Cooking Techniques: Lettuce Salads

website salads

“There’s a reason your favorite restaurant puts grated carrots on the salads.”

I came home from my family vacation to find a phone message waiting for me. A friend wanted to know if her husband was correct:  Does cutting lettuce make it brown more quickly?

I had to laugh because my own husband and I have the same discussion every time I make salad. He was a “professional” salad maker at a restaurant as a teenager where he was taught to always rip the lettuce, not cut. I, on the other hand, prefer to cut my lettuce for salad.

The fact: whether you cut or tear, your lettuce will eventually brown around the edges, no faster or slower one way or the other. Numerous reputable chefs have tested the “browning” theory and found no difference; yet the myth persists. Hence the continuing debate between me and my husband for over 20 years!

My friend’s question got me thinking, though, about salads in general. While cutting or tearing makes no difference to how quickly your lettuce browns, it does affect both the taste and texture of salads. In fact, how we choose to cut all the vegetables we put into a salad makes an enormous difference. So, I thought it might be nice to write a post on salads.

For me, salad is not just a side dish you eat because you’re supposed to be healthy. It is a dish worth preparing with time, care, and thought to the ingredients going into it. Salads can be as versatile as everyone’s preferences dictate. How you make a salad affects the taste and how aesthetically pleasing it is to your other senses as well. Made well, it’s a wonderful addition to a meal or a meal in and of itself.

In addition, salad is very friendly to most dietary restrictions and food allergies because 1) vegetables are healthy and good for you to eat and 2) you can make a salad with what you can eat and leave out what you can’t.

Lettuce, Greens, and Spinach: There are a variety of lettuces to choose from for salad:  romaine, bib, green leaf, red leaf, escarole, chicory, frisee, raddicchio, mesclune, butter, Boston, iceberg. The list goes one. The best salads are a mix of different types of lettuce because you accost your taste buds with different textures and tastes and nutrients. That’s why those bagged mixed leaf lettuces are so popular.

I would recommend, though, that unless you really and truly have a love for iceberg lettuce, opt for some of the other varieties for your salads. Iceberg lettuce really is only good for providing water to your diet, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s the most tasteless of the lettuce lot.

Adding spinach to your salad, however, is always a plus because it’s so nutrient rich. In the same way, using other greens like arugula and kale and turnip greens are a wonderful way to add to and enhance the taste and texture of the lettuce in your salad. For some of these, though, you may want to be judicious in the amount you add, because too much may make your salad too bitter. You want to balance the tastes for the most savory eating experience.

As for cutting versus tearing: If you slice your lettuce into thin strips, the dressing can more easily cover the lettuce. This is why cabbage for cole slaw is always cut into strips. If you tear or leave your lettuce in leaf shape sizes, the dressing will get caught in the small crevices of the lettuce leaves or slowly drip downward off a large part of a lettuce leaf. Some people like their dressing only partly covering their lettuce. Others prefer more coverage.

Also, if you slice the lettuce into smaller strips, you can more easily combine the other sliced vegetables with the lettuce. Slicing does, however, increase the amount of lettuce you need for your salad. This is why restaurant salads are always served to you with larger lettuce leaves. It looks like you’re getting more for your money.

You’ll notice, though, that because restaurants do serve leaf lettuce that all your other vegetables are simply put on top in large slices, because it is more difficult to “mix” the vegetables into a leaf lettuce salad. Again, some people prefer to eat their salad vegetables separately, one at a time. I like my veggies to be mixed altogether in each savory bite.

Carrots, Jicama, and Cabbage: Most restaurants put grated carrots on top of a salad. This is because it stretches the carrot, allowing them to use a smaller amount per salad, but it also is more flavorful in a salad. If you shred carrots, jicama, or cabbage it will more easily incorporate into a salad, allowing their flavors to meld with the lettuce without overpowering the lettuce. This also gives your salad some pretty color, especially if you opt for different colored and types of these vegetables. My husband always grows pretty purple, red, orange, pink and white carrots for us which make our salads simply beautiful.

Sometimes you’ll find the carrots, jicama or cabbage in shaved shapes. This is more for effect, to be pleasing to the eye – though, shaved carrots do have a nice texture for eating.

If you want to simply cut carrots or cabbage into pieces, it’s always worth the time to slice them thinly. It can be rather unpleasant for the taste and for the mouth to suddenly bite into a chunk of carrot or cabbage when eating your salad.

Cucumbers and Radishes: Restaurants love to make pretty flowers out of radishes and to place artistically peeled cucumbers on top of salads. If you’re artistic, go for it! For the best taste, though, I prefer to cut cucumbers in half, scoop the seeds out, and then thinly slice the cucumber. The resulting quarter moon shape looks pretty in a salad, and the thin cucumber pieces are easy to eat and give just the right amount of crisp to a salad without being overly chunky.

Radishes have a strong flavor, so if you’re going to actually put them into your salad instead of just using it as a pretty garnish, shredding a small amount or thinly slicing just one radish or two is enough to add some flavor without overpowering the rest of the ingredients.

Broccoli and Cauliflower: People are very split when it comes to adding these cruciferous vegetables to salads. In their raw form, they can be chunky and detracting to a salad. If you’re going to put them in a salad raw, the most pleasing texture and taste is to chop them into thin pieces.

