Salad principles are simple: clean, dry, ultra-fresh lettuce, and a straightforward dressing to help wilt that lettuce just enough to make it palatable.

But while they may be minimal, there’s an art to mastering the classic side dish. It’s easy

Salad Principles, Part 1: Clean, Dry Greens

You gotta dry your greens, kids.

I do buy boxed greens, especially baby spinach for smoothies, because spinach is annoying to clean. But there is tremendous variety in the plants that one can serve—thoroughly cleaned, spun dry, lightly crisped, refreshingly cold—in this thing called Salad.

Two possible approaches to dinner salads

Click for a great guide to making your own salad mixes from Bon Appetit.

If you do make your own mixes, and/or are lucky enough to get lettuce from a garden or local farmer, you need to wash the greens in 3-4 changes of water. Only when the washing water is clear—you won’t believe the interesting things that get caught in the folds of lettuce—do you then subject your leaves to a hearty spin. If there are any kids around, they LOVE this part. Make them salad spinners in chief. Then wrap the dry greens in a clean kitchen towel, and put the towel in a plastic bag. Voila! Salad, ready to be dressed, every night.

Don’t be tempted to just tear off a leaf or two and throw it in a bowl with some dressing. The greens get crisper when they’ve been washed and dried, and there’s also the critter/dirt factor. Biting into grit is a nasty experience.

Salad Principles, Part 2: A Simple Dressing

Salad dressing is so easy to make, and you can tailor it perfectly to whatever you’re serving. The flavor’s in the fat, as many a cook will tell you. A small bit of top quality olive oil cut with an even smaller amount of acid, whether of the citrus or vinegar families, turns a bout of dutiful roughage chewing into a sensual palate cleanser. That’s the goal, right? Nourishing the senses and the body at once.

But do not, under any circumstances, buy salad dressing. It’s got weird stuff in it. Have you ever in your life thought, “I’m REALLY craving some xantham gum!”?

And salad dressing is so ridiculously easy. The simplest of all is the classic French vinaigrette. My kitchen-stained and ancient copy of The Silver Palate Good Times cookbook contains this easy to remember formula, know as the four people needed to make a vinaigrette:

  • A miser with the vinegar
  • A spendthrift with the oil
  • A wise woman with the salt
  • A madman with the pepper

Pretty self-explanatory. Be stingy with the vinegar or citrus juice, generous with the oil. The standard ratio is 1:3, but 1:4 on up to 1:8 can yield a superb dressing. Salt and pepper are very much to taste, but in general exercise a judicious hand with the former and a free hand with the latter.

Now, let’s say you see a dandy looking salad in some magazine. Just keep your salad principles in mind and check that acid to oil ratio. I often see recipes where acid and oil are mixed in equal amounts, a guarantee of soggy, lackluster greens overpowered by too much pucker-making liquid.

Salad Principles, Part 3: No Water. EVER.

Even worse, sometimes salad dressing recipes call for water. NEVER DO THIS. If you see a salad recipe that looks attractive but has water and/or a high proportion of liquid that’s not oil in the salad dressing, I beg you to NOT USE THE WATER and scale liquid way back to the minimum 3 parts oil to one part liquid proportion.

Wilted, wet greens are gross. I love water to drink; it is absolutely the worst thing in the world to add to a bowl of raw vegetables. Lettuce and other leaves—spinach, chard, arugula—are delicate. A mixture of oil, salt, and acid wilts your greens a little, making them a more manageable volume to eat. Water just drowns them. Yuk.

This is what simple vinaigrette looks like before adding pieces of flair and greens to it. NO WATER.

Vinaigrette made according to salad principles, with greens and tomatoes standing by.

The exception to the no water rule is some Asian salad dressings. Often, by the time you add soy sauce and a little liquid sweetener (often the rice-based wine mirin), you are ending up with a dressing on the liquid side. Keep in mind that many Asian salads feature naturally crisp and sturdy veggies like cabbage and carrots, and some protein and/or noodles, all of which can stand up to a hearty pour. But delicate lettuce is miserable if it gets wet. That’s why we say someone wilts under pressure. We don’t mean they become delicious. We mean they become a mess.

Salad Principles, Part 4: Adapting Recipes.

The rule with following a salad dressing recipe: Be careful. Recipes that yield a large amount of salad dressing often are meant to be used sparingly, so don’t dump it all in your bowl. Add a small amount, toss gently but joyfully, and only then, after you’ve tasted and determined that you need a little more, add some. And for those folks who think soggy food is awesome, bring the extra to the table in a cruet and let them trash their own meal. Enable if you must, but set a good example.

For those who like to see proportions spelled out, I offer the following recipe, cautioning that it is meant to be adapted to your taste. Steve’s favorite vinaigrette, which he makes fresh every time he’s in charge of salad, has pesto. I am fond of a bite-y fine mustard, like Dijon or an artisan one we pick up someplace or other. Artisan mustard is cool stuff. Either substance (not both, please) adds a nice bang of flavor to your greens, and, while optional, I feel that without them, the salad’s a little naked and edging into “Eat the Damn Thing, It’s Good For You” territory. I find the surest way to not eat something is because I Should. The best way is because I Want. Experiment away and discover the combo that is unmistakably yours.