I Wrote a Tomato Cookbook — Here Are My Top Tips for the Best Tomato Salads
A just-picked tomato is divine just sliced and sprinkled with kosher salt, but high summer often requires a little more ingenuity — especially if you’ve been growing them yourself or have an endless supply from your farm share.
While working on my book Tomato Love (available on Amazon and Bookshop.org) I spent innumerable hours in the kitchen tinkering and trying to figure out what sorts of ingredients complement tomatoes’ singular, irresistible flavor. I developed all sorts of dishes, from a restaurant-style salsa with the same bright, acidic notes as the version at my favorite local spot, to homey stews fortified with beans and hearty, dark greens. There are also, of course, the salads. They celebrate the best of what tomatoes have to offer in season, with all their musky, meaty, juicy, sweet glory.
As I worked, I learned a thing or two about what sorts of ingredients can really make fresh tomatoes shine and how to turn a standby salad into something truly special. You don’t need to (and probably shouldn’t) apply all these tips in just one dish, but using a few will go a long way in helping you make the most of your summer bounty.
1. Say no to overripe fruit.
Food waste is real, and it can be a challenge to overcome it at the height of the summer fruit and veggie haul when you may have more than you can handle. But mushy tomatoes make for a very sad salad. Only use fruit that’s in its prime and save the overripe stuff (yes, you can still use it!) for sauces or soup. (Read more about how to tell if a tomato is good or bad.)
Recipe to try: The Best Summer Tomato Salad
2. Consider the cut of your tomato.
There’s nothing wrong with a fork and knife salad, but if everything else in the bowl is bite-size, then your tomatoes should be too! Having to slice through oversized wedges makes eating cumbersome and less enjoyable if it’s the only thing on your plate that requires that sort of attention. Thick slices are fine for, say, a caprese salad, but if you’re making a chopped salad, dice those tomatoes as well (or halve them if they’re small) — and maybe even seed them! Learn more about how to cut tomatoes, how to dice tomatoes, and how to seed tomatoes.
Recipe to try: Caprese Salad with Balsamic Glaze
3. Don’t skip seasoning.
A dash of salt can go a long way in making the flavor of your tomatoes pop and should always be a part of any salad. I also really love to add spices — namely, smoked paprika, sumac, or red pepper flakes — all of which lend their own unique complement. Spices with heat pair especially well with the fruit in general, and you can sprinkle them on top, or even add them to a homemade dressing.
Recipe to try: Spicy Cherry Tomato and Cucumber Salad with Basil
4. Consider something sweet.
If spice isn’t your thing, then try a sweet addition to your tomato salad. Tomatoes are most often a part of dishes with exclusively savory ingredients, but they also play well with sweeter ones. Stone fruits like plums, nectarines, and peaches (my personal go-to) are all tasty possibilities. Ditto for strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, or most any sort of melon.
Recipe to try: The Ultimate Summer Salad
5. Mix them up.
Who says a salad can only have one type of tomato? Using more than one variety gives you the opportunity to showcase a multitude of tomato flavors and textures in a single salad. I like tossing together meatier heirloom tomatoes with snappy, sweet cherry tomatoes. With a drizzle of olive oil, your favorite vinegar, and a sprinkle of kosher salt and pepper, you won’t really need much else!
6. Add herbs, herbs, and more herbs.
Part of the beauty (read: deliciousness) of tomatoes is their versatility in terms of pairings. This is especially true when it comes to herbs. Basil, parsley, and cilantro are obvious choices, but thyme, oregano, and mint are all good options too (you can also use more than one). Aside from adding more flavor, herbs help balance the umami notes of the tomatoes. I have a strong preference for using fresh herbs, but dried will also work in a pinch.
Recipes to try:
6. Put the Bread in the Bowl, Not on the Side.
There’s a reason why the humble tomato sandwich has so many enthusiastic fans: Bread and tomatoes were meant to be together. Bread has the perfect texture and is the perfect vehicle for sopping up all the juicy goodness of tomatoes without meddling with the taste. Translating this to a salad is not only easy, but also just as sublime. Try toasting pita bread, torn baguette, or even sandwich bread in the oven until crisp, add it to your next salad, and you’ll see what I mean.
7. Riff on what you know and love.
Many cooks already do this intuitively, but it’s worth mentioning that you don’t need to start from scratch to make a really great salad. A simple twist on an old standby is sometimes all that’s required for an extra-delicious result. Switching up ingredients like dressings and vinegars, cheese, beans, spices, or even adding protein can make a workaday dish entirely brand new and exciting.
Recipes to try: