The science behind a good salad.
When we travel we tend to eat at restaurants more often then when at home. But one thing many restaurants seem to have trouble with is their (side)salads. Most serve just bland greens and hope people will eat them. Well, most of the people don’t, and for good reason. Just leaves are not a salad.
We hardly share any salad recipes because we always change the recipe to the mood we’re in, what we serve it with and/or whatever is in the fridge. We only share those perfect combinations. But on days like this we see that even professional chefs sometimes seem to struggle with something as simple as a salad. Which makes us wonder how many more out there struggle with it.
With the Primal Beings philosophy we managed to salvage the wreck we got served as a salad a few days ago. Today we wish to share not just a recipe but our most basic principles on how to make a proper salad. At the end we will give an example salad, build using these principles.
Step 1: Choose your star (ingredient)
Often when we say this is step one we get questioning looks. However this principal makes this star ingredient the coatrack to hang everything else on. Honestly it doesn’t matter how special or exclusive this star is, as long as you make it the centre of your recipe it will get it’s spotlight. We had tasty salads with grilled peach. At the same time the apple salad was completely build around the simple apple. But some simpler variations have been build solely around iceberg lettuce. We even build some salads around products we would never eat alone. Whatever you choose, stick to it during all next steps and choose all ingredients based on this single product.
Step 2: Choose your sweet spot
All salads (and all their ingredients) can be placed on two important lines: crispy to soft in texture on one line and warm to fresh in taste on the other.
Sticking to one of these four is a sure way to find a unique (and often tasty) salad. The problem is when you dedicate yourself to texture the taste has to be balanced. At the same time, when you focus on one side of the taste scale you need to balance texture. A crispy and (only) fresh salad is often experienced as one sided, for example.
Luckily for all of us there is a very large sweet spot in the middle of these lines. By balancing out flavour and texture a bit it is easy to get a great salad.
To decide where you want to go it is best to start imagining from your star ingredient. Remember that your star is also somewhere on this scale and to get the best out of it you shouldn’t fight it.
If your star is already soft and warm (like grilled peaches) you can’t go completely crunchy or fresh. If you still want to add a crunch (like walnuts) go for the balanced sweet spot. Because of all the lovely combinations we tend to end up taking the middle ground. But if you want to stick to one specific aspect it is quite possible, it just takes a bit more effort. (for an example of a crispy focus see: crispy summer coleslaw)
Step 3: Choose the right leaves
For some people any leaves will do in a salad. However just throwing in any leaf is an opportunity missed to enhance your star. In basic there are two tastes of leaves: the neutral variation and the bitter one. For neutral you could think of white cabbage, iceberg or leaf lettuce. For the bitter ones you could go for chickaree, rocket or rapunzel. Of course there are many variations out there, but the basics are pretty much the same. Only a very few exceptions don’t fit in here. (Spinach f.e.)
The bitter leaves usually add a bit of warmth to your salad (or at least don’t take it away) where the more neutral leaves are more suited if you want to go fresher.
Also take into account the texture here: How much of a crisp or softness do you want to add? Even though chickaree and rapunzel both add a bitterness to your salad, the texture is completely different.
Step 4: Choosing your dressing ingredients
Any salad needs a good dressing to prevent a salad from being “dry leaves”. It also seems to be the most challenging part of the salad for most. There is a very basic list of things any good dressing must have: Fat, sour and it needs to be syrupy. As you can imagine a simple mayonnaise or thinned crème fraiche already fits that description. But if you want to go for less fat, any neutral oil could add the fattiness. Where any vinegar or citrus fruit can add the sour note.
Seeing that now we really start blending tastes and choosing from a million ingredients, this is where your star and sweet spot comes in. At this point only think about the fats and sours, the rest will come later.
