How to Make the Perfect Salad From Just About Anything- Gourmet and Frugal Too!

For much of my childhood, I thought that the definition of salad was iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes, perhaps a few radish slices, and a bottled salad dressing, like French or Italian dressing.
I had no clue that 10-15 years later, making up intricate and varied delicious salads would be one of my favorite hobbies. In fact, my salads are my foods that tend to get the biggest compliments when served to guests, and its not rare that you'll find at least 4 or 5 different salads at my dinner table- I've even served a meal where there were 14 different salads on the menu!

With my love of salads, you might find it strange that out of the 900 some posts on my blog, and nearly 300 recipe posts, I've only included recipes for 10 different salads on my blog. Well, the main reason for this is because I rarely use an actual recipe to make salad, and only rarely make the same salad twice; my salads are usually "fly by the seat of my pants" recipes, using whatever I have in the house, but always coming out perfectly.
How is it that my salads come out terrific despite never following a recipe? Why am I now in love with salads when as a child I didn't really care much for eating salads?

Because I've discovered a master technique to making the perfect salad from just about anything available.

Why is this technique being featured on my frugal site? What does the perfect salad making technique have to do with frugality?

Lots, in fact.

See, the reason I generally don't use cookbooks for making salad (or really for most things, in fact) is because when you read a recipe and want to replicate it, it often means going out to the store and buying all the ingredients listed. (This is especially true for salads, as they usually are made with highly perishable produce, not things people can stock long term in their stockpile.)
When you buy something for a specific recipe, it usually isn't the most frugal move, as you aren't buying it because it's on sale or in season, and often you make a special, additional trip to the grocery store to get it (a bad frugal move).
The most frugal recipes, the most frugal salad recipes, are the ones made with whatever it is you already have in the house, that you purchased because it was in season and on sale, or better yet, that you grew or foraged yourself.
The thing is- you aren't likely to find a recipe to make a salad using exactly whatever it is that you have in the house, but with the proper technique, you too can make the perfect salad that is ultra frugal.

The Background
Growing up, I had salad in two places. The school cafeteria, and my family's dining room table. The school lunch ladies always mixed up the exact same tossed salad- the aforementioned iceberg lettuce, cherry tomatoes, cucumber slices, and radish slices, served with your choice of bottled dressing.

My mom, bless her, though she can cook up some really terrific dishes at times, can be a bit of a picky eater, and she has some rigid ideas in her head about how foods should and shouldn't be, which put a damper on her (and therefore my) ability to construct a variety of different salads.
How's that?
Well, my mom doesn't like mustard, vinegar, anything remotely bitter, or anything sharp/spicy. And she has this idea that the only things that belong in a salad are vegetables and dressing. Oh, and that fruit and vegetables should not, under any circumstance, be combined. (I remember her "horror" when some freinds passed on their leftovers to us and she discovered that *gasp*- they put onions and fruit in the same chutney!)

I'm not like that.

As a kid, I think my favorite salad I had was one with lettuce, veggies, candied almonds, and craisins that I had at a friend's house. Another time, I had a salad that contained corn chips as well as all the veggies. This opened the door to a whole new world of salad making to me, that yes, you can add other, creative things to salad, and in fact, they don't ruin it- they make it even better!

The Perfect Salad- The Art of Balance
Salad making is not a science, that is for sure. (Baking, on the other hand, usually is.)
When it comes to making the perfect salad, especially if you want to make it gourmet, you have to learn how to strike a balance between all the different components that make a salad. The perfect salad is an edible masterpiece, something aimed at pleasing many different senses, but most importantly, taste, touch, and to a slightly lesser degree, but still important, visual appeal. (Smell and sound play a minor role as well, but I won't be touching on that here.)
Think about it- what is the difference between some carrot sticks and a salad, especially a terrific one?
Variety is one of the most important things in a good salad.

And now with all that intro, what do you want in a salad?

  • You want a medley of tastes, is the most important.
  • A variety of textures is another.
  • And you want to appeal to the visual sense as well, as we eat first with our eyes and only after with our mouth.
So, how do you create that perfect medley?
You want your salad to have some of each of the five main tastes- sweet, salty, sour, spicy, and bitter. (Sorry Mom; yes, I did say bitter and spicy!)
Your salad should ideally have as many of these as possible- soft, crunchy/chewy, creamy/smooth, wet/watery, and leafy.
If you can get as much variety of color as possible in a salad, it's perfect. It doesn't need to be a huge amount of all sorts of color, but if you can even have a touch of foods that contrast in color from the rest of the salad, it's ideal. Try to have at least some bright colors in your salad.
You also want to either have uniformity or variation in the size and shape of the ingredients in your salad. This is a little less important, though.

The Details- What Foods Work For a Salad?
At first, when you hear about what makes a perfect salad, it may sound extremely overwhelming. How can you get that many things into just one salad? Would it even taste good?
I thought I'd go through some potential ingredients with you, discus their qualities, so you can see how they'd fit in to the perfect salad.

