Anyone going to great lengths to ensure their salad includes fresh, seasonal vegetables and other tasty ingredients shouldn’t leave the dressing as an afterthought. But this is often what happens when preparing a salad. While some people will reach for the same bottle of shop-bought dressing they use for every salad they make, others will whisk up their regular tried and tested favourite dressing regardless of what type of salad they’re serving. But if you want to get the best out of your salad and even elevate it from a side attraction to the main event, it pays to spend a few minutes thinking about how to dress it.
It’s not true that all salads should be dressed immediately before serving. Some salads can withstand being dressed before they are brought to the table; in fact, some salads taste better having sat in a dressing for a while before being served. Any cabbage-based salad or a salad comprising dense ingredients (e.g., carrots, fennel) will stand up to being dressed well before it is eaten. Furthermore, once dressed, salads made from hardier vegetables can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week, which makes them especially useful for packed lunches and picnics.
Most salad greens (e.g., lettuce), however, should be dressed just before serving so they retain their crisp texture.
Bitter salad leaves such as endive, radicchio, and frisée will benefit from a dressing containing fat such as a creamy blue cheese dressing.
More subtle flavoured leaves such as little gem lettuce and bibb (butter) lettuce need a much lighter dressing, usually nothing more than olive oil and red wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Romaine lettuce is versatile; while it can taste good dressed in a heavier creamy dressing, it also works well with a simple oil and balsamic vinaigrette.
Peppery leaves such as arugula need something sweet so a light dressing with honey or maple syrup will help to balance the flavours. Kale is one vegetable that can benefit from sitting in a dressing before being served and keeps, once dressed, for a number of days. Before compiling your salad, massage a little oil, fresh lemon juice, and salt into the kale leaves (minus the leaves’ ribs), as this will help to break down the vegetable’s cellular structure, making it easier to chew. Choose a salad dressing containing acid, as this will also help to soften the vegetable and make it easier to digest.
Grains make a great addition to a salad, providing protein and adding an interesting texture. Use farro, barley, or freekeh. Any gains should be dressed while still warm. Creamy dressings including tahini and yogurt work well with grains.
Wash your salad leaves in a salad spinner if you have one; alternatively, wash the leaves in a sieve or colander and then carefully blot them with a clean tea towel or kitchen paper. Make sure your salad leaves are dry, as any water will prevent oil from sticking to them.
Don’t underestimate the importance of salt and pepper when preparing both salad and dressing. Flaky sea salt is best for salad and should be added just before serving, as it draws moisture from salad leaves and those vegetables with a high water content (e.g., cucumber), so if you add salt to a salad and don’t serve it immediately. You may find that when you do come to eat it the vegetables are soggy. Finer sea salt works well in a dressing.
Use your hands to toss the salad in the dressing so you can feel when the leaves are coated. Spend as much time on making your salad dressing as you do creating your salad and there’s every chance that your salad will rival any main dish on the table.