During the summer heat, a cool salad often sounds much better than a warm dish. Prepping the same salad, though, can get a bit boring. While there is a certain structure for the perfect salad, you can bring in some variety by changing up the components, which, generally speaking, are: base + toppings + dressing.
If you’re ready to mix up your salad selection, here’s your blueprint for the perfect salad.
How To Build the Perfect Salad
Part 1: Base
For a good salad, you start with a base and go from there. Typically, the base of a salad is your leafy green. This could be spinach, kale, butter lettuce or a combination of greens. If you’re looking to stray from these more traditional bases, opt for cabbage, which stays crunchy even if you dress your salad the night before. Another surprising addition to the ‘base’ is shredded carrots, which bring color, new vitamins and a crunch to your salad.
Part 2: Toppings
Once you have your base, it’s on to the toppings. There are plenty of options to choose from, but a good rule of thumb is to try to choose one or two toppings from each category (fruits/vegetables, grain/bean, protein). Toppings with different flavors and textures tend to make the salad more interesting.
Fruits & Vegetables
Ideas: Strawberries, apples, oranges, dried cherries, dried cranberries, avocado, roasted broccoli, red onions, pickled onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers
Fruits and vegetables give you the opportunity to bring in some additional vitamins. They also set the tone for the rest of the ingredients, so you usually want to pick these first.
Especially during the summer months, spice up your salad with fresh produce. Take a trip to your local farmers’ market to scout out what’s fresh. If radishes or tomatoes look ripe, throw them on top. If you prefer a sweeter salad, pick up some fresh berries and peaches to toss in. Dried fruit also brings some sweetness to the salad without overpowering the other flavors. If you’re looking for a savory salad, though, leave the fruit out altogether!
Ideas: Garbanzo beans, farro, tortilla strips, quinoa, lentils, black beans
Adding grains or beans makes your salad a bit heartier and will keep you full for longer. Grains also bring in additional nutrients like fiber, B vitamins and certain minerals, which may only come from grains.
Choosing whether or not to add a grain really depends on your preferences. Adding warm quinoa on top of your leafy base makes the salad more filling and more like a “bowl.” Grains can also add a new texture to the salad that makes it more interesting.
Ideas: Pepitas, sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, spiced pecans, pistachios, almonds, roasted walnuts, goat cheese, Parmesan, blue cheese, feta, chicken, soft boiled egg, hard boiled egg, salmon, steak
Protein comes in many forms, and it’s usually the last thing you’ll add to the salad. From dairy products to nuts to meats/seafood, you have plenty of options. See what flavors are needed, and go from there. Do you want a soft cheese, a crunchy nut, or perhaps both? Especially if you opt out of a grain, the protein is what makes your salad more of a meal and less of a side item.
- Texture is key.
- Simple is okay.
- Mix it up!
The best part about a salad is you can make it interesting with what you already have in the fridge. Leftover potatoes from the night before? Throw them in! Apples going bad on the counter? Throw them in, too! A fan of pickled onions? Keep a jar of them in your fridge. They’re easy to make, last a while and add a delicious flavor to nearly any dish. Use your summer salad as a clean-out-the-fridge dish!
Part 3: Vinaigrette
No matter how great the base is for your salad, you cannot have an excellent salad without a great dressing. It’s what ties the whole thing together! The dressing determines what overall flavor your salad will have. Do you want a tangy lemon vinaigrette, a sweet balsamic, or perhaps a mild apple cider vinegar dressing?
While you can find salad dressings at the grocery, they’re actually extremely easy to make at home. Don’t believe how easy it is? All you typically need is five ingredients to make a good dressing: Vinegar of choice, olive oil, dijon mustard, salt, pepper. You don’t even need the dijon mustard, but you can make more variations with it. This is my personal favorite, and in five minutes you can have a homemade vinaigrette.
Here’s the basic recipe (and click HERE for some additional variations):
- ⅔ cup (I like California olive oil, but choose your favorite. Some people like an oil with a very light flavor, like canola oil)
- ⅓ cup vinegar or lemon juice
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1.5 tsp ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons diced shallots
- 1-2 tsp Italian seasoning (i use Kroger's Private Selection for spices)
- 1-2 tsp maple syrup
- 1-2 tablespoons dijon mustard
- 2-3 tablespoons mayonnaise (or yogurt or sour cream)
- Whisk the first four ingredients and then build your vinaigrette from there. Consider getting more creative as you go.
- Further options include adding: blue cheese, parmesan cheese, fresh herbs ... or putting the vinaigrette with added ingredients into a blender to make it extra smooth.
If you’re now craving a salad but don’t know where to start, here are a few tried-and-true options that will deliver a delicious, nutrient-packed meal. Top any of these combos with your favorite dressing, and you have the perfect salad!
Spinach + blue cheese + pecans + dried cherries + chicken
Cabbage + spinach + pickled onions + avocado + hemp seeds + soft boiled egg
Arugula + sweet potatoes + goat cheese + almonds + apples
Kale + bell peppers + red onion + feta + hummus + hemp seeds + hard boiled egg
Spinach + garbanzo beans + bacon + tomato + avocado + hard boiled egg
Kale + parmesan + almonds + cranberries + salmon
Find more amazing recipes in our archives. Click HERE!