The salad leaves used at Gage & Tollner come from local farms and change every week. Sometimes it’s beautiful radicchio, other times it’s frisée; mustard greens are often featured. “Each leaf has its own integrity and flavor and composition,” Kim says, which is why when you’re making a salad, you should taste the leaves as you go. Such careful consideration is essential to finding the right dressing; at Gage & Tollner, that’s an aged sherry vinegar with a smattering of shallots that gives the mixed greens, in Kim’s words, “that je ne sais quoi.”
At Wm. Mulherin’s Sons in Philadelphia, the culinary director Jim Burke leans into a kaleidoscopic mix of lettuces. “There are so many different varieties, and they have such different characteristics, each one of them,” he says. “So by mixing and matching, you can really curate the kind of flavor and texture profiles you’re looking for.” And to dress? Lemon, roasted garlic, olive oil and salt. No pepper. “Pepper I don’t use freely,” he says. “I think a lot of restaurants do that, where you have salt and previously ground pepper right next to each other all the time. But pepper is an extraordinarily assertive flavor. It doesn’t have a place in everything, especially with delicate leaves.”
The variety of textures and flavors in Burke’s green salad is a delight, but even more delicious is how cold the vegetables are when they land on your plate. That’s because after washing the greens, he chills them in wide containers in the refrigerator, so they’re not piled on top of one another and can dry effectively. This may be the best trick in Burke’s green-salad playbook, a quiet but powerful extra step to elevate your salads at home: After washing and drying your greens, pop them in the refrigerator, covered with a tea towel, and keep them chilled until right before you’re ready to dress them. While the washed lettuce hangs out in the fridge, you can continue preparing the rest of dinner. By the time everything has cooked, your salad leaves will be crisper than crisp and cooler than cool, a pleasurable cacophony of textures, shyly slicked with a film of salt, acid and oil.
The keyword here is slicked, not drowned. One of the most common errors home cooks make with salad is overdressing it, says Andrew Taylor, a chef and owner of Eventide Oyster Co. in Portland, Maine. Spicy greens, in particular, can be delicate. “If you overdo it, you’ll just find yourself with a sodden mass of greens,” he says. He has also noticed that a lot of home cooks are afraid of oil and don’t use enough of it — and worse, use too much vinegar, which causes the flavor to be overly harsh, plus the acid quickly deteriorates the greens. He recommends a classic ratio for vinaigrettes: one part vinegar (or citrus juice) to three parts oil. At Eventide, the green salad is dressed in a light nori vinaigrette, echoing the sea with each saline bite. The salad is bejeweled with pickled vegetables, which are reminiscent of the sweet radishes that come with Korean fried chicken. I’d never had a green salad that tasted so much like home.
When it comes to making a great salad, knowing which levers to suppress is as important as knowing which ones to pull.