Step 5: Adding a punch
By now you should have a pretty basic salad. For the next step let’s make it special. Some things to consider with your star and sweet spot in mind:
Pepper and Salt: If you are happy with the taste already and want to keep it basic, these are your go to ingredients. They just spice up a little and make that all the flavours you’ve chosen are enhanced. For a bit more crunch you could even decide to grind them only coarsely.
Herbs: If your star or leaves aren’t bitter you really want to think of slightly enhancing the taste with some herbs. Some dried green herbs (like rosemary, sage, or oregano) are a save choice with almost every star.
Spice: The sharper notes almost always add warmth to your salad (raw onions are a great exception). If you want the salad to be a bit warmer consider things like chili, chives or heated pepper corns.
Nuts: From the soft (freshly roasted) pine nuts to the crunchy cashews there is a nut for every sweet spot. However not every star wants it.
Cheese: This is probably the trickiest way of adding a punch. But almost every star can be paired with at least one type of cheese. From a soft goats cheese, to a powerful blue or even a hard salty parmesan. Even if you don’t want to add any cheese, at least consider the possibilities for a moment. It might spark an idea for another ingredient your star is asking for.
Honey: Sweet and warmth in a single package. Need warmth? Take it. Need to break some sharpness? Take it. Just want sweet in the salad? It is a strong flavour. Are you sure?
Step 6: Anything else?
Yes, by now the salad should be close to finished. There are entire books filled with good flavour combinations, and a blog like this isn’t the place to consider every single thing. But by now your imagination should be sparked and your star should be speaking to you. There are no ingredients that don’t belong in a salad. Rose water, anchovies, olives, it has al been done with success, but the pairing with your star needs to be absolutely perfect for these ingredients.
Step 7: Enjoy and try again
With these simple guidelines you should get a good salad every single time. Still, every recipe needs refinement. While eating you might miss “something” or want to change amounts. There is no wrong in experimenting and letting your taste buds guide you. Just remember to write down your initial recipe on the same evening.
So we promised an example and will do this step by step: (inside Mark’s mind)
Step 1: Orange pieces (Kimi’s choice)
Step 2: Orange is somewhere near the middle when it comes to texture and somewhere in the middle in taste as well. So we can go all directions. For today let’s take a challenge and fight our star a little bit. Let’s go warm. (staying in the middle is a lousy example)
Step 3: For leaves we want to consider the more bitter variations because we want to go warm. Chickaree is too bitter and more crunch than we would like. So softer variations it is. Rapunzel would be an option but may very well become to silken soft. In our supermarket they have “oak leaf lettuce”, a slight bite and still slighty bitter. Let’s choose that one.
Step 4: The orange already has a bit of sour to it and I really don’t want to freshen it up further. So an other (warmer) sour would add a lot to the dressing, a thick balsamic vinegar comes to mind. (as do some walnuts, but we shouldn’t focus on that now. Written down for step 5 or 6) As a far as the fat goes, a basic oil could do wonders. Olive oil adds just a bit more richness.
Salt and Pepper: Definitely!
Herbs: I chose a bitter leave, but can consider some fresh sage for the warmer taste. Not sure though.
Spice: I need more warmth. Smoked chili? Nah, to much kick. Hmmm... difficult. Lets see if we can get a lighter kick somewhere later. Or can just do without it? Orange doesn’t seem to ask for it.
Nuts: O yeah, the walnuts. Definitely! Roast them for warmth? Yeah, that would solve a bit.
Cheese: I would consider a blue cheese, but with the sweetness of Balsamic and walnuts it would probably set a (lovely) stark contrast and “drown” the orange out. So that’s a no just to keep our star in mind.
Honey: Just a slight bit to solve the warmth issue.
Step 6: Well, the sage is still not off the table. And I could heat it a bit with the walnuts together. Lets try it.
Step 7: Orange slices, oak leaf lettuce, roasted walnuts with some sage, dressing of oil, balsamic vinegar, pepper, salt and some honey. Now let’s try it. (untested at this moment)
Please let us know how this works for you. And if you have any good salad recipes we always love to hear from you.