There’s a reason salade lyonnaise has long been iconic not only in its namesake city of Lyon but also throughout France. The combination of bitter greens, salty bacon, rich poached egg, and punchy vinaigrette is simply perfect. The pungent greens stand up to the tart vinaigrette and are sturdy enough to hold up under the weight of the egg. Thick batons of bacon, or lardons, retain meaty chew even when they are browned and crisped. The vinaigrette, whisked together in the warm pan used to brown the bacon, has just enough acidity to balance the pork’s richness and the egg’s flowing yolk and tender whites. For my own rendition of this French classic, I wanted to ensure that I hit that same spot-on balance of crisp and chewy, cool and warm, and rich and bitter.
The most traditional versions of salade lyonnaise feature just a single green—frisée, a member of the chicory family with a bitter taste and frilly, resilient leaves that soften only slightly under a warm vinaigrette. Though frisée’s feathery looks brought a certain elegance to the dish, on its own, the green made the salad feel spartan. Its wiry spikes also allowed too much of the dressing to fall to the bottom of the bowl. In search of a second green, I experimented with dandelion greens and two of frisée’s cousins, escarole and chicory. While each did a fine job of filling out the salad, tasters liked chicory best, with escarole coming in a close second. Both brought additional pungency to the mix, along with leaves that were a little more supple and broad enough to better capture the dressing.
Next I considered the lardons. In France, these are often sliced from ventreche, pork belly that’s unsmoked, salt cured, and fashioned into a roll, making it more similar to Italian pancetta than smoked American bacon. Ventreche can be hard to find in the United States, however, and pancetta seemed to be my best bet. But since presliced pancetta is often cut into rounds that aren’t thick enough to make plump lardons, I bought the pork from the deli counter and made sure to ask for a generous ½-inch-thick slab.
Back in the test kitchen, I cut the pancetta into lardons about ¼ inch wide, which I then sautéed in a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil to ensure even browning. The lardons’ meaty, chewy texture was perfect, but they tasted too salty, so I blanched them for about 5 minutes in a couple of cups of water in the skillet before browning them.
The vinaigrette can make or break this salad. Too little acid and the greens taste overwhelmingly bitter and the salad seems overly rich.
I began by standardizing the amount of fat for the dressing. Since some of the fat from the pancetta was lost to the water during blanching, I upped the oil I was using to brown the lardons to 2 tablespoons. To keep the oil amount consistent, I poured off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat left in the pan after crisping them. Leaving the lardons in the pan, I then added some minced shallot, which I sautéed briefly to soften its raw edge. I took the pan off the heat and thought about how much vinegar to add.
Our standard formula for vinaigrette is 3 parts fat to 1 part acid, but because of the rich lardons and eggs in the mix, the salad tasted fatty. I decided a 1:1 ratio would give the dressing the boldness it needed. I stirred 2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar (the acid) along with 4 teaspoons of mustard into the hot fat in the pan, which sent up wafts of bacon‑y aroma into the air, and then drizzled this warm mixture over the salad, plated it, and topped each serving with a poached egg. I was gratified to find that the vinaigrette brought the perfect acidic punch to the salad, especially after I broke the egg with the side of my fork and stirred the rich yolk gently into the greens. There was just one problem: While the warm dressing had nicely wilted the frisée, leaving it softened but still crisp, the chicory had lost its crunch.
To avoid this I tried a two-stage approach to incorporating the dressing. First I placed the frisée in the mixing bowl and drizzled the warm dressing on top. After an initial toss with my tongs, the dressing had cooled quite a bit, so when I added the chicory and tossed everything again, it kept its crisp bite.
With that, my salade lyonnaise had it all: a perfect balance of lightness and indulgence, coolness and warmth, and crispness and chewiness.