What I like to do is to do a quick blanch where you put them into boiling water just for a few minutes to bring out their beautiful color and to slightly soften them. Then when you slice them into bite size pieces and add them to your salad, they won’t be too hard, too chunky or displeasing to the eye.

Zucchini and Summer Squash: These are lovely additions to a salad, especially if you grow them or purchase them small in size. The smaller they are, the more sweet and tasty they are. You can chop them into thin, bite size pieces and add them to your salad for some wonderful color and added texture and taste.

If the only varieties you can get are large, though, you’re best doing as I suggest for the cucumbers: halve the zucchini and/or squash, scoop out the seeds, and thinly slice them to achieve those quarter moon shapes.

You can also do as you might with the broccoli or cauliflower and blanch them before slicing into thin, bite size pieces.

Sprouts: Green sprouts, lentil sprouts, alfalfa sprouts, bean sprouts, radish sprouts, pumpkins sprouts. There are many types which can add lovely texture and taste to a salad. For most, I recommend simply chopping them as you would an herb and adding to your salad.

For bean sprouts, though, some people prefer them slightly cooked, so blanching them before cutting would eliminate that hard, raw taste. If you like them raw, though, chopping them into smaller pieces makes them easier to eat.

For all sprouts, though, you should tailor the amount to your taste preference. Some can have a sharper bite to them which some people like and others prefer in smaller amounts.

Peppers: Peppers are a lovely addition to a salad because you can add beautiful color by using red, purple, orange, yellow, and green peppers and you change up the taste by using hot or sweet peppers. It’s always best to seed your peppers. One, the seeds aren’t pleasant to bite into in a salad. Two, they aren’t pretty in a salad.

For peppers, how you slice them is all about the texture and taste you prefer. I like to slice my thinly and into small bite size pieces so they can be mixed well into the salad to incorporate their color and their taste. Some people prefer their peppers in square chunks. To stretch a pepper, you can chop one into tiny pieces and mix them throughout a salad, much like shredded carrots. This adds a pleasant taste and some color without using too much of your pepper supply.

Tomatoes: Tomatoes come in so many varieties that you can add color and taste and texture to any salad simply by using a couple of different types. For most tomatoes, though, you should plan to add them to the top only of your salad just before serving. If you leave tomatoes mixed into a salad for too long, they make your salad too moist and cause it to wilt.

For smaller tomatoes like cherry and grape and pear, I like to slice them in half and sprinkle them across the top of the salad because it’s pretty that way. For larger tomatoes, you should cut them into bit size pieces. Restaurants always give you just one or two large quarters, because they’re trying to save on money, but I know you find those hard to eat and moan as you try to cut them with your knife and they fly across your plate!

Other Vegetables: The list can go on because there are so many more delicious vegetables out there! The tip is this: No matter the vegetable, decide what you want it to do for your salad. Is it going to add color? Is it going to add texture? Is it going to add additional flavor or taste? Is it doing all three?

Once you know the answer to the above, then you can decide how it will best add the color, taste or texture. Should you thinly slice it? Should you chop it into bite size pieces? Should you chop it into tiny pieces to incorporate into the salad? Do you need a lot of it? Do you only need a small amount? Should you blanch it first or use it raw? Once you decide, then just do it.

Seasoning and Additions: Once you’ve chopped, sliced, diced and grated all your wonderful vegetables, you’re not necessarily done. You can add other items to your salad to amplify it’s taste, color and texture.

Seeds, Nuts, Fruits, and Beans: Different types of seeds like pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds and sunflower seeds make tasty additions to salads. They add crunch and good nutrients.

Nuts, if you’re not allergic, are also quite tasty in salads and have good nutrients as well. Just make sure not to use too much because they can be high in fat. Slicing or chopping them into thin pieces can stretch them and add flavor without needing to use too much.

Beans like chickpeas and kidney beans and black-eyed peas and white beans are great in salads. It’s best that they’re cooked, though. *grin*

Fruit like dried apricots or cranberries or fresh blueberries or strawberries or sliced oranges or grapes all make for a tasty salad, too. It’s always best to add these at the last minute, though, because like the tomatoes, they can wilt your salad if left in for too long.

Herbs, onions, celery and garlic add lovely taste to a salad. It’s always best to thinly slice these or chop them into tiny pieces so you can best incorporate their flavor throughout your salad. Be wary of using too much and overpowering the other tastes in your salad.

Meat, Tofu, Chicken and Cheese: If you’re making your salad into a meal, adding protein is always a nice plus. You should make sure to balance the portion of protein accordingly, though. You should have more salad than protein, not protein with a tiny bit of salad underneath it! For all, shredded or bite size pieces add the best texture and taste and aesthetic look to a salad.

Dressing a Salad: How you dress your salad is as versatile as how you make your salad. You can have it plain. You can make up a simple vinaigrette. You can drizzle honey, yogurt or sour cream over it. You can squeeze a lemon or lime over it. You can opt for putting just a bit of balsamic vinegar or another type on top of it. The list is endless.

What’s important to keep in mind is that you never want to overpower or drown your salad with however you dress it. The purpose of a dressing is to help bring out the flavor of your vegetables, not mask it!