Recipe Review

I Tried 4 Popular Caesar Salad Recipes and the Winner Checked Every Box

published Dec 17, 2021
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk; Headshots: Getty Images/ Bachrach, Getty Images/Bachrach

When I think of Caesar salad, I’m transported back to my San Diego childhood. During the holiday season, my family and I would dress up and drive to the Hotel del Coronado to have dinner in the Crown Room. The halls were decked with glittering lights and holiday decorations. The Christmas trees would tower into the second floor, intricately decorated for the festive season. I would gaze upon it in wonder as we were ushered into the dining room.

I don’t recall much about anything I ate there — except for the Caesar salad. A cart with a large bowl on top would roll up to our table, and our server would deftly prepare the salad table-side, cracking the coddled egg for the dressing and asking us if anchovies were OK (we always said yes). It was a beautiful beginning to our fancy and festive night out.

As they prepped the salad, the servers always shared historical information, including the fact that the Caesar salad was created by a former Hotel del Coronado employee. I believed this up until recently, when I read that the queen herself, Julia Child, waxed poetic about the original Caesar salad made by Caesar Cardini in Tijuana, Mexico — less than an hour from Coronado. How could this be? I was so sure the salad had been invented in San Diego.

The History of the Caesar Salad

So I did some research. I quickly learned I’m not the first person to acknowledge the salad’s murky origin story. While most articles and stories credit Caesar Cardini or Cardini’s restaurant in Tijuana with the first Caesar, there was also some information that supported the story I was told.

Enter: Livio Santini. To his dying day, he claimed to be the inventor of Caesar salad. During Prohibition, when alcohol was banned in U.S. restaurants, tourists and workers fled to Tijuana to skirt the rules and make some money. During this time, Santini also moved to Tijuana, emigrating from Italy in 1924. He soon began working at Cardini’s, claiming he created the first version of Caesar salad during his time there and crediting his mother’s recipe for a “hard times salad.” According to Gina Petrone, the heritage manager for Hotel del Coronado, Livio and several of Cardini’s former employees — some of whom worked directly with Caesar’s brother, Alex — would end up employed at the Hotel del Coronado in the ’70s, long after Prohibition, bringing the famous salad to the iconic institution.

Did Caesar Cardini really create this legendary salad? Or did Livio invent the salad and inspire Caesar Cardini? We may never know the truth. But having a little bit of mystery only makes this celebrated salad even more intriguing — and inspired my search to find the very best version.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Meet Our 4 Caesar Salad Contenders

I couldn’t very well hold a Caesar salad showdown without having a recipe closest to the original iteration. Julia Child ate the salad at Cardini’s, and wrote the recipe based on her memory. Her recipe starts the dressing with a coddled egg and has no anchovies. 

Famed Italian-American chef and restaurateur Lidia Bastianich adds anchovies and Dijon mustard to her recipe, and uses a hard-boiled egg instead of a coddled egg to emulsify her dressing. Instead of the traditional Parmesan, Lidia’s recipe calls for Grana Padano cheese.

Serious Eats uses Julia’s recipe as inspiration, but very much has its own point of view. The croutons are infused with garlic and Parmesan cheese. The dressing starts with a raw yolk, has a lot of anchovies, and uses a combination of olive oil and neutral oil.

Food52’s California cool version comes from Genius Recipes maven Kristin Miglore — or, more specifically, her dad. A quick dressing comes together without any egg, and it’s the only recipe that doesn’t have croutons and gets its crunch from sliced celery instead. It’s also no-waste, calling for the whole head of romaine rather than just the inner hearts.

How I Tested the Caesar Salad Recipes

I tested all four recipes on the same day. I cleaned, washed, and chopped all the romaine and had it ready to go. I used a whole head for the Food52 version and packaged romaine hearts for the other three versions. I made any make-ahead components first, like the croutons and any dressings that had that option.

I assembled the salads one by one, starting with the salads with the pre-made dressings and finishing with the salads that get assembled directly in the bowl. I ate them all at the same time. My husband was there to help judge, and I also shared the salads with my neighbor.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

1. The Restaurant-Style Recipe: Lidia Bastianich’s Caesar Salad

For food safety purposes, Lidia’s recipe uses a hard-boiled egg yolk rather than a raw one to emulsify the dressing. In addition to the usual suspects of garlic, anchovies, and Worcestershire sauce, it also calls for Dijon mustard and red wine vinegar. As for the salad itself, Lidia’s was the only one that used Grana Padano cheese instead of Parmesan, some of which gets shaved off the block directly onto the plates, just like it’s done at Lidia’s restaurants. To give you even more restaurant vibes, you can chill the plates like Lidia suggests.

Although I felt these twists made for a good Caesar salad, it didn’t quite have the flavor the rest of them did. I missed the intense flavor that the Parmesan typically provides (the Grana Padano is gentler and creamier), and her plain croutons were less flavorful than the Serious Eats and Julia Child garlic-infused versions. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

2. The Most Laidback Recipe: Food52’s Caesar Salad

Food52’s version of the Caesar Salad streamlines the classic, calling for a simple dressing that doesn’t include eggs (or emulsifying!) and no croutons in sight. Instead, the addition of sliced celery brings the crunch.

While the resulting salad didn’t totally evoke all the things I know about Caesar salad, it did scratch the itch. While I would have preferred the dressing to be thicker (it was looser than all the others), I appreciated its savory flavor, thanks to the step of quickly marinating garlic in olive oil, then adding balsamic, anchovies, Worcestershire sauce, and a bit of lemon juice. I also liked how this recipe used the whole head of romaine, although it did mean it wilted much faster because the outer green leaves are far more tender than the centers.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

3. The Best Modern Version: Serious Eats’ Caesar Salad

This recipe calls itself a “modern” take on Julia’s original recipe, and it lives up to its promise. Instead of making the dressing in the bowl as you toss the salad, the dressing — made with a raw egg yolk and a generous amount of anchovies — is prepared in a food processor or immersion blender, meaning it’s super easy to make in advance. I loved the punched-up flavor of the dressing, and its thick texture meant it clung nicely to the lettuce.

Similar to Julia’s recipe, Serious Eats includes garlic-infused croutons. But a different technique and the addition of Parmesan cheese to the croutons really make it shine. With that said, I found the croutons a bit too overpowering, and they kind of stole the show. I would absolutely make these croutons again, but maybe not for this salad.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

4. The Classic for a Reason: Julia Child’s Caesar Salad

Julia was one of the first people to write about Caesar salad. Considering she had the opportunity to taste the one made by Caesar Cardini himself, her version is credited as being as close to the original as possible. This version is also closest to the version I had prepared for me at the Hotel del Coronado.

I was surprised to find that I didn’t miss the anchovies at all! I appreciated that the light texture of the dressing and gentle balance of flavors didn’t overwhelm the lettuce. And even though I loved the Serious Eats croutons, Julia’s croutons were light and balanced, and complementary to the overall flavor. Next time, I’ll make an extra-big batch, because I found myself wanting more.

At the end of the day, this is the Caesar salad I’ll be making again and again. I love that it’s designed to be made table-side — a surefire way to impress your friends. If you do want to meal prep it, combine Julia’s salad with Serious Eats’ blender dressing. Now that’s a good make-ahead lunch.

What’s your favorite Caesar salad recipe? Let us know in the comments!