Why Restaurant Salads Taste Better, According to Chefs
I think about salads in terms of their components: the stackable building blocks that are laid down to ultimately make that initial forkful as enticing as the last. Looking back on my 15 years in the restaurant industry, I never thought my lasting expertise would be in salad assembly, but here we are. Before we get to the reasons why restaurant salads taste better (most of the time), here's how salad-making became the primary skill in my culinary wheelhouse.
Many aspiring chefs enter the restaurant world with dreams of becoming an executive chef with a team of loyal cooks supporting their epicurean vision. They picture awards and accolades lining the walls of their fine establishment where compliments to the chef flow as freely as the wine in the dining room. Well, not this gal! All I hoped for was not to get yelled at, and to see if I could fly as far under the radar as possible. That attitude gets a young cook a permanent tenure in garde manger—a French term that translates to "keep to eat." It references the pantry and its preserved and cold foods. In today's restaurants, the garde manger station prepares salads and cold appetizers. That is how I spent my early days in professional kitchens, elbows deep in buckets of greens, surrounded by squirt bottles and pans of dressings—and bowls, so many bowls. Through years of repetition, I learned a thing or two.
Before I get into any details, I want to mention that a restaurant salad can only be delicious if it is not considered an afterthought. The end result is the direct manifestation of the effort that is put into its creation. With that in mind, let's check out the secrets to salad-making, without ever having to helm the garde manger station at a restaurant.
Choosing the Ingredients
"The most important thing for me in a salad is crisp, fresh greens," says Chef Joseph Buenconsejo, with whom I co-own Rooted Seeds Catering in Danbury, Connecticut. "They add texture and are the body of the salad." When shopping for salad ingredients, look for the freshest produce you can find. Treat yourself like you're a VIP at your favorite restaurant. The lettuce should be green, the carrots should be firm, the radishes vibrant. Shop with standards, as if the chef is looking over your shoulder. If you're allowed to, feel the produce and ask for a taste. Get greens and other produce that's at its peak-season freshness, and let that dictate what's in your salad. In other words, keep an open mind. As a bonus, buying produce at peak season will also likely be when it's at its least expensive.
Don't buy ingredients too far ahead of when you plan to prepare the salad. But if it's convenient to do so, make sure you're storing them correctly.
Bottom line: If the veggies look sad in the store, no amount of balsamic can make them happy at home.
Prepping the Ingredients
First things first, give your hands a good washing.
Greens and veggies should be rinsed in cold water and then dried in a salad spinner or on dish towels (or do it the Ina Garten way). If you have pre-washed greens, sift through them to get rid of the browning greens, if there are any. The greens should be as dry as possible in order for the dressing or vinaigrette to adhere to them properly for even seasoning. Also, be sure to keep your ingredients in the fridge until you're ready to add them to the salad. Tepid or warm ingredients are the enemy of most good salads—the refreshing and crisp ones!
Choosing the Dressing
Store-bought dressing can usually do the trick, but making dressings or vinaigrettes at home may be easier than you think. Plus, then you have control over important aspects of a dressing like the sodium level. And, last time I looked, the price for a 16-ounce jar of a popular balsamic vinaigrette was upward of $9. So, shaking up your own could save money too.
When you're ready to make your salad, pour some dressing (whichever one you prefer or prepared) into a small, chilled bowl and give it a taste. Could that vinaigrette use some freshly cracked black pepper? Lemon zest or juice? Maybe that carrot-ginger dressing could use a splash of fresh orange juice. Seasoning, or re-seasoning, your dressing can go a long way.
A Note on Even Distribution
I am a firm believer that if an ingredient is on top of a salad, then it should also be in the middle and on the bottom (please excuse this brief rant)! Even distribution is key when putting together a thoroughly enjoyable salad.
If I toast pecans for a salad, l want them all over the place, so that each bite can have that nutty, satisfying crunch. So, really get in there when tossing your salad (more on that below). Use your fingers to make sure everything is being gently coated by the dressing. Slide on some gloves, if you like! Just make sure you achieve even distribution.
Assembling the Salad
Use a large mixing bowl
So let's put everything together. You will need a LARGE mixing bowl. I cannot stress this enough. I have seen many cooks sacrifice even distribution because the bowl they were using was too small to handle a thorough tossing, compromising the flavor of the entire salad! If you think your bowl is big enough, get a bigger one. Usually, I will only fill a bowl about halfway or up to three-quarters full with salad ingredients.
Chill your serving dishes
Once all your ingredients are in your large mixing bowl (except for the dressing), set out your serving plates, bowls or platters. Unless you're making a warm salad, those serving vessels should be chilled. Too often, I have found myself with a dressing-dripping glove on while reaching for plates or bowls, inadvertently smearing vinaigrette on my cabinets and the serving vessels. Avoid that mess. Plus, salad is time-sensitive, and having your serving plates chilled and at the ready will save time and enable you to deliver fresher salad.
Season the greens & vegetables
Your dressing or vinaigrette may be perfectly seasoned but when added to unseasoned or raw vegetables, the overall taste of the salad may turn out bland. Chef Sagar Bishwokarma of Smashing Grapes in Annapolis, Maryland, says, "Season as you go, every element of a salad, or any dish really, so that the final product is perfectly seasoned."
This also creates layers of flavor, giving your salad depth. Another way to add layers is by adding prepared ingredients to your salad like pickles, marinated or grilled veggies, or anything brined, like olives or capers.
Oh, and be sure to save some of your salad ingredients (aside from the greens) for finishing touches before serving (more on that in a sec).
Add the dressing & toss
After you've seasoned the ingredients, add some dressing, starting with a modest amount and tossing gently with your washed hands or with a wooden spoon and fork to fluff the greens from the bottom up. Once the dressing is thoroughly incorporated, coating all the ingredients, give the salad a taste. Dressings should always be added sparingly because while more can always be added, if overdressed, it cannot be taken away. (Even croutons may be tossed with the dressing, as long as the salad won't be sitting out long.)
Plate the salad
If you like what you taste, then let's plate! Instead of dumping the contents of the bowl onto a platter, gently lay the salad one handful at a time. Start with a wider base, then build on that base to stack the salad. Restaurants love to plate food with height—get it fluffy! A thoughtfully composed salad is always more appetizing than one quickly dumped onto a plate.
Add finishing touches
Lastly, I like to add some of the ingredients that were used throughout the salad after plating is completed. Garnishing the salad like this gives it visual appeal and color, plus, it lets whoever is eating the salad know what delicious things are folded into the greens.
So remember, when getting your next salad together, think about choosing fresh ingredients, keeping everything in cold storage, and focusing on seasoning and even distribution! Make sure your big mixing bowl is big enough, and taste as you go. When you're set to plate, do it quickly but mindfully, and your salad will be restaurant-chef approved.