My Recipe Box

How to Make a Great Green Salad

Handle the ingredients with care, from the store (or your garden) to the salad plate

by James Peterson

fromFine Cooking
Issue 21

Everyone knows how to make a green salad—just wash, dress, and toss. But few know how to make a really great green salad, like those served in the best restaurants, where tender, fresh greens are handled with care from garden to plate and tossed ever so gently with just the right amount of oil and vinegar. Wonderful salads aren't hard to make; they just require care.

Visit our dedicated section of all things fresh for more salad recipes and a video demonstrating the best way to wash greens. You can also use our app to create your own salad recipe (and share it!). If you're looking for salads fit for a holiday meal, check out the Starters section on our Guide to Thanksgiving Dinner. And, if you missed Laurie Buckle's demo on how easy it is to make your own vinaigrette, watch it now

Start with the freshest greens


With all the varieties of lettuce available, a green salad can take on a whole range of flavors, textures, and colors. My own versions depend on the time of the year and the greens that look best at the market.

In summer, I make salads from equal parts of vibrant basil and slightly peppery arugula. In winter, radicchio, endive, and escarole make one of my favorite after-dinner salads; these bitter greens have a marvelous way of making me feel less full after a heavy meal.

Whatever you choose, start with the freshest greens you can find, those that appear just-picked. Look at them closely, feel them, smell them; if no one's looking, take a small bite. If your heart was set on radicchio but it looks wilted or smells past its prime, pick another slightly bitter green, such as endive or escarole, instead.

Cut the leaves, but keep their shape

I have a horror of salads made with leaves cut into bite-size pieces, a habit that probably evolved in the days when it was considered impolite to eat salad with a knife. If the leaves are cut too small, they lose their distinctive shapes and a lot of their crunch. On the other hand, you don't want to serve giant leaves that won't fit on the plate or that are difficult to maneuver.

Greens with small leaves, such as arugula, basil, purslane, watercress, and young spinach, should be stemmed but the leaves left whole. Larger leaves, from greens such as romaine, large red oak leaf, and escarole, should be trimmed as shown in the photos. Cut away thick, woody stems. Use a sharp knife to slice off stems like those found on arugula and watercress.

To determine the amount of greens needed, figure on about a handful of salad per person; double the amount if the salad is a main course.

  • fca21pe14-01.jpg
    Tear large leaves like romaine and large oak leaf along the central rib; they'll retain more of their character.
  • Trim out tough ribs completely. Fold the leaf lengthwise and gently pull up on the stalk, ripping the rib out as you go.
Wash greens gently
Clean your greens with a brief soak. Gently swirl the leaves in cool water to dislodge any grit, and then lift the greens out with loosely splayed fingers.

Many greens grow in sandy soil. If you don't wash them well, you'll end up with grit in your salad. But simply rinsing your greens under running water won't get rid of all of the dirt. Instead, submerge them in a large bowl or in a sink full of cool water.

Every time a salad leaf is bent, small cracks form on its surface, causing it to wilt, so be gentle when you handle your greens. To get the greens out of their soaking bowl, don't just grab them. Spread your hands out beneath them in the water and let them rest on your hands as you lift them from the water. This method also ensures that you'll leave the grit behind in the bottom of the bowl. Repeat with fresh water until there's no sand left in the bottom of the bowl.

Dry greens completely

Any excess water on the leaves will dilute the flavor of your dressing, which also won't cling well to wet greens. A salad spinner does a good job of drying greens. Don't cram in the greens: instead, dry them in batches. Don't spin too hard or the leaves will be crushed in the spinner. If you don't have a spinner, spread out the leaves on a clean dishtowel and roll them up gently, or pat them gently with another towel.

Get greens good and dry with a salad spinner. After a couple of spins, drain the bowl, rearrange the leaves, and spin again. Repeat until there's no more water in the bowl.

Dress greens simply

I like a simple vinaigrette for my greens. Traditional vinaigrettes consist of three parts oil to one part vinegar or lemon juice. But that ratio will vary depending on the oils and vinegars you use and on your own taste. I almost always increase the amount of oil, for example, if I'm using a strong-flavored vinegar.

For the best flavor, use the highest-quality oils and vinegars you can find. Experiment with different varieties of each. Stronger-flavored oils and vinegars, such as nut oils and balsamic vinegar, are best reserved for heartier greens, such as watercress, arugula, and the chicory family.

The secret to making a vinaigrette is that, most of the time, you don't have to make one at all. To make a traditional vinaigrette, the oil is slowly whisked into the vinegar or the two are shaken together in a closed container to create an emulsion. But when making a tossed salad, the greens can be evenly coated without an emulsion. In fact, I usually dress my salad right in its bowl. I sprinkle the greens with salt, pepper, and vinegar, pour in the oil and toss.

But until you learn to judge the right amounts of oil and vinegar by sight, you might need to measure the ingredients into a separate bowl first. One tablespoon oil to one teaspoon vinegar are the measurements to remember for the traditional ratio.

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Toss until the greens are well-coated. Use two large spoons or your hands for gentle tossing. Taste a leaf, adjust the seasonings, and serve right away.

You can also mix the vinaigrette in the bottom of your salad bowl, cross your salad spoons in the bowl, and then gently lay the greens on top of the spoons. This way, everything is handy to toss at the table, but the greens won't be sitting in the dressing.

Never dress your salad on salad plates. Use a bowl that leaves you plenty of room to toss; any excess oil and vinegar will be left behind in the bowl instead of in a puddle on the plate.

Toss gently but thoroughly. Use your hands or two large spoons to gently turn the greens over in the bowl until they're well coated. Taste a leaf and add a little oil, vinegar, salt, or pepper until the salad is seasoned correctly. Serve the salad immediately or the dressing will cause it to wilt.

Photos: Scott Phillips

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