Have you ever had a restaurant salad that just took your breath away? One where everything is in balance, it’s not gasping for life under a soggy dressing, and the lettuce is crackly-crisp and tender as angel wings? You can do that at home, too.
Here are three easy steps to rescue your salads from being sad and pathetic, including a fast and easy no-measure Classic French Vinaigrette. You’ll see how fun and easy it is to take that basic ratio and create an infinite variety of vinaigrette options.
Dry Leaves for a Crisp Salad
Whether you wash your lettuce leaves or use pre-washed, thoroughly drying them will help make your salad restaurant-quality. I pile my washed greens into the center of a thin dish towel, fold the long edges over the leaves, gather the corners into my fist and walk outside.
Here’s where it gets weird. I stand in the grass swinging the dishtowel of lettuce around and around in huge arm circles like we did in grade-school calisthenics. The centrifugal force is enough to make and water fly out, but not harsh enough to maul the leaves. My neighbors think I’m a total nut. This is the price I pay for perfect salad.
Dry leaves accept a light coating of vinaigrette, and the salad will go to the table with its crisp crunch that won’t fade through the meal.
Dry lettuce makes an amazing difference. And, hey, you get in a little exercise.
Dress and Toss For Success
Yes, your homemade vinaigrette makes an enormous difference, but the quantity you use is just as critical to a memorable salad.
With a great big bowl of lettuce-based salad and a nice homemade Classic French Vinaigrette, you likely need only one or two Tablespoons of dressing. This is true.
You won’t believe it until you start tossing. And tossing, and tossing. Using two large spoons, gently turn your leaves over and over and over. In a minute, you’ll see the dressing not dripping and puddling in the bowl– it will be evenly clinging ever-so-gently on all the surfaces of the lettuce without bogging it down.
Lightly-dressed, your salad becomes a fresh and bouncy salad that is softly flavored with the lovely vinaigrette, as perfect salad was made to be.
A little bit of great vinaigrette, a lot of tossing. Try it!
Go Easy on Add-Ins
I love a salad that’s loaded with vegetables, fruits, cheeses, nuts, croutons, and the works, but that can put a lot of pressure on your tender lettuce. There are a few ways you can remedy this.
One way is to simply go lighter with your added ingredients, as in the salad below.
Secondly, if you plan to toss the salad before serving, put heavy add-ins in the bottom of your bowl, then top with the lettuces and dressing, tossing the lettuce without spooning down to the other ingredients. In the last toss or two, scoop down to bring the heavier ingredients up to the top, and serve with dispatch.
Thirdly, toss your lettuce with your fantastic homemade vinaigrette and arrange it on a platter. Now place your other vegetables and ingredients into the bowl, add a little dressing, and toss them separately before gently placing them on the lettuce. Once again, serve right away.
Lastly, my favorite way to keep heavy ingredients from collapsing the life out of the lettuce is especially nice if you need to make the salad a little ahead of serving. Toss the lettuce and dressing and place on a serving platter. Mound each separate ingredient on your cutting board and drizzle each one with a few drops of dressing and toss it with your hands before moving on the the next. Take each separate pile of goodies and make a little space between the leaves and place it there. Be an artist and arrange these colorful piles around the lettuce.
This last method is perfect for gatherings and parties. Create some gorgeous salad-as-a-meal platters that present beautifully, and either toss it together tableside, or allow your fellow diners to select and build their own plates from your creation.
One Set of Ratios, Infinite Options
This no-measure recipe offers you a few measurements as guidance to get you started, but soon you’ll just grab a spoon, a jar and a knife and whip dressings and marinades out like you’re the garde-manger of your favorite French restaurant.
Classic French Vinaigrette and Infinite Variations
- Small clear glass jar
Classic French Vinaigrette
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- ½ – 1 small shallot, finely minced
- salt and pepper to taste Kosher salt dissolves easiest, but any salt is good
- lemon juice, white wine vinegar or red wine vinegar
- good quality olive oil the flavor is prominent in this dressing, so use the best you have
Mustard Fig Vinaigrette
- 1 teaspoon grainy mustard Inglehoffer Stone Ground is really good, but any kind will be wonderful
- 1 teaspoon fig jam Trader Joes almost always carries this
- salt and pepper to taste
- sherry or champagne vinegar
- olive oil use the best you have
Balsamic Herb Dressing
- 3 cloves fresh garlic, minced or to taste
- 2 teaspoons fresh oregano and/or basil, finely chopped
- ½ – 1 small shallot, minced
- salt and pepper to taste
- Balsamic vinegar
- olive oil use the best you have
For each of the three variations and all of your own creations:
- In the bottom of the jar, put all of the ingredients except the vinegar and olive oil. Be generous with the salt– it's the only salt all your salad vegetables will get!
- Eyeballing it, pour vinegar into the jar until is about ⅓ full.
- Eyeballing it again, pour in about the same amount of the olive oil as vinegar and other ingredients until the jar is ⅔ full. Screw the lid on tightly (very important!) and shake like heck.
- Viola! You've made a fabulous vinaigrette!
- A word about proportions: We're working in equal proportions of vinegar + aromatics/sweeteners to olive oil. To make less vinaigrette, fill the jar with fewer aromatic ingredients and vinegar. Then just match the height of olive oil in the jar to the height of the things in the bottom of the jar. (If your aromatics and vinegar come ¼ of the way up the jar, add about that same amount of oil to make the jar only half full. Sometimes I only want a tiny bit of vinaigrette for just one salad, and I may only put ¼" of flavorful ingredients and vinegar in the bottom of the jar, topped off with ¼" of olive oil. It's all a matter of ratios, not a matter of strict measurements!
- any mustard, except yellow
- any chopped fresh or dried herbs
- smashed strawberries, blackberries, or blueberries
- green onion
- jam or jelly
- date syrup
- rice syrup
- maple syrup
- a touch of sugar
- any kind of citrus juice
- almost any kind of vinegar
- red wine, white wine, sherry or champagne
- apple cider
- fruit and berry varieties
- rice and rice wine
- balsamic and white balsamic
- high quality olive oil
- neutral-flavored vegetable or canola oil
- a few drops of sesame oil in addition to one of the above