The Science Of A Summer Salad

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Stylist Team
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The ultimate salad is a complex balancing act and so much more than just rocket and cherry tomatoes. Strike a row through any of the below ingredients and you’ll find yourself with the perfect summer dish. Read on for the reasons why…

Words: Lizzie Pook Illustration: Mary Woodin

Every year, regardless of the changeable weather, British summertime comprises the very same things: the revival of the maxi dress, some sort of hosepipe ban and, of course, rocketing sales of disposal barbecues. The season for alfresco eating is officially upon us (although tactical gazebos may be required) and while many of us hanker after a seasoned steak, a hearty Cumberland sausage or zingy prawn skewer, we also salivate over the roasted peppers, crumbled goat’s cheese and tangy leaves of a perfectly concocted salad.

Indeed, 60% of us increase our salad intake during the warmer weather, and with chefs such as Yotam Ottolenghi, Florence Knight and Angela Hartnett proving that salad can be as exciting and exotic as any Michelin-starred main, there are also some serious foodie points to be earned.

But while throwing everything from halloumi and anchovies to chorizo and cornichons into the largest bowl we can find may seem like a good idea, experts say it’s all too easy to get the art of making a salad very, very wrong. Flavour combinations, seasoning, texture and even the size you slice your vegetables all matter more than you may think. And with taste, smell, touch, appearance, sound, temperature and trigeminal sensation (the tingle or burn you get when you eat things such as chilli or horseradish) all involved in creating the sensation in our brains that we call flavour, it’s high time we applied a little scientific thought to our dishes. So Stylist grilled chefs, restaurateurs and flavour scientists for the cardinal rules.

1. Make the base leaves count

Consider using two or three leaves to make an interesting base. “Pair mustard leaves (which can be found in Middle Eastern food shops) or dandelion leaves with a milder oak leaf lettuce,” says Matt Edwards, owner of Master & Servant restaurant in Hoxton, London. Bitter leaves like endives will counter the sweetness in fruit like figs and pear and if you go for something really bitter, like escarole, use lemon juice to sweeten it up (the acid will cut through the bitterness). A ratio of 70:30 bulky to baby leaves is a good general rule and use leaves with curly ends which hold onto dressing. If you’re really stuck go for parsley as, according to molecular gastronomist Harold McGee, the leaf’s fresh, green, woody notes are ‘generic’ enough to complement most foods. And don’t shy away from other herbs. “Little sprigs of tarragon, marjoram, chervil or broken chives are delicious in salads,” says chef Rory O’Connell. Add whole parsley or fresh mint leaves (the higher the shoot on the plant the softer and more delicious it will be) and wild garlic if it’s in season (usually March to late May). Finally, always pre-soften your leaves. “Soak them in water for 25 minutes as soon as you get them home, even if you won’t be using them for a day or so,” says O’Connell. “Then dry them gently with a tea towel. This rehydrates, freshens and crisps them up and will actually prolong their life by a couple of days.”

2. Stick to three main elements

The brain is easily confused when it comes to taste (hence why a blind taste test is almost impossible), so the perfect salad is all about balance and simplicity. “You really only need three main elements,” says Edwards (take Ottolenghi’s tomato, pomegranate and garlic salad, or Stevie Parle’s walnut, fig and goat’s cheese combination, for example). “A mixture of textures and tastes is ideal. Go for something bitter like chicory, which also has a bit of crunch. Pair it with a sweet little gem leaf and introduce saltiness with goat’s cheese.” If you have something stronger tasting, like mackerel, go for a mild cos leaf, then introduce sweet and sharp flavours with a day-pickled red onion. Make a sugar, salt and vinegar solution, boil it up, let it cool and then add your onion rings to ferment for 45 minutes.

