Salad Nirvana
August 30, 2010 4:29 PM   Subscribe

Why are salads at restaurants so much better than at home?

I'm interesting in making the best simple green salad I can make: olive oil, vinegar, maybe a slight bit of mustard to emulsify the dressing, salt, pepper, fresh greens, that's it. Obviously, top-notch olive oil and vinegar are required. But whenever I eat a really good salad, I'm always curious as to why the simplest green salad is SO much better than I make at home. I think I'm not asking so much about recipes as technique. And unlike this question, I don't think butter and cream are the answer.

Am I not drying the salad well enough perhaps? Is there a secret to getting lettuce bone dry (I have a spinner)? Is there some other mystical magic that makes their salads so good? Croutons, bacon bits, sunflower seeds, etc. are not welcome.
posted by otherwordlyglow to Food & Drink (37 answers total) 95 users marked this as a favorite
1: A lot more salt than you realize.

2: Very dry lettuce, to get the dressing to stick. Use your spinner, in small-ish batches.

3: Minced shallots should be part of the answer, although they appear to be ruled out by your question.
posted by willbaude at 4:36 PM on August 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

Salty dressing.

Not puke-inducing salty, but ever-so-slightly saltier than you think the dressing should taste.

Also, slightly under-dressing the salad helps. As in, just enough dressing to coat the greens.

Toss greens in a small bowl with clean hands or tongs before plating.

posted by jbenben at 4:38 PM on August 30, 2010

Dry lettuce is pretty important, as is the right amount of dressing. Dressing sticks to (dry) lettuce, not to water or excess dressing. Are you tossing or mixing the salad with the dressing? Some restaurants present a layered salad with the dressing on top, others toss before serving.

Something else to consider: do you normally eat at restaurants that serve some kind of bread before or with the salad, such that you have that to eat with the salad? Fresh bread and butter makes a great accompaniment for salad, and you might not normally have that at home.

What kind of mustard are you using? I use a dry mustard for salad dressing. How are you blending the ingredients? Whisking by hand will give you a loose emulsion. If you want a stiff, creamy emulsion, use a stick blender.
posted by jedicus at 4:39 PM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

The greens themselves are key. My home salads are vastly improved now that my salad greens are young, organic, and local.

You also need top quality extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
posted by bearwife at 4:40 PM on August 30, 2010

The fresh greens are fresher than you think. They didn't get them at a supermarket last week. And they're throwing away a lot of things that look bad -- unlike you and I, who think, "I have to eat this because I bought it."

Good cheeses in the salad and the dressing, too.

If you're eating at a nice place, the plates may be chilled.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:40 PM on August 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

Aside from super fresh ingredients (try organic & local produce--it makes a huge difference) it's all about the dressing. I guarantee restaurants are not just using oil, vinegar and mustard, that makes for an extremely acidic dressing that is fairly one note. Try fresh herbs, different kinds of vinegar, maybe honey. Seasoning properly (the dressing AND the salad) is critical too. Fresh garlic and/or shallot melts into dressing and adds a huge flavor punch. You could observe the flavor profile of the salads you like and try to pick out individual ingredients and then recreate something you like through trial and error.
posted by Kimberly at 4:40 PM on August 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Pay attention to the variety of green stuff. Iceberg lettuce is pretty ho-hum, no matter how dry it is. Things like arugula, endive, and frisee can punch up a boring salad. I suggest going through a list of salad greens and trying out as many different kinds as you can find.
posted by phunniemee at 4:41 PM on August 30, 2010

I think nice, cold lettuce and vegetables put onto cold plates makes a huge difference. Also, a little salt and pepper on the greens themselves will do wonders.
posted by ob1quixote at 4:41 PM on August 30, 2010

Sugar in commercial salad dressings also makes a huge difference. There are contributing factors such as ice-cold plates and just having someone else refill your water, but it's the salt and sugar, most of all, that do it.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:42 PM on August 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

What the above people said:

-- very dry greens
-- use enough salt
-- don't over-dress

And this:

-- use good ingredients

This goes for the olive oil (I use Sciabica) and the vinegar (I don't have a go-to source for that, but would love one), but especially for the greens. I.e., don't buy a bag of iceberg lettuce pieces from Safeway and expect it to taste good. Haunt farmer's markets until you find a vendor whose greens look like they were hand-tended by God himself in his backyard garden and picked right before you showed up. Buy greens from that guy and make a salad that same day.
posted by madmethods at 4:44 PM on August 30, 2010

I usually hand-whisk and use Dijon mustard. Romaine, leaf lettuce, and spinach are favorites. Rarely iceberg.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 4:46 PM on August 30, 2010

Sometimes I get salad from Safeway but also go to the local fancy organic co-op. But yes, I'm sure the Safeway salad isn't helping my cause.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 4:48 PM on August 30, 2010

I wouldn't be caught dead making a vinaigrette without garlic.

