When was the last time you had a truly enjoyable fruit salad? In my experience, they are few and far between. Most versions are a mishmash of randomly tossed together fruit — neither attractive nor delicious — which is a shame because fresh fruit salads can be lovely desserts. To ensure that mine live up to their full potential, I employ two simple tricks: I follow certain rules about which fruits can go together, and I toss the fruit with an infused syrup to add an unexpected but complementary flavor twist.
Keep related fruits together
I like to put berries with berries, melons with melons, stone fruit with stone fruit. This “like with like” approach might be surprising — contrast and variety is usually a good thing — but with fruit salads, choosing similar fruits makes a more texturally appealing dessert. When you start tossing lots of very diverse fruits together, their textures tend to blur (think crisp apple tossed with ripe banana) and you lose the sense of each individual fruit’s character.
Within one category of fruit, there are usually enough options to keep the flavors interesting. In the berry family, you’ve got strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries. There are half a dozen or more melons to choose from for a melon salad; stone fruits include peaches, nectarines, apricots, pluots, and plums (plus specific varieties, such as red plums, black plums, Italian plums). You could make a tropical fruit salad with a variety of papayas and mangos, or one with pineapple, kiwi, and starfruit.
An infused syrup gives an aromatic accent
To deliver a subtle aroma and intriguing flavor, I toss the fruit with a sugar syrup that I’ve infused with a complementary flavor. In the recipes here, I’ve chosen fresh ginger, fresh rosemary, fresh thyme, and vanilla bean. You could also try mint or tarragon or another fresh herb, lemon zest or another citrus zest, lemongrass, or even lavender. The one caveat with infused syrups is to not use too much. The more you add, the sweeter the salad will be, and that’s good, but only up to a point. As you’re drizzling on the syrup, imagine that you’re dressing a green salad and use just enough to coat the fruit lightly.
Infused syrups keep for two weeks in the refrigerator. You can use extra syrup in iced tea, lemonade, smoothies, or yogurt.
Make and serve
I won’t lie to you: Fruit salads aren’t great make-ahead desserts. Ripe, fresh fruit starts to break down fairly quickly after it has been cut up, so plan on making them just before serving (although the syrups should be made ahead and chilled). If you do need to prepare them an hour or so ahead, put each fruit variety in its own bowl and keep refrigerated.