have to add protein and the options are endless. Chicken, tuna, hard-boiled eggs, shrimp, beans, salmon, ground turkey, sliced steak, tofu, and more are all great contenders.
For texture and extra nutrition I like to add some kind of a grain. Quinoa cooks up really easily and is super trendy right now. Farro has a heartier, nuttier texture but is great for winter recipes. Israeli cous cous is one of my favorites right now because of the pearl sized shape it cooks into.
Fruits and Veggies
This is the category where you get to have so much creative freedom. There are unlimited combinations of fruits and vegetables you can add to salads to enhance the flavor! One thing to think about is contrasting flavors. Adding fruit can really take a typical combination of vegetables to a restaurant-style status. Pineapple in this tofu bowl gave a juicy sweetness to a typical group of flavors. For a savory salad, add some mango for sweetness like in this Southwest Kale Salad.
Cheese and Crunch
If I had to pick a favorite part of the salad combination, it would be the cheese and crunchy items. You could slice or crumble pretty much any cheese and I would be happy! Some personal favorites are gorgonzola (like in this chicken and gorgonzola salad), feta in absolutely anything, and blue cheese in this chicken, dill and blue cheese salad. Other toppings for crunch like slivered almonds, candied walnuts, tortilla chips, granola, wonton crisps, etc. are ideal for breaking up the salad. Dried fruits like raisins or cranberries also make an impact!
Dressing where you can put the finishing touch on all your ingredients. The dressing gives the salad a unified flavor and seasoning on every bite. If you haven’t ever tried making your own vinaigrettes, I have a few 1-minute recipes you should try! I keep a mason jar of homemade balsamic vinaigrette in my fridge almost all the time to grab for to-go salads. The best part about making your own dressing at home is that you get to customize it. Add more or less sweetness, tartness, spiciness, saltiness or creaminess as you prefer.
Restaurants better watch out because pretty soon you’re going to be making salads on your own at home just as good as theirs! I have a few more salad recipes coming up over the next few months, especially into the new year. Comment below if you have any favorite combinations you want to share! Do you think these six components make up the best salad?
Love food. Love self. Love life.