Thyme doesn't hurt either.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 4:58 PM on August 30, 2010

My favorite simple salad dressing is similar to yours - fallot dijon mustard, lemon juice, minced shallot, olive oil, salt, pepper, and good lettuce. The red leaf butter lettuce at Rainbow is good, the little gem lettuce from Star Route Farms at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is better. Taste the dressing by dipping a piece of lettuce in it, what tastes good on the lettuce will be seem too salty on your finger (or a spoon, if you want to get fancy).
posted by foodgeek at 5:04 PM on August 30, 2010

Seconding ob1quixote's suggestion that temperature matters. My brother used to work at a restaurant, Steak and Ale (do those still exist?) and they used to chill the salad plates, and all the veggies on the salad bar were very *cold* and (therefore?) very *crisp*. They also had a special way of cutting the iceberg lettuce that my brother explained one time years ago, but I've since forgotten the details.
posted by smcameron at 5:07 PM on August 30, 2010

Season your dry salad. Add salt and pepper to the salad before you add the dressing. Add the dressing to the salad in a mixing bowl and toss to coat. You just want enough dressing to coat each leaf, not to drench the salad.

Also, choosing what you put into the salad is the most important thing. As stated above, look at different greens, not just romaine or iceberg.
posted by TheBones at 5:15 PM on August 30, 2010

Great tips here. From my restaurant years, I will add only that tossing the salad, and at the very last minute, is part of the reason salads in restaurants are so good.

Most people don't know this - and it's a good calorie cutting trick, too. What you want to do is take your composed dressing, which is nice and emulsified, ideally, and place it in the bottom of a large, cold stainless steel bowl. One with shallower sides is better. Put your salad greens in on top of the dressing. Holding the bowl in one hand, use a pair of tongs to gently fold the greens over and over inside the bowl until you can see that each leaf is shiny and coated with dressing. Mound the greens onto an also chilled plate, nice and high.

Don't put your salad add-ins in the bowl with the greens. In other words, if you are adding stuff like pecans or other nuts, crumbled cheese, cooked beets, pear slices, hearts of palm, or whatever, don't toss them. Just toss the greens to coat, then sprinkle/array the other ingredients over the salad. Better flavor variety that way, less monotony on the tongue. The only things in the bowl should be salad veggies that are meant to blend with the greens - sometimes that's just greens, but it might include spinach, shreeded carrots, etc.

Don't let a salad like this sit. They start to wilt and get soggy and flat within minutes.
posted by Miko at 5:23 PM on August 30, 2010 [30 favorites]

Oh, garlic. Garlic is necessary for a good dressing! Also, a lot of more upscale places use lemon or lime instead of vinegar(s) -- high quality olive oil, lemon juice, some garlic (grate the garlic using a microplane instead of chopping it into a dice), a few tsps of minced shallot, and a tiny bit of really good mustard = amazing dressing.
posted by shamash at 5:24 PM on August 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

To get your greens super dry, after spinning them put them back in the fridge layered in paper towels or kitchen towels. This helps to chill the leaves and get rid of excess moisture.
posted by ohyouknow at 5:29 PM on August 30, 2010

Sugar. Like with spaghetti sauce, a pinch of sugar subdues the acidity and makes the other flavors more noticeable.

Try it out.

You can also get at this by pureeing caramelized shallots, etc., anything with good sugar content.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 6:09 PM on August 30, 2010

What everybody else said about high-quality ingredients and dry greens. Less (dressing) is more; start with a little, it's easy to add more. This is my favorite vinaigrette recipe for plain greens, and I think the main reason it's delicious is the egg yolk.
posted by magicbus at 6:18 PM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

A good, sharp knife (a sharp blade cuts through herbs and leaves cleaner, releasing more aromatics by not bludgeoning the cells), sea salt, and presentation go a long way. Also, if you have somebody with you, get them to 'do something', anything, to the salad while you're not looking. Even if they do nothing, the idea of somebody else's touch on the meal always makes it seem magically tastier. It's a dumb psychological trick that works every time (and why sandwiches are always better when someone makes one for you).

