Anyone can make a decent salad, but it takes some skill and know-how to create a masterpiece in green. It’s important, first, to brush up on the basics: Are you sufficiently drying your greens? Are your toppers crushing the delicate leaves? Once you’ve finished your refresher course, though, there’s one big, often-overlooked piece of advice you’ve got to remember: You’ve got to pair the right dressing with the right greens.
Think this isn’t a big deal? Think again. Just imagine tender spring mix leaves doused with creamy-crumbly blue cheese. They’d be smothered beyond recognition! And what about arugula with a peppercorn-heavy vinaigrette? Your salad would be tragically spicy. This is important stuff, so we called in the pros: Senior food editor Dawn Perry and assistant food editor Claire Saffitz in the Bon Appétit test kitchen gave us the rundown on what dressing is a perfect match for just about every salad your heart could desire.
Arugula: Peppery arugula leaves are best when tempered with a little sweetness—try adding honey or maple to your vinaigrette. And keep in mind that arugula wilts quickly and aggressively, so avoid heavy dressings (skip the cream and Dijon mustard), and use a light hand when tossing everything together. Your best bet for a dressing? Simple salt, pepper, vinegar or lemon juice, and olive oil with just a touch of honey.
Tender Head Lettuce (bibb, red leaf, green leaf, little gem, etc.): Similar to arugula in texture and tenderness, tender head lettuces also requires a featherlight touch. Unlike arugula, though, the leaves aren’t bitter, and don’t need any additional sweetness. Just salt, pepper, vinegar/lemon, and olive oil are sufficient.
Endive: Endive’s intensely bitter, and it’s also hefty, with thick leaves. If there was ever an opportunity to embrace sweetness and fat in a dressing, this is it: Endive can seriously hold its own against a creamy blue cheese dressing.
Frisee: Also bitter, but much rougher and frillier than endive, this chicory is screaming for both fat and salt. A warm bacon vinaigrette is the classic choice—and one we particularly like. Emulsifying your dressing with an egg yolk (or just breaking a poached egg on top of the greens) wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, either.
Grains (farro, wheat berries, barley, etc.): Grain salads need a good dressing just as much as your favorite garden salad. These chewy, filling dishes can stand up to creamier dressings that make good use of buttermilk, tahini, or mild, soft cheese. “Basically, anything goes here except ranch,” says Perry. The aggressive, peppery flavor of ranch will mask the unique flavor of the grains. Be liberal with your use of herbs, and dress the grains just after cooking, while they’re still warm—the dressing will be absorbed and incorporated better.
Iceberg: Iceberg has great crunch but not a ton of flavor, so it’s up to your dressing to make things sing. We say yes to the classic blue cheese-and-bacon wedge salad, but would definitely not be mad if you whip up an ugly-but-crazy-tasty caramelized-onion dressing. To make a caramelized-onion dressing, think dip (sour cream, a little mayonnaise, some lemon for acidity, caramelized onions with fresh scallion or chive), and thin it with water until it’s pourable. Ranch is A-OK, too, and in fact, the only time we advocate not using a creamy dressing with iceberg is when it’s chopped up finely and dressed Italian pizza joint-style, with plenty of oregano and peperoncini.
Kale: Kale’s hefty. It’s important to slice it thinly so you don’t suffer from jaw fatigue before the salad’s half-eaten. Incorporating a good amount of acid to your dressing—think plenty of lemon juice—will further break down the cellular structure of the leaves, making them easier to eat and digest. Don’t drown the greens, though; nobody likes a soggy salad.
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Radicchio: This chicory is bitter, like endive, but a little more tender. It can handle a dressing with Dijon or an egg yolk, but fares best without a heavy dumping of cream or mayonnaise. Don’t forget the sweetener.
Romaine: “The world is your oyster with Romaine,” says Perry. It’s crunchy like iceberg, so creamy dressings are a go, but it also fares nicely with a simple vinaigrette. Feel free to experiment.
Spinach: Be wary of the wilt with spinach salads—these leaves succumb to very acidic and creamy dressings quickly. Sturdy, mature leaves can handle a little creaminess or heat but baby spinach needs no more than olive oil, salt, pepper, and a squeeze of lemon.
Spring/Summer Mix: These tender leaves are pillow-soft. Keep things simple with the most basic vinaigrette possible, letting the sweetness of the lettuce shine through.
Swiss Chard: Chard is thin but tough. To help tenderize the leaves, tear them into bite-size pieces and dress them with something sweet and acidic, like this tomato vinaigrette. Its flavor runs toward earthy (especially the stems), so think light and bright when dressing.
Watercress: Watercress looks delicate but its flavor is bossy—peppery and fresh, with some bite. Embrace fat, sweetness, and a medium-level creaminess (hello, buttermilk).