How to assemble a salad with ingredients you have now

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There’s more to life than a garden salad. If you’re eager to eat healthier and looking for ideas on how to make a salad for dinner tonight, read on for salad principles to figure out how to toss a fantastic salad. 

An illustration showing a bowl of salad with the text "How to Assemble a Salad"Pin

Not long after I started the Instant Pot and the kettle, the power in the room went out. Turns out the 2 electricity-sucking appliances overloaded the circuit (the joys of a demolished kitchen). 

I stood there hungry, sweaty (thanks to the prolonged heat wave), and wondering, “Why am I cooking hot food when it’s sweltering outside, and we’re receiving warnings to avoid walking barefoot on hot asphalt?”

With extra motivation to eat healthy, I switched to a menu dominated by salads. But my fridge and pantry didn’t exactly look like a Vegas buffet salad bar. 

How did I managed to pull together many delicious salads with simple ingredients that I already have on hand?

Let’s learn the basics of how to assemble a salad so you can start eating healthy and satisfying salads today. 

How to assemble a salad

Start by looking at what ingredients you’ve got in your fridge, kitchen counter, and pantry. 

SIDE NOTE: Did you know that records show Western salads can be traced as far back as ancient Greek, Roman, and Persian times where people added oil and vinegar to vegetables? 

Next, let’s cover the different kinds of salads to give us a template to guide us on how to assemble your salad. 

What’s a salad?

A salad is a dish of mixed food, often with some raw ingredients, and almost always served with a sauce (salad dressing). 

SIDE NOTE: Many of our favorite salads have been passed down through the ages from generation to generation. Yet, there’s new salads and salad dressings being invented all the time. You might concoct the next big salad trend in your kitchen today. 

There are many different types of salads. Salads are often categorized into 4 different groups: 

  1. Bound salad: Bound salads have a heavy sauce, usually a mayonnaise-based dressing. The salad holds its shape when placed on a plate. The most common bound salads are potato salad, chicken salad, coleslaw, tuna salad, and egg salad.
  2. Tossed salad: This is where you put all the ingredients and the salad dressing in a bowl and mix, such as Caesar salad and French carrot salad.
  3. Composed salad: This type of salad is carefully layered or thoughtfully arranged on the serving dish, like an organized version of a tossed salad. The dressing may be served on the side. Common examples are Cobb salad and antipasto salad (cured meat and cheese plate). 
  4. Rice or Pasta salad: Sometimes called farinaceous salads, these salads have starches like rice, pasta, and potatoes as the main ingredients. They’re different from bound salads in that they can have light vinaigrette dressings.

After seeing what ingredients you’ve got on hand, consider what kinds of salads you can make. 

2 plates of summer salad with peaches, romaine lettuce, walnuts, avocados, and goat cheesePin
This peach salad can be prepared tossed or composed.

What to put in a salad

I like to remember there are 4 categories of salads to avoid pigeonholed thinking. While green/garden salads are the most common (these are leafy green salads made with a bed of lettuce, spinach, kale, spring mix, etc.), you can put all kinds of non-leafy vegetables into a salad. 

Imagine chopped carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, avocados, bell peppers, or celery tossed with a vinaigrette. Add some toppings, such as nuts, croutons, and cheese, and you’ve got a salad.

TIP: Many salads can be tossed or composed. For example, a salade niçoise, Chef salad, Greek salad can be tossed or served with the individual ingredients layered separately. 

Alternatively, if you’ve got mayonnaise, sour cream, crème fraîche, or Greek yogurt, consider a bound salad if you’ve also got some eggs, leftover chicken breast, or a can of tuna.

Decide whether you want to make a side dish or a dinner salad, which has protein and a lot of garnishes to form a complete meal. 

Salad building blocks

If you’re still struggling to concoct a salad for dinner (who would blame you? You’re probably hungry), consider this mental model for how to build a salad. 

Think about a salad as a pyramid.

You have the base, which is the main ingredient that anchors your salad. Usually, this is a bed of leafy green vegetables. It could be quinoa, tuna, or tofu if you’re making a grain salad, (bound) tuna salad, or tofu salad.

If you’re making a dinner salad, you can incorporate the body, which could be a protein or a bound salad, such as grilled chicken, tofu, or shrimp.

The body could also be an accent ingredient like peaches, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese flakes, chickpeas, or a bound salad (e.g., chicken salad or egg salad). 

NOTE: You can skip the body if you’re making a side salad. It’s optional for creating a complete meal. 

The “neck” of the pyramid is the dressing. Use a salad dressing that accentuates the salad’s ingredients. 

TIP: The rule of thumb is to pair delicate ingredients, such as tender lettuce leaves and frisée, with lighter salad dressings like a vinaigrette. Hearty vegetables and tougher ingredients, such as cabbage, carrots, potatoes, pasta, can be paired with lighter and heavier sauces, like mayonnaise- or cream-based dressings (blue cheese, ranch, and buttermilk, etc.) or pesto.

The top of the pyramid can optionally include garnishes and toppings. This is where you can add chopped nuts or toasted seeds, fresh or dried fruit (raisins, cranberries, blueberries), grated cheese, croutons, etc. 

