How to Build a Better Salad
May 7, 2013
Salad days are here, and warmer weather and fresh spring produce make salads an easy meal for lunch or dinner. But too often salads can be a bit boring or, worse, dull affairs drenched in high-calorie dressing and with little to no nutritional value.
We asked three chef instructors from Culinard, the Culinary Institute of Virginia College for their ideas for turning simple salads into something sensational. Chef Matthew Dyer of the Birmingham campus, Chef Nathan Greven of Chattanooga and Program Director Chef Jason Lafferty in Mobile gave us these tips.
1. Go green. For your salad greens, think beyond iceberg. Ease your way into more "exotic" greens with tender butter lettuce or mixed baby greens. When you're feeling more adventurous, try spinach, cabbage, arugula or kale. Dark leafy greens are more nutritious and boost the salad's flavor.
2. Balance the flavors. "It's all about the balance of flavors," says Chef Greven. "The really important thing is to have that contrast of sweet, salty, bitter and sour—it's just perfect on your palate."
Chefs refer to this balance of flavors as a food's flavor profile. "If I have a sweet lettuce I might want a more sour or bitter dressing, for example," Chef Lafferty explains. "With a nice sweet butter lettuce, tangy goat cheese and maybe a sherry vinaigrette, it balances in your mouth. It's going to have the sweetness, the savory cheese and the acidic vinaigrette for an off-the-charts flavor profile."
3. Add texture. Different textures in your salad create a more interesting and satisfying meal. Chef Dyer likes to add seeds to his salads for crunch and texture. "Chia and flax seeds help fill you up and are good alternatives to curb your appetite, plus they add depth of flavor," he says.
Chef Greven likes to add candied walnuts to his salad of spinach, strawberry and blue cheese. Toss in sliced avocados, beans or chickpeas and soft cheeses for their creamy textures.
4. Get your fruits and veggies. Make your salad a colorful, nutritional powerhouse by including a rainbow of produce. Add sweetness to a spinach salad with strawberries or oranges. Toss sliced pears into a salad of tender baby greens. Flavorful veggies like roasted red peppers or thinly sliced raw fennel add vitamins, fiber and tremendous flavor.
Salads are also a great way to introduce new fruits and vegetables to your diet. Chef Dyer creates a kale salad with golden beets. "I like the color and the subtle sweetness of the beets," he says. "It goes well with the earthiness of the kale." He boils the beets whole, runs them under cold water then peels and quarters them before adding to the salad.
5. Make your own dressing. For a truly sensational salad, the chefs agree—homemade dressing is a must. But it doesn't have to be difficult. "Oil and vinegar is fine, but you don't want to bore anyone to death," says Chef Lafferty. He likes to whip up a simple citrus vinaigrette from the season's freshest fruits—oranges, limes or lemons. He recommends two parts citrus juice to one part olive oil, seasoned to taste with a little salt and pepper. "You can kick it up a notch by adding fresh herbs like thyme, basil or oregano to brighten it up even more," he says.
"Making your own dressing at home is a great way to save calories and make it taste better," says Chef Dyer. "Why would you want to eat some of the things in those commercial salad dressings?" He likes to make an avocado dressing. Avocado is a good fat and makes the dressing rich and creamy.
Chef Greven notes that dark greens are meant for something light like a vinaigrette. He prefers a classic balsamic vinaigrette. "It's the most simple," he says. "I use two parts oil to one part vinegar, add mustard, garlic and put it in the blender."
The next time you have salad on the menu, keep these tips in mind for a truly memorable and delicious meal. And remember, your salad is only limited by your imagination. Experiment, and enjoy the results!