12 Ways to Make Your Salads More Exciting

Published by Annie Barrett: 
August 17, 2023

At the end of summer, when I don’t want to cook with heat, I make salads. Salads are an excellent way to eat more vegetables and fruits. According to the CDC, only 10% of American adults eat enough fruits and vegetables. Making your salad more exciting is a good strategy for building more fruits and vegetables into your diet.

1. Start with what’s in season. 

The vegetables that are in season will always make the best salad. When you visit your farmer’s market or grocery store, be on the lookout for the vegetables that are in season. In late summer, you’ll find lots of tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, peppers, eggplant, and green beans. All of these can be featured in your salads raw (minus the eggplant), steamed and chilled, or roasted. Summer fruits can be enjoyed in a sweet fruit salad or in a savory salad. Fruits like peaches, berries, and figs are delicious served with greens and dressed with a vinaigrette, or in a summer fruit salad.

2. Look beyond lettuce. 

When we think of salad, we think lettuce. There are many types of wonderful lettuces to enjoy: romaine, leaf lettuces, butterheads, etc. If you visit a farmer’s market, you’ll find a whole world of lettuce varieties and an even bigger world of other kinds of greens such as spinach, arugula, chicory, endive, bok choy, and cabbage. Other cruciferous vegetables that can become a salad base are vegetables like kohlrabi, cauliflower, and broccoli. In the summer, we often want cool salads and so raw greens are best. When it gets cooler, you may try wilting your greens in a skillet, or roasting cruciferous vegetables like cabbage or cauliflower.

3. Add herbs.

Often we think of adding herbs to sautees or soups, but we may not always include them in salads. Basil, mint, parsley, cilantro, and tarragon are wonderful additions to a salad. Adding herbs brings intrigue to your salad.

4. Think texture.

A satisfying salad is one that offers different textures. Smooth, crisp, soft, light, crunchy. Soft avocado, smooth cucumbers, crunchy carrots, crisp cucumbers...

5. Add grains.

The easiest way to turn your salad into a meal is to add grains. Americans should be eating more whole grains and a salad is a good place to start. Quinoa, brown rice, millet, wild rice, barley, and whole grain pasta bring a heartiness to a salad. 

6. Add bread.

Panzanella or bread salad is something I’ve been making on repeat this summer. Take any leftover bread you have - a chewy artisan loaf is especially good - and chop it into cubes or tear it. Toss it with olive oil and toast it in a toaster oven or standard oven. Basically you are making croutons and these crunchy bits of bread will make your salad heart and irresistible. Any kind of bread will do, including pita bread and sandwich bread.

7. Add protein.

You’ve got your veggies. You’ve got your carbs. Now, to make it a meal, add protein. Keep it plant based with chickpeas, black beans or tofu. If you eat fish or meat, include salmon, chicken, shrimp or steak.

8. Add nuts.

Nuts and seeds bring healthy fats and protein into your diet. Roasting or toasting nuts makes them even tastier. Try toasted sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, walnuts, pecans, or pumpkin seeds. Toast them on their own or with herbs and spices.

9. Add umami.

Umami brings savory satisfaction to a dish. Fermented foods, brined foods, and cheese all have the umami flavor. Think kalamata olives, marinated artichoke hearts, capers, pickled onions, kimchi, sauerkraut, feta cheese, goat cheese, parmesan cheese or seaweed. Soy sauce, fish sauce and miso added to a dressing also bring umami goodness.

10. Add sweet.

A savory salad pops when there is a little bit of sweet mixed in. Think fresh fruit such as mangoes, berries or figs. Or dried fruit such as raisins, cranberries, or dried apricot. Candied nuts are also delicious.

11. Add leftovers.

Chances are you have something leftover in your fridge that would go great in a salad. Leftover pasta, leftover rice, leftover rotisserie chicken, leftover pinto beans, leftover roasted vegetables, leftover potstickers - any of these can be added to a salad with a compatible salad dressing.

12. Make your own salad dressing. 

Salad dressings are easy to make and it’s often the dressing that makes the salad exciting. A classic vinaigrette combines 3 parts oil to 1 part acid, although some people prefer 2 parts oil to 1 part acid. Get creative with your oils and acids. Olive oil, sunflower, oil, and avocado oil are all great in salad. Different acids bring different dimensions to your salad: red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar, rice vinegar, lemon juice, lime juice, and yogurt. Garlic, ginger, scallions, lemon or lime zest, and mustard all add dimension to the dressing. The salty flavor can come from sea salt, soy sauce, fish sauce, or miso. Other additions you might add are spices, mustard, grated cheese, fresh herbs, chiles, honey, or syrup.

Here are a few of my favorite salad dressing combinations and the basic way I make dressing:

  • Classic vinaigrette: Garlic - olive oil - red wine vinegar - mustard
  • Lime-chile: Garlic - fish sauce - lime juice, sunflower oil - sweet chili sauce
  • Miso-ginger: Miso - garlic - ginger - soy sauce - honey, rice vinegar - roasted sesame oil

A classic way to make a basic dressing is to smash the garlic cloves or shallots in a small mortar and using a pestle. Grind them using the pestle with a little salt (or other salty ingredient) until you have a smooth paste. From there, add the oil, acid and any other ingredients to get your desired flavor. Taste as you go.

Salads I’m Eating on Repeat this Summer

Panzanella salad with any kind of greens I can find, fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, kalamata olives, homemade croutons, basil or oregano, chickpeas, and feta cheese and a classic vinaigrette.

Thai flavors salad with cabbage, cucumbers, mango or tomato, peppers, thai basil, mint or cilantro, protein such as tofu, chicken or shrimp, chopped peanuts, leftover rice or noodles, and lime-chile dressing.

Bok choy salad with leftover cooked potstickers, noodles, or rice, chopped bok choy, sauerkraut or kimchi, grated carrot, green beans, and a miso-ginger dressing.