Never Make a Boring Salad Again

If you memorize this formula, you'll have the best salad style this decade.

Laura Michelle Davis Editor, Personal Finance
Laura is a professional nitpicker and good-humored troubleshooter with over 14 years of experience in print and digital publishing. She currently oversees CNET Money's housing market coverage. Before becoming an editor with CNET, she worked as an English teacher, Spanish medical interpreter, copy editor and proofreader. She is a fearless but flexible defender of both grammar and weightlifting, and firmly believes that technology should serve the people. Her first computer was a Macintosh Plus.
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Laura Michelle Davis
5 min read
a colorful salad with a variety of ingredients

A healthy and satisfying salad is just a mnemonic away.

James Martin/CNET

Having salad swagger doesn't come naturally. But you can learn it easier than most things. 

A salad made of boring, raw ingredients -- lettuce, carrots, tomatoes -- is a demoted side dish. We eat it because we think we should. To make the salad edible, we often smother it with store-bought dressing packed with sugar and preservatives (we should really call it "salad frosting"). 

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I believe salads should be the main attraction of a meal, or even the main dish entirely. The trick to making a tasty salad is variety -- a variety of ingredients, flavors, textures and aromatics. All you have to do is review a few cardinal rules and remember this formula: Very Good Salads Contain Plenty of Flavors. It's simple and it works. 

Cardinal rules for making great salads

The most important principle to making salads healthy and actually appetizing? Be creative and daring. After you've mastered that and before you start thinking about specific ingredients, here are a few rules to guide you on the way to preparing next-level salads. 

Rule No. 1: Don't just go raw 

The food you put into a salad doesn't need to be straight out the cupboard, crisper drawer or can. Think of all the techniques you can do with a single ingredient, from roasting and toasting to marinating and pickling. Don't add bland canned chicken to your salad -- cook fresh chicken breast by poaching it in herbs and broth. Don't toss in plain chickpeas -- season them with oregano and pepper. Don't use raw carrots -- roast them first in olive oil and salt, or pickle them in vinegar and dill. 

Rule No. 2: Consider multiple textures and flavors 

A good salad always has an array of flavorful ingredients as well as a strong balance of textures: creamy, crispy, chewy and firm. Think of catching a bite with the crunch of a walnut, the sleekness of goat cheese, the juiciness of a pear and the frailty of arugula. That same bite will also carry an explosion of contrasting tastes: earthy, rich, sweet and bitter. 

Rule No. 3: Add spices and fresh herbs 

If you don't add aromatics to a salad, you've missed an opportunity. Even some salt and pepper on your greens can arouse the palate. Consider tossing in a pinch of cumin, garlic salt or a salad-seasoning blend, as well. Or, even better, include some freshly chopped parsley, basil, dill, oregano or cilantro. 

Rule No. 4: Make your own dressing with an acid base 

Every good salad balances the fat and protein with some kind of vinegar or citrus juice. There are plenty of great homemade dressing recipes out there, but you also can make a simple dressing with just oil, vinegar and spices. To step it up a notch, add some honey, mustard, tahini or fresh herbs. You can also "dress" a complex salad with a squeeze of lemon or dashes of your favorite vinegar -- whether that's balsamic, apple cider, rice or red wine vinegar -- and it'll still taste yummy. 

Pick ingredients from these categories

Now that you've read over the basic rules of salad making, we're ready to start picking our ingredients.

Remember those mnemonic devices that helped us memorize the sequence of mathematical operations (PEMDAS) or the order of planets (My Very Excellent Mom Just Served Us Noodles)? You can apply the same idea here, with the first letter of each word standing for a different salad component category: Very Good Salads Contain Plenty of Flavors, or VGSCPF. 

birds eye view of someone pouring dressing on a salad with radishes, nuts, peppers, scallions and blue cheese around the bowl

A great salad has at least six ingredients, plus loads of flavor, different textures and aromatics -- and homemade dressing. 

jeffbergen/Getty Images

The trick is to pick ingredients from the six categories here. If you're limited by a dietary restriction, just choose something from another category as a substitute. Feel free to add multiple ingredients from each category, as long as you feel you're getting a strong assortment of flavors. The goal is to have a minimum of six ingredients (or up to 10) in each salad. 

