Published January 1, 2011.
Hold the chicken and other dubious updates. Great Caesar salad is all about making tweaks to the original’s pungent, garlicky dressing and crispy croutons. But what tweaks?
The original Caesar salad has been all but eclipsed by ersatz variations that throw in chicken or fish, or attempt global additions.
We wanted to strip away the superfluous trappings and return to the basics that made this salad a culinary sensation: crisp-tender romaine lettuce napped in a creamy, garlicky dressing boasting a pleasing salty undertone, with crunchy, savory croutons strewn throughout.
Most classic recipes use extra-virgin olive oil as the dressing’s base, but tasters found its fruity, bitter flavor to be at odds with the other assertive elements. To mitigate its robustness, we cut it with neutral-tasting canola oil.
Eggs serve two purposes in Caesar dressing: They temper the strong ingredients without making the dressing greasy, and they effectively “glue” the dressing to the lettuce. The waterlogged whites in whole eggs washed out the flavor, but yolks were perfect.
After a gamut of tests, tasters favored garlic transformed into pulp on a rasp-style grater. The fine paste virtually disappeared into the dressing, suffusing it with robust (though far from aggressive) flavor. Even better results came when we steeped the grated garlic in lemon juice before introducing the rest of the ingredients. We thoroughly minced good-quality anchovies to paste as well, and their richly savory—not fishy—flavor evenly dispersed throughout the dressing. To get all the ingredients to emulsify, we beat the yolks, anchovies, and a bit of Worcestershire sauce into the lemon juice and garlic, and then slowly whisked in the oil and half of the cheese.
To top off our salad, our croutons needed stand-alone flavor as well as some contrast between the crust and the interior crumb. In choosing the bread itself, the bubbly, chewy center and crisp exterior of ciabatta worked best. Toasting the bread cubes in a hot pan slicked with extra-virgin olive oil created crispy, flavorful results but left the croutons parched in the center. Inspired by panzanella (Italian bread salad) recipes, we tried first sprinkling the cubes with a little water and salt to preserve some of the moistness. The result? Croutons that were perfectly tender at the center, and browned and crunchy around the edges. Two last-minute tweaks—a table-side squeeze of fresh lemon juice for brightness and a shower of extra Parmesan—finished off our perfect Caesar salad.list of recipes