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How to Make a Great Green Salad

By Kristina DeMichele Published

It starts with skipping packaged greens and returning to the classic way of making salad—using crisp, mature head lettuces.

A box of baby greens is a fine way to make a salad. But this delicate produce can’t compete with mature head lettuces, whose crisp, flavorful leaves also offer a sturdier base to support add-ins such as cheeses, fruits, and vegetables that add interest and character to a salad. We have also found that seemingly small tweaks—such as how thoroughly you dry your greens, the way you prep add-ins, the order in which you add ingredients to the serving bowl, and the extra effort of emulsifying your dressing—can make the difference between a good salad and a truly memorable one.

The Best Head Lettuces

Familiar head lettuces such as Bibb, romaine, and red or green leaf are salad stalwarts. We use them to provide most of the bulk in the bowl, and their relatively mild flavors make them extremely versatile. Think of them as a functional base layer that you can accessorize with more assertive accent greens, herbs, and other vegetables.

  • Bibb (Aliases: Butter, Boston)

    Profile: Tender, smooth, grassy

    Tip: For longer shelf life, leave root intact until ready to use.

  • Romaine (Alias: Cos)

    Profile: Crunchy; mild, slightly bitter spine

    Tip: Its cup-shaped leaves and sturdy spine work well with thick, creamy dressings.

  • Red/Green Leaf

    Profile: Earthy; tender edges, crisp spine

    Tip: The leaves’ uneven surfaces and ruffled edges are great at capturing mix-ins and flaky salt.

The Best Accent Lettuces

A generous handful of any of these spicy, bitter, crunchy, or frilly greens will make your salad pop.

  • Radicchio

    Profile: Bitter, crunchy

    Tip: Discard wilted outer leaves, but don’t bother washing the rest. It is rare for dirt to get into the tightly packed head.

  • Arugula

    Profile: Peppery, tender

    Tip: Mature arugula can be very sandy, so wash it in several changes of water.

  • Frisée

    Profile: Bitter, crisp

    Tip: Trim away the green parts and use the yellow and white parts.

  • Watercress

    Profile: Juicy, spicy, tender

    Tip: Like arugula, watercress bunches harbor grit and must be washed thoroughly.

The Best Way to Store (and Restore) Greens

Store both washed, dried leaves and intact heads of lettuce wrapped in moist paper towels in a partially open plastic produce bag or zipper-lock bag. Never store lettuce in the refrigerator without any protection, as it will rapidly go limp.

Lettuce wilts because it loses water, so the key to reviving it is to put the water back in. A 30-minute soak in ice water will usually restore crispness.

Double-Dry Your Greens

  • Excess moisture that’s left on lettuces and herbs will dilute your dressing. After washing the greens, dry them as much as possible in a salad spinner (our favorite is the OXO Good Grips Salad Spinner, $29.99) and then blot away any remaining water with paper towels.

Salad by the Numbers

Salad Element Ratio

Head Lettuce to Accent Greens

3:1 

Oil to Vinegar

3:1

Dressing to Greens

¼ cup:10 cups


How to Dress a Salad

Using high-quality oil and vinegar (or lemon juice) beats a bottled dressing any day. But the way you add these components to your salad affects how quickly it wilts. Here are two methods to ensure that your greens stay crisp.

Quick Route: Lazy Person’s Vinaigrette

Drizzling oil and vinegar over your greens is fast and perfectly fine—as long as you add them in the right order. We found that tossing the salad first with the vinegar and again after adding the oil prevented the leaves from wilting too quickly. Why? Lettuce leaves have a protective waxy cuticle layer that helps keep out water-based liquids (such as vinegar), but oil easily penetrates this film. Vinegar helps block the oil so it doesn’t penetrate the cuticle and wilt your lettuce.

Taste Test Supermarket Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

Often dull or even rancid-tasting, supermarket olive oils never seem to live up to their extra-virgin designation. Have new industry standards improved the options?

Taste Test White Wine Vinegar

Versatility can seem boring, but it’s an asset for this pantry staple.

Best Route: Emulsified Vinaigrette

An emulsified vinaigrette works best for keeping the salad crisp because the vinegar surrounds droplets of oil, trapping them and preventing contact with the greens. (Not to mention that an emulsified vinaigrette will guarantee balanced flavor in every bite.) The mustard and mayonnaise in our Foolproof Vinaigrette contain emulsifying agents that help the oil and vinegar combine into a unified sauce and stay that way for more than an hour.

Recipe Foolproof Vinaigrette

Basic vinaigrette has a fundamental problem: It doesn’t stay together. We sought a way to make oil and vinegar form a long-term bond.

Recipe Make-Ahead Vinaigrette

What if you could make a vinaigrette that would stay emulsified and taste great for a week?

Prep Your Add-Ins Properly

Nobody likes carrot chunks or wads of goat cheese that sink to the bottom of the bowl. Follow these guidelines to prepare your add-ins so that they distribute evenly in the salad.

  1. Leave Some Add-Ins for the Top

Reserve half of heavier nuts and cheeses to sprinkle over the dressed salad.

  1. Season the Salad, Too 

The measured amount of salt in a dressing may not be enough, so we like to season the salad to taste with kosher or flake sea salt just after dressing it. This also creates appealing pops of salty crunch.

  1. Dress and Season the Salad Right

Add the dressing in increments. Toss the salad, tasting as you go, to ensure that the greens aren’t over- or underdressed.

  1. Handle Supplementary Ingredients Correctly
  • Vegetables: Shave or thinly slice them (a peeler or mandoline is helpful here) so they mix evenly with the greens.
  • Fruits: Thinly slice and drain wet varieties (such as citrus) so that they don’t dilute the dressing.
  • Cheese: Crumble soft varieties into ¼- to ½-inch pieces; shave small slivers of hard cheeses.

Great Salad Recipes

Each of these salads serves four and is quick to prepare, especially if you’ve washed the greens in advance. Use them as inspiration for your own combinations. Tear or cut all lettuces into 1½- to 2-inch pieces.

Recipe Bibb and Arugula Salad with Pear and Goat Cheese

It starts with skipping packaged greens and returning to the classic way of making salad—using crisp, mature head lettuces.

Recipe Bibb and Frisée Salad with Apple and Celery

It starts with skipping packaged greens and returning to the classic way of making salad—using crisp, mature head lettuces.

Recipe Green Leaf and Radicchio Salad with Grapefruit and Fennel

It starts with skipping packaged greens and returning to the classic way of making salad—using crisp, mature head lettuces.

Recipe Romaine and Watercress Salad with Asparagus and Prosciutto

It starts with skipping packaged greens and returning to the classic way of making salad—using crisp, mature head lettuces.

Recipe Bibb and Frisée Salad with Grapes and Celery

It starts with skipping packaged greens and returning to the classic way of making salad—using crisp, mature head lettuces.

Recipe Romaine and Watercress Salad with Apple and Kohlrabi

It starts with skipping packaged greens and returning to the classic way of making salad—using crisp, mature head lettuces.

Recipe Romaine and Radicchio Salad with Figs and Pecorino

It starts with skipping packaged greens and returning to the classic way of making salad—using crisp, mature head lettuces.

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