Have you ever tried to recreate your favorite restaurant salad at home? At the restaurant, it feels so special — there’s something about the crunch and the zip of the dressing that keeps you ordering it time and time again — but at home, even with what you’d think are the same ingredients, it falls flat.
That won’t be the case for long. Chefs have a few tricks up their sleeves to make salads so good. Take a peek behind the kitchen door with me and you’ll be making better versions at home. Here are seven simple tips for making restaurant-quality salads at home.
1. Make the salad dressing.
You’d be surprised how quickly a dressing can come together. Fresh ingredients give the dressing an extra punch of flavor you’ll be hard-pressed to find in a bottle. The classic ratio for homemade vinaigrette is three parts oil to one part vinegar. However, you can skew it more towards two to one if you like your dressings on the acidic side. Once you know the ratio, you can mix and match with lots of ingredients. Whisk in mustard to keep it emulsified; add flavor with chili flakes, shallots, and herbs – the possibilities are endless.
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"Needs more salt." It’s a mantra you’ll hear daily in any culinary school and it definitely applies here. Don’t ignore seasoning your greens just because you aren’t technically cooking with them. Fresh produce shines with a little salt and pepper mixed in too.
3. Buy or mix your own greens.
The mixture of greens in a restaurant salad elevates it as well. Luckily, these days most grocery stores sell greens mixed together already. However, it’s simple to do yourself at home too. Keep texture and flavor in mind when you mix. Romaine and iceberg have more of a crunch than spinach or arugula. And watercress and arugula will add a peppery bite compared to mild Bibb lettuce or simple green leaf lettuce.
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Salads are the perfect place to use up whatever herbs you have in your refrigerator, but you can also lean all the way in and use leafier herbs like cilantro or parsley as a green in their own right. Toss cilantro into a taco salad, basil into a tomato-mozzarella salad, and mint with a feta-olive salad.
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I bet the first ingredient that pops into your mind when you hear the word "salad" is some kind of lettuce. While I do love greens, they don’t need to be the star. I dare you to even leave them out completely. There’s a world of possibilities for salads beyond lettuce. Try a combination of other vegetables, fresh and dried fruits, nuts, cooked grains, and bread.
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A salad becomes instantly 100 times better to me when it’s easy to eat. Yes, it takes a few more minutes to prep ingredients down into bite-sized pieces, but you’ll thank yourself later when everything fits nicely onto your fork. Plus, smaller pieces mean you can pick up more ingredients on your fork at one time, making every bite more interesting.
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7. Dress it before you plate it.
This simple trick allows dressing to evenly distribute and coat all the ingredients. It’s a nice gesture to leave the dressing on the side, so everyone can add as much as they’d like, but pouring it over your salad leaves you with pools of dressing that can overwhelm every few bites. Sure, your greens will begin to wilt slowly as soon as they’re dressed, but if you wait until just before you eat, the salad won’t turn soggy. Start adding a little at a time; you can always add more, but a salad can go from great to overdressed quickly, so take heed!