Also, something special, unexpected, fancy or creative really makes you say, "Hey, this isn't just fat-coated lettuce, it's red currant and panchetta spinach with a kiss of bleu cheese."
posted by iamkimiam at 6:21 PM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

You might try dressing it Marcela Hazan's way: first, a light coating of olive oil; toss. Next, a small amount of vinegar; toss. Then, a judicious coating of salt (probably more than you think); toss. Finally, pepper; toss. It's really more delicious than the sum of its parts, maybe because the salt is still noticeable and crunchy, and the lettuce is protected from the wilting effects of the vinegar by the coating of oil. It's important to toss very thoroughly every time.
posted by palliser at 6:31 PM on August 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

Beyond all the dressing suggestions people have put forth; dip your lettuce in ice-water (have plenty of ice-cubes) before drying and serving. Makes it extra crisp, and is a common thing to do at restaurants.
posted by lundman at 6:43 PM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding A Terrible Llama's suggestion: sugar. You only need a little bit (< 0.5 tsp) and it cuts the acidity of the vinegar nicely.
posted by cranberrymonger at 7:59 PM on August 30, 2010

Also, you may want to try arugula.
posted by cranberrymonger at 8:00 PM on August 30, 2010

You need Penzey's! They make some of the best salad dressing mixes in the USA - what the pros use (most of the time).
posted by parmanparman at 8:02 PM on August 30, 2010

This vinaigrette writeup that's based on the basic 3:1 formula is pretty good, and the way I've usually seen it done. I agree that a dash of sugar is a powerful addition to most vinaigrettes - (most restaurants put it into marinara sauce, too - it adds a lot of dimension and cuts the tartness of acid).
posted by Miko at 8:14 PM on August 30, 2010

Wow, lots of great ideas… Here's one: sometimes if the greens at the market aren't so "salad-grade" that day, i'll buy them anyways and sort them. For loose greens I might pick out the healthiest looking ones, and for heads I'll definitely take out the large outer layers. So, damaged leaves I'll save for another use the next day, for a sautee or something.
posted by polymodus at 10:14 PM on August 30, 2010

Jamie oliver suggests that we all need to find our 'salad fingers'- that is, we must gently toss in order to avoid bruising the leaves. He is also an advocate of dry leaves courtesy of aforementioned spinner.
posted by man down under at 12:07 AM on August 31, 2010

I think the biggest thing is the freshness. Restaurant greens come and go fresher than the stuff you get at the supermarket. There are whole networks of "produce guys" who are up at 3am picking and delivering the fresh stuff to your restaurants. Even the chain restaurants and QSR restaurants have a very fast supply chain for produce.

Tip: do not buy wet greens. If they are wet, they either have started to wilt, or the supermarket is wetting them to hide/delay the effects of wilt. (But the chemical process is already going on) The only reason greens should be wet is because you washed them.

It is *possible* that you can get in on that supply chain with farmstands, but that depends on where the "farmer" obtained his produce. I don't have a lot of faith in the farmstand people, their produce usually comes in the same boxes you see at the supermarket.
posted by gjc at 5:49 AM on August 31, 2010

I don't have a lot of faith in the farmstand people, their produce usually comes in the same boxes you see at the supermarket.

What kind of "farmstand people" are you talking about? Because this is completely at odds with my experience.
posted by Miko at 5:54 AM on August 31, 2010

A lot of restaurants have more running through their greens than you may think. Try adding a chiffonade of basil to your greens before dressing.

And what everyone else said, season the dry greens with salt and pepper, more than you think you need, and dress lightly. Restaurant dressing are acidic, really acidic. Use more vinegar or experiment with citrus juices. Be sure to balance the addition vinegar with something sweet like honey (or mirin works too).
posted by phineas.gage at 8:07 AM on August 31, 2010

Seconding lundman. My Caesar salad got so much crisper and better after I washed the Romaine lettuce in ice cold water before spinning it.
posted by Daddy-O at 3:52 PM on August 31, 2010

What iamkimiam said:

Sea Salt
posted by snowjoe at 7:40 PM on August 31, 2010

Tonight's salad was already an improvement, despite being composed of week-old romaine hearts and mediocre olive oil and champagne vinegar. I also learned that it is possible to use too much salt.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 8:12 PM on August 31, 2010

The first time I had salad made from CSA greens, it was a revelation. I never would have called a salad delicious before, but that one was.

Get the freshest lettuce you possibly can.
posted by Space Kitty at 10:31 PM on August 31, 2010

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