Why are restaurant salads so good while at-home ones are always ho-hum? The answer may surprise you — and pave the way for homemade salads as good as takeout.

By Emily Monaco
December 30, 2020
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It's always the same story: you spend your lunch hour concocting delightful salads from the salad bar or a build-your-own takeaway joint, only to balk at the price, resolve to make your own at home instead, and then find yourself dumping $20 of limp produce in the bin by the end of the week. It's just not the same!

Face it, restaurant salads are delicious, and at-home ones often fall flat. Learn the industry secrets about transforming greens into a gorgeous meal:

Why Are Restaurant Salads So Good?

Restaurant salads are delicious for a number of reasons, the first of which you probably already know: they're likely more fattening than the ones you make at home. Heaped with crunchy fried chicken, seductive cheese crumbles, buttery croutons, and more creamy or oily dressing than you'd think, some restaurant salads can clock in at over a thousand calories. Add to that the fact that everything — including the greens — often gets a sprinkling of salt, and it's no wonder restaurant salads are so delicious.

Luckily, this is not the only thing that makes restaurant salads tasty. Restaurant salads are also composed with a number of factors in mind: a blend of flavors, textures, and colors that makes them super satisfying. You can easily borrow some of these elements of restaurant salads — without bringing home all the calories.

Credit: Claudia Totir / Getty Images

Steps for Making a Great Salad at Home

When making a delicious restaurant-style salad at home, think of it as a sum of parts. You'll need a green, a dressing, a protein, and mix-ins. As you're choosing each element, you'll want to pay attention both to textures (soft vs. crisp) and flavors (sweet, salty, acidic, and bitter). Ensuring you have a combination of all of these components is the true secret to a satisfying salad.

1. Start with the Dressing

You might think of the dressing as the finishing touch to your salad, but since the dressing is where most of the flavor comes from, it's actually a key part of the identity of your salad, so it should really come first. Plus, unless you're making your dressing in a blender, it can actually be mixed in the bottom of your salad bowl to cut down on dishes.

When composing a dressing, consider all of the elements that will make it sing: acid, sweetness, fat, and aromatics. Here are some ideas to get you started:

2. Next Up: The Base Greens

Once the identity of your salad is established, you can move on to the bulk of your salad: the greens. You can go as simple or as complex as you like, opting for just one green, like crisp romaine, or a combo of two or more for contrasting textures or flavor profiles. For example, hardy, earthy kale can pair nicely with soft spinach, while mild butter lettuce might go nicely with a crisp, bitter green like frisée or endive.

  • Butter lettuce (soft, mild)
  • Kale (hardy, earthy)
  • Red or green oak lettuce (soft, mild)
  • Spring mix (soft, mild)
  • Spinach (soft, earthy)
  • Frisée (hardy, bitter)
  • Arugula (soft, peppery)
  • Endive (crisp, bitter)
  • Romanie (crisp, mild)

3. Pack in Protein

A protein or source of healthy fat will add staying power to your salad, making it more filling and keeping you from reaching for a snack an hour later. You can either keep this simple or season it in a way that echoes the dressing, for example, glazing salmon with teriyaki sauce and pairing it with a sesame-laced dressing, or choosing herb-crusted roast pork to dress with a French-style vinaigrette. The protein element can also be as easy as draining and rinsing some canned beans. Here are a few ideas:

  • Grilled chicken breast
  • Leftover roast pork
  • Diced avocado
  • Canned mackerel
  • Canned tuna
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Pan-seared salmon
  • Canned chickpeas or beans

4. The Finishing Touches

Once you've picked your dressing, greens, and protein, you're ready for mix-ins. Consider what elements you're still lacking. Healthy fats? Sweetness? Crunch? And be sure to choose mix-ins that make sense with the flavor profile of your salad. If you've made a Japanese-inspired salad with spring mix, ginger dressing, and grilled salmon, maybe you want some diced cucumber for crunch. If so far you've got a French-style butter lettuce salad with frisée and grilled chicken, maybe some bacon or toasted nuts will add the fat you need to give your salad staying power. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Chopped red bell pepper (crunchy, sweet)
  • Sliced red onion (crunchy, piquant)
  • Grated carrot (crunchy, sweet)
  • Diced avocado (creamy, sweet)
  • Diced or crumbled cheese (creamy, salty)
  • Toasted nuts and seeds (rich, salty)
  • Toasted sesame seeds (rich, earthy)
  • Sliced, quick-pickled cucumber (crunchy, acidic)
  • Sliced apple (crunchy, sweet)
  • Raisins or other dried fruit (soft, sweet)
  • Jarred sauerkraut (crunchy, acidic)
  • Cooked bacon (crunchy, smoky, salty)
  • Croutons (crunchy, salty)
  • Fresh herbs (soft, aromatic)

Turning Your Fridge into a Salad Bar

Having all these ideas for salads is all well and good, but you need to stock your fridge to make this more than a pipe dream. Luckily, many of these elements are pantry staples, so you'll only need to remember to buy a few items on your regular grocery runs to turn your kitchen into a salad bar every day.

To avoid from shelling out too much to get started, consider stocking just a few of the staples you'll need:

  • Olive oil
  • Sesame oil
  • Neutral oil (like canola, rapeseed, or avocado)
  • Red wine vinegar
  • Rice wine vinegar
  • Tahini
  • Honey
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Red onion
  • Canned beans and/or fsh

Choose two greens, two raw veggies, and two creamy elements (avocado or cheese) to test on each grocery run, and you're already nearly there! As you get used to making salads at home, it'll become even easier to mix and match your favorite elements.

The last step in making your kitchen salad central is setting yourself up for success. Consider washing and drying your greens and veggies and hard-boiling a few eggs as soon as you get home from the store. Store veggies and lettuces in reusable food storage containers lined with a sheet of paper towel or a dish towel to keep them from becoming damp with condensation. This will make them last for up to a week or two in the fridge — and it will ensure you can get a salad on the table in 15 minutes or less.

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