V: Vegetables

Think hearty vegetables such as cauliflower, corn, green beans, asparagus or squash. Don't forget root vegetables such as beets, carrots, sweet potatoes and jicama, or lighter veggies like mushrooms, cabbage and fennel. 

G: Greens

Leafy greens are usually the base of your salad. There are so many options to choose from, all appealing to different taste preferences -- spinach, arugula, kale, mixed greens, iceberg lettuce, radicchio and romaine. 

S: Seeds/nuts

This will give you the crunch you need. Throw in some sunflower seeds, peanuts, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, almonds, pistachios, sesame seeds or cashews. 

C: Cheese (or Crisp)

Try adding some goat cheese, parmesan shavings, feta, blue cheese or Mexican cotija cheese. You can be flexible in this category, since some people don't eat milk products. If dairy is off limits, substitute something crispy, like tortilla chips, plantain chips, rice crisps or croutons. 

P: Protein

A protein will make your salad into a solid main dish, so add some chicken, grilled steak, shredded pork or salmon. If you're a vegetarian, go with broccoli or tofu. Grains such as quinoa are also packed with protein, as are legumes such as lentils, peas and kidney, garbanzo or black beans.

F: Fruit

You probably eat more fruit in your salad than you realize. Avocados, cucumbers, tomatoes and butternut squash are fruits, though they like to masquerade as veggies. If you want your salad to have some sweet bites, add grapes, strawberries, apples, tangerines, dates, dried cranberries or raisins.

So does this salad formula actually work? 

Yes! I tested my salad formula by comparing some of my recipes with menu items from popular salad chains including Sweetgreen, Chopt and Tender Greens. I also tested the formula with friends -- they all gave me 5 stars on the "salad swagger-meter." 

Here are a couple of incredible salads I've made recently. Feel free to replicate these recipes and add your own variations or substitutions. 

Mexican steak salad

Sliced jicama (V), romaine (G), roasted pumpkin seeds (S), cotija cheese (C), tortilla chips (C), grilled steak (P), garlicky black beans (P), sliced avocado (F). Extra flavor: fresh chopped cilantro and lime-based vinaigrette. 

Salmon superfood salad

Marinated beets (V), roasted sweet potatoes (V), kale (G), sunflower seeds (S), feta (C), poached salmon (P), pomegranate seeds (F). Extra flavor: ginger-based vinaigrette. 

Sesame chicken salad

Shredded carrots (V), shredded cabbage (V), chopped scallions (V), butter lettuce (G), peanuts (S), wonton crisps (C), grilled chicken (P), edamame beans (P), mango (F). Extra flavor: freshly chopped mint and cilantro, plus a sesame-based dressing. 

Summer chopped salad

Grilled corn (V), iceberg lettuce (G), pistachios (S), goat cheese (C), roasted chicken (P), bacon (P), apples (F), cherry tomatoes (F). Extra flavor: fresh basil and parsley and a lemon-based vinaigrette. 

Waldorf-ish salad

Celery (V), pickled red onions (V), arugula (G), Marcona almonds or walnuts (S), blue cheese (C), poached chicken (P), quinoa (P), grapes (F). Extra flavor: apple-cider vinaigrette. 

Vegetarian comfort salad

Marinated carrots (V), spinach (G), toasted almonds (S), beet crisps (C), spiced lentils (P), chickpeas (P), roasted broccoli (P), grilled butternut squash (F). Extra flavor: creamy yogurt ranch with vinegar-based dressing. 

For more tips around the kitchen, here's how to safely pit an avocado and how to make a delicious mug cake in two minutes.

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.