An illustration with a pyramid chart showing building blocks of a saladPin

I like this pyramid model because it guides me on the ingredient proportions and layering order.

That said, it’s flexible so you can make whatever salad you like best. If that means a lot of garnishes (more garnishes than the body), go for it.

Helpful equipment

Here are the most helpful tools for making a salad:

  • A robust salad spinner: This is useful for washing leafy veggies and using the centrifuge to drain the water out of your greens. Wet lettuce makes terrible salads because it dilutes your salad dressing and gives you a wet dish.
  • A big mixing bowl: Tossing a salad is frustrating if the toppings are falling out of the bowl or you don’t have enough room to spread the dressing evenly. A big bowl gives you room to combine everything.
  • Tossing tools: Having 2 spatulas or salad tossing spoons helps to mix the ingredients (for someone who doesn’t like getting my hands dirty, these are super helpful). You can skip tossing tools if you make composed salads. Or you can toss with your hands. 
  • Serving utensils: Big serving spoons and forks or a pair of tongs helps with placing the salad on your plate for serving. 

You likely already have all the tools above in your kitchen except for the salad spinner. 

The salad spinner is a nice to have. I like this spinner from OXO because the big push button makes it easy to spin versus the hand-cranked models. It comes in a big size giving you room to spin enough lettuce for 2-3 big salads or 4-6 side salads.

How to serve a salad

You can serve salads at any course. Here are a few ideas:

  • Appetizer: Serve a small, light salad as the first course to whet your appetite. Examples are an antipasto salad (an Italian tradition of serving a small plate of olives, cured meats, pickled mushrooms, cheese, peperoncini, artichoke hearts, etc.) and this spicy cucumber salad.
  • Main course salad: This is a salad with the works, including a base, body, neck, and top. There’s usually a large portion of protein (bigger than the garnish/toppings). You could serve the main course salad alone, and it would be a complete meal.
  • Side salad: These salads accompany a main course dish by adding a vegetable dish or a contrasting texture. Examples are silken tofu green onion salad, spicy mayo coleslaw, and French carrot salad.
  • Dessert salad: Yes, salad can be sweet and served after the main course. Examples are fruit salad and ambrosia as well as salads with candy and whipped cream, such as Snickers Salad.
2 plates full of spicy tofu noodle salad with carrot and cucumberPin
This cucumber and carrot tofu salad could be a side dish as is or a main course if you add a bed of lettuce greens and more toppings.

Common salad mistakes

Salads are forgiving dishes that are hard to mess up. That makes them a great dish for beginners who are learning to cook at home.

That said, there are a few common pitfalls to watch for. Let’s cover them so you can avoid a sad salad. 

The biggest mistake you can make with salads is to add the salad dressing to your green vegetables long before you’re ready to eat your salad.

The acid causes the leafy green vegetables to wilt and release water. Not only will you have a limp salad (we’re aiming for a satisfying crunch) but also it’ll be soggy and wet. 

The solution is to dress your salad just before serving. Especially if you plan to keep extra salad for leftovers.

Here are a few other common problems and how to solve them.

  • Underdressing or overdressing salad: Too much or too little dressing makes your salad hard to swallow. Gradually add some dressing and mix. Taste and add more dressing if necessary. 
  • Adding chunks that are too big: It can be tough to eat a salad with carrot and cucumber pieces the size of a golf ball. Chop the ingredients into even sizes and consider if the chunks are small enough for someone to comfortably chew on.
  • Not considering a rainbow of colors: An easy way to make your salad look appetizing is to add all the colors of the rainbow. Realistically, this is hard (there aren’t many fruits or veggies that are naturally blue or violet!). But play around with at least 2-3 colors so you don’t have a big plate for green. For example, adding a few slices of carrot or cherry tomatoes sliced in half to a bed of greens is easily 2 colors.
  • Not considering texture: The best salads keep you surprised. If you’ve got crunchy romaine as your base, consider adding sliced avocado or slices of orange. Varying textures makes the salad more exciting to eat and keeps you guessing on what texture is coming next.
  • Not spinning or drying your salad leaves: Wet leafy greens dilute your dressing and gives the salad an unpleasant mouthfeel. Spin your greens before assembling the salad. If you don’t have a salad spinner, pat the leaves dry with paper towels or muslin cloth (for the ecofriendly alternative). 
  • Under seasoning: Remember to add enough salt to your salad dressing. Even then, the salad might be under salted so taste before serving and season with salt as needed
  • Using tiny mixing bowls: Use the biggest mixing bowls you have to toss the salad. I like bowls with a wide mouth to make it easy to mix. If you don’t have big mixing bowls, consider even using a big soup pot to give you enough room to mix without the ingredients falling out. 

RELATED: If you accidentally over salt your salad, learn how to make your dish less salty.

What to eat with salad

If you’re making a main course salad, you don’t have to add anything else to your meal.

But if you’re assembling a side salad and want a hearty dish to form a complete meal, you can add a soup, sandwich, a bowl of noodles, or a main course like braised meat or tofu. 

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About Anna Rider

Hi! I'm Anna, a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on with the help of my physicist and taste-testing husband, Alex. I have an insatiable appetite for noodles 🍜 and believe in "improv cooking".

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