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Ahh, the salad. This deskside lunch staple has a reputation for being for being healthy but not very interesting. But it doesn’t have to be that way! Salads, at their very core, are just a bed of greens topped with whatever you want. Really, they’re a blank slate.
Salads should be more than a bunch of raw veggies tossed in bottled Italian dressing. They should be a playful medley of salty, sweet, crunchy, fresh, rich and, yes, green. From making your own croutons out of bread, tortillas or pita to adding surprising, fresh ingredients — berries! seasonal vegetables! — here are 15 ways to take your sad desk or dinner salad from meh to marvelous.
The best way to make an ordinary salad extraordinary is to ditch all of those bottled dressings and start making your own. Start by making homemade vinaigrettes. You can keep it simple with a lemony Italian vinaigrette or a robust balsamic, or you can get creative with a honey-lime vinaigrette, miso vinaigrette or fresh dill vinaigrette.
Once you master mixing up vinaigrettes, it’s time to move to making creamy salad dressings. A homemade Caesar dressing has a saltiness and umami flavor from anchovies that you can't find in a bottle, while a homemade ranch made with herbs has bursts of freshness that cut through the sour cream and mayo. You can also try your hand at making a green goddess dressing or a creamy dressing loaded with garlic.
Iceberg, romaine and spinach typically monopolize salad bowls. While they’re good enough go-to greens, they can get boring pretty quickly since they don’t offer a ton of flavor. Shake up your greens; arugula or watercress can add a sharp peppery bite, radicchio can add a bit of bitterness and kale can add a sturdy texture and earthy flavor — plus a nutritional boost — to your meal. Experiment with your greens; your new favorite might surprise you.
Texture is the name of the game when it comes to upping your salad game, and one of the best ways to do it while adding protein and nutrients is by adding a 1/4 cup or so of cooked ancient grains. It doesn’t matter which grain you prefer. It can be quinoa, bulgar, farro, barley, freekeh or something else entirely.
If you think salads are boring, that’s because they’re likely missing something soul-satisfying and rich. Avocado makes your Chipotle bowl taste better, doesn’t it? So, of course, this creamy favorite ingredient will take even the most basic kale salad to another level. If avocado isn’t your thing, add some needed fat via hummus, cottage cheese, bacon, hard-boiled or poached eggs or anything else with healthy, scrumptious fats.
Topping your lettuce with croutons is Salad Building 101, but making your own croutons is expert-salad-builder stuff. And it’s actually super-duper easy. One of the best uses to finish off a loaf of bread or pack of buns, these homemade croutons can be tossed in your favorite spices. This recipe keeps it simple with garlic, oregano and basil. And you can add smoky paprika, fiery cayenne or nutty cumin to add a new dimension to this favorite salad component.
Taking your salad from side to star begins with adding a protein. We’ve all seen hundreds of salads with grilled chicken, but you can be much more creative than that. Use leftover prime rib from holiday dinners or steak from date night in salads with roasted sweet potatoes and Brussels for a hearty meal. Bison, a lean red meat, is also fabulous on top of a salad. You can also use lobster in place of chicken on a cobb salad or use shrimp in place of a more expected protein, like tuna or salmon.
The best salads have a bit of a twist, like some added sweetness from fruit. No, we’re not talking about that “salad that isn’t a salad” fruit salad. We’re talking about tossing some sweet fruit to that bed of lettuce. Strawberries, blueberries, mango, peaches, pomegranate, fresh or dried figs and dried cranberries all add a bright flavor and beautiful color to your greens.
We’ve all had salads with carrots, radishes, tomatoes and onions on them. While those ingredients are great and add some much-needed crispiness, you can get far more creative. Roasted sweet potatoes, grilled white potatoes, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, mushrooms and corn all add tons of texture, color and flavor to a salad. You can also flip classic ingredients on their head. Try roasting your carrots before adding them to your salad, or add some extra acidity by pickling your onions.
Seeds and nuts may be classic salad toppings but their contribution to your bowl should not be underestimated. Nuts and seeds are among the foods you need to eat every day; as they provide healthy fat, protein, potassium, magnesium and other minerals essential for a healthy diet. Plus, they add sweetness and texture to salads. Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, walnuts, pine nuts, almonds and pecans are all great options.
If you’re looking for a creative way to use leftover pita bread or tortillas, brush them with a little olive oil and seasoning, toast them in the oven and add them to your salad. Tortilla chips are great for a Mexican-inspired salad with grilled steak, fajita veggies, corn, jalapenos and a spicy ranch, while pita is the base for a Middle Eastern salad.
Fresh herbs, especially ones picked from your garden, will make any dish taste phenomenal, including salads. Parsley can add lightness to a hearty salad filled with lamb, eggs and walnuts while basil can add plenty of provencal flair to a summertime salad with roasted peppers and whitefish. For a true burst of flavor, add a mix of chopped fresh herbs like parsley, cilantro, dill, basil and mint — or whatever you have on hand.
Even the most basic Italian salad will taste 100% better if you use fresh, seasonal, local ingredients. An heirloom tomato ripened on the vine in the middle of summer will be juicy and meaty; springtime radishes from a local farm will have a particular snappiness and peppery taste and cauliflower and kale in the fall will be extra crunchy. If you’re not sure what’s in season, check out our month-by-month guide.
The absolute, all-time best salads have something completely surprising in them. They also don’t yunderestimate the importance of salt and acid. Get creative with your salad and add capers, green or black olives, salsa, pickled jalapenos or other pickled veggies to add some intrigue. Chances are, those are the fun elements missing from your salad.
We eat with our eyes before we eat with, well, our mouths. You may be used to just tossing all your salad ingredients into a giant bowl and calling it a day. Taking a few extra minutes to plate your meal will truly take it to the next level. If you’re taking your salad into the office or school, consider layering it in a jar for a fun and pretty presentation. If you’re plating at home, alternate colors on your plate, like this pretty citrus salad recipe recommends. And now that you know the elements to making a great salad, expand upon that creativity by trying out our 50 favorite salad and salad dressing recipes.
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