By Chef Chris Koetke, Vice President, School of Culinary Arts
Those who know me well, know that I love salad. This is not a passing affection, but a
lifelong love. My ideal? A big stainless mixing bowl filled with some spicy and bitter salad greens, sprinkled with salt crystals and coarsely ground black pepper, and tossed with an acidic vinaigrette punctuated with strong mustard and minced shallot. No sweet salad dressings. I like my salads to bite back a bit.
As a chef, I am well aware that not everyone shares my palate. Knowing how chefs compose salads and the thought process behind them will help you learn the why’s of building a great salad, making it possible for you to find similar success. These are the key points I consider as I create new salad combinations:
A great salad should have different elements even if it is a simple creation. How many colors of the spectrum you can get into the salad makes it visually bright and interesting. Vegetables offer so many vibrant colors (red, green, yellow, white, different shades of green). When choosing ingredients, consider integrating multiple textures: crunchy, chewy, juicy, crispy, soft. Maximize the variety of flavors. Have you thought about salty, umami, bitter, sweet, acid, piquant? Different flavor profiles can be achieved through a complexly flavored dressing.
When building a vinaigrette, look to achieve a balance of flavors that most appeals to you. A basic vinaigrette is vinegar and oil (typically in a ratio of two or three parts oil to one part vinegar) and some salt. But there are so many other considerations, including:
- Acids: Vinegars have different strengths and flavors. Consider sherry, balsamic and infused vinegars. But it does not even have to be vinegar. Other acidic ingredients like citrus can replace all or part of the vinegar.
- Oils: These are typically categorized from flavorful to neutral. Neutral oils are just that—they provide fat without additional flavor profiles. Examples include canola, peanut, soy bean and sunflower oils. Flavorful oils contribute fat and flavor. Consider sesame, olive and nut oils.
- Pack in flavor: Consider all the other flavors that you can introduce. A panorama of flavors adds complexity and interest to the salad. Add fresh herbs, chilies, mustard, wasabi, raw onion or shallot, and raw or cooked garlic. These elements add sparkle. Learning how to balance these flavors takes some trial and error.
- Balance sweetness: My wife and I argue about how sweet our salads should be. It is not uncommon to add some amount of sweetness to a vinaigrette, like sugar, agave syrup, maple syrup, fruit juices or honey, or by adding ingredients like fresh or dried fruit.
While many people think of salads as a combination of fresh vegetables it’s not always true. Think of all the ways that cooking vegetables can make them that much more interesting—and they can be served cold, room temperature, or even hot. Imagine: charred corn kernels, grilled vegetables of all shapes and sizes, roasted root vegetables or onions, and wilted greens. The list is endless.
When making a main course salad, consider adding protein to give it a bit more heft. Certainly, the protein may be animal based (cheese, eggs, poultry, meat, seafood), but it could also be vegetable based. Cooked beans or lentils, nuts, and the plethora of new and interesting grains, like farro or quinoa, make for great additions to a salad.
Armed with the above, you are ready to create your own salad to suit your taste. But please don’t forget to have fun. Creating great food should be a passionate, satisfying and really fun endeavor!
Chef Chris Koetke, the vice president of both the Kendall College School of Culinary Arts and Laureate International Universities Center of Excellence in Culinary Arts, began cooking professionally in 1982, and has worked in some of the world’s finest kitchens, including French restaurants Pavilion Elysees, Pierre Gagnaire, Taillevent, and Pierre Orsi. He is a certified executive chef and certified culinary educator by the American Culinary Federation.