3. Always add seasoning

It may seem unnatural, but you should always put a little salt on your salad. “Unless you have ingredients fresh from the garden, they will have lost most of their mineral content by the time they reach your plate,” says Belgian chef and restaurateur, Alain Coumont. “If you have shaved fennel, cabbage or carrot in your salad, salt relaxes the plants so the juices release.” It also inhibits the bitterness found in certain leaves and brings out the best in acidic ingredients, like tomatoes. “Chop some tomatoes, add salt and pepper, turn them and leave them for 10 minutes,” says Edwards. “They’ll leach this beautiful sweet juice. Finish off with capers and red onions.” When making a dressing, add salt to your acid before you emulsify it with the oil, too. It will dissolve completely and the salt will sweeten the acid.

4. Follow the 3:1 ratio

For dressing, always use the master ratio of three parts oil to one part vinegar,” says O’Connell. That way your salad isn’t overpowered with acidity and won’t be swathed in oil either. The two components can then be varied according to the other ingredients. Substitute vinegar with a mixture of lemon and orange juice to brighten up ingredients like parmesan and rocket and pair dense hazelnut and walnut oils with light leaves like romaine lettuce. “My favourite way to dress any salad is with the juice of an un-waxed lemon mixed with a fine olive oil, a pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper,” says Florence Knight. “And make sure you taste the dressing on the leaves. This can make a big difference to the seasoning.” Dressing can balance out other flavours, too. Introduce sweetness to counteract bitterness in goat’s cheese by mashing a couple of raspberries and flavouring them with a pinch of salt before adding mustard and olive oil to taste. Add it to your salad leaves just before you serve. Leaves only need a few minutes in oil to wilt as, unlike water, it clings to their waxy surface, seeping into air pockets between cells and making them darken.

5. Pare back acidic ingredients

A good salad can be overpowered by too much acid. “If you have very acidic citrus fruits like grapefruit, tomato or lemon segments in your salad, stick to oil and don’t use any vinegar in your dressing,” says Rowley Leigh, chef patron at Le Café Anglais. “Cheese and nuts have a high fat content so will counteract any high acidity, and fatty meats like duck work in the same way” [as in Jamie Oliver’s warm duck, orange and watercress salad]. Avoid balsamic vinegar if you’re serving salad with wine as it will make it taste horribly bitter, and use cucumber to knock back the acidity of goat’s cheese, if needed. “The vegetable’s floral perfume and alkaline nature set off the cheese’s lactic acid tang to perfection,” says Niki Segnit, author of The Flavour Thesaurus. “If you don’t like the texture, try using borage, a cucumberflavoured herb, instead.”

6. Cut it fine

The way you cut your ingredients is actually very important. Big cubes of pear or apple can overpower a salad with sweetness, so make sure the fruit’s not too ripe and julienne it so it blends with all the other ingredients. If you are using two ingredients designed to complement one another, like blue cheese and pear, make sure they are cut to approximately the same size. This means each time you load your fork you’ll taste everything together as intended. Unusual combinations will often work if they can be tasted together. “Peach and tomato is a beautiful summer salad,” says Leigh. “Peel both ingredients after soaking them in boiling water, allow them to cool, then toss segments of both with a bit of salt, loads of pepper and olive oil.”

7. Match ingredients with the texture of your cheese

Parmesan, stilton, halloumi – a good cheese crumbled into the mix can make or break your salad. “Many hard cheeses like grana padano are sweet, sour and salty, and gain crystals of umami as they age,” says Segnit. “Raw onion, watercress and walnuts often work well with hard cheese, as they add a balancing touch of bitterness and sweet partners like dried fruit can bring out the savoury side of things like parmesan.” Sharp, soft cheeses like feta are balanced out by sweet, dense ingredients like beetroot and butternut squash (try Nigella Lawson’s roasted beetroot and feta with sumac dressing). “Sometimes, cheese is a dressing in itself if it’s incredibly soft,” adds Leigh. Pair ricotta with a peppery leaf and granny smith apples and there’s no need for any oil. See you at the farmers’ market.