  • Lettuce- Iceberg lettuce is crunchy, watery, and a bit sweet. Romaine lettuce adds bulk as well as a touch of bitterness to a salad. Lettuces are a good way to bulk up salads and balance out other textures so that the people eating the salad won't become overwhelmed.
  • Tomatoes- depending on their stage of ripeness, either are sweet, or sour, but generally both. Texture-wise they are generally softer than other salad ingredients, so they're a great addition when using lots of chewy or crunchy ingredients.
  • Cucumbers- add crunch, wateriness, and sometimes a drop of bitterness.
  • Peppers- Green peppers add bitterness and sourness and crunch to a salad; red, orange, and yellow peppers add a sweet and sour taste, together with a bit of crunch.
Now assume you'd combine these four typical salad ingredients, and make a dressing out of olive oil, lemon juice, salt, garlic powder, and pepper.
In the taste realm you'd have sweet (tomatoes, peppers, iceberg lettuce), sour (lemon juice, tomatoes, peppers), bitter (peppers, olive oil, lettuce), salty (salt), and spicy (pepper, garlic).
You'd have crunch (lettuce, cucumbers, peppers), wet/watery (lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber), leafy (lettuce), soft (tomatoes), and a touch of creamy (olive oil).
In the visual sense, you'd have a medley of colors- green (lettuce, cucumbers, peppers), red (tomatoes, peppers), yellow (peppers), orange (peppers), white (cucumber, iceberg lettuce).
In many ways, you'd have a pretty good salad. Which is why it's the typical salad you find in most places.

But it would still be missing something.
If I were making such a salad, I'd probably want to balance it out by adding something creamy like:
Tahini dressing instead of the aforementioned oil/lemon/salt/pepper/garlic dressing, or another creamy salad dressing like a mayo based one, such as thousand island dressing, or a sweet and sour mayo/lemon/sugar (or honey) dressing, or honey/mustard/mayo.
Or, I'd add a creamy ingredient such as cooked chickpeas or avocado slices or cubes.
Ideally, I'd add a bit more sweetness to the recipe as well, either in the form of dressing (which is why most of the dressings I mentioned are sweet), or in the form of salad ingredients- like craisins or candied nuts. But the sweetness is less important, as it already has tomatoes and peppers.

So now, here's some more potential salad ingredients, what they contribute to the salad, and how to prepare them for a salad (if necessary):

Standard Salad Ingredients:
  • Cabbage: crunchy, somewhat watery, somewhat sweet. 
  • Carrots: sweet, crunchy. (Cut small cubes, grate, thinly slice, or cook to soften, because otherwise too much makes the salad too hard to chew.)
  • Eggplant- sour, spicy, soft/wet, or crispy, depending on how it's cooked (slices thinly or cube, then bake, saute, grill, or fry).
  • Mushrooms- watery, crunchy if raw, smooth if cooked, possibly salty depending on how its prepared (raw, sauted, or cooked). 
  • Corn Kernels- watery, sweet, soft, creamy (cooked, canned, or frozen).
  • Onions- if raw, spicy and crunchy, possibly sweet. If cooked, soft or crunchy, sweet. (Raw, sauted, or deep fried to a crisp.)
  • Celery- Crunchy, watery, somewhat bitter. Leaves can be used, but they're even more bitter.
  • Summer squash (yellow, crookneck, or zucchini)- crunchy, watery, sweet, a drop creamy (raw, grilled, or dry fried).
  • Spinach/kale/swiss chard- leafy, slightly bitter.
  • Beets- sweet, crunchy if raw (grate or cut thin slices if using raw and use sparingly, otherwise it'll make the salad hard to chew)
  • Fennel- watery, crunchy, sweet.
  • Peas- if using frozen or fresh, sweet. If using canned, salty. If using raw, crunchy, if using cooked, smooth/creamy.
  • Legume sprouts- crunchy, watery, can be slightly bitter. (Mung bean, lentil sprouts, chickpea sprouts.)
  • Winter squash/sweet potatoes- creamy/smooth, sweet. (Use peeled and cooked- some do use this raw, but I don't have much experience with it.)
Extras/Specialty Ingredients- things that pack a powerful punch in a salad, or are expensive additions. Use sparingly.
  • Olivessalty, sour, bitter, soft, slightly creamy.
  • Capers- salty, sour, bitter, soft.
  • Radish slices- spicy, crunchy, watery
  • Baby corn- crunchy, sweet, a little salty.
  • Avocado- soft, creamy, a little bitter.
  • Hearts of palm- soft and creamy, sometimes crunchy, a little sweet, a little sour, watery
  • Pickles- sour, salty, sometimes sweet, sometimes crunchy, sometimes spicy.
  • Nuts and seeds- crunchy, sometimes salty, sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet- if candied. (Almonds-whole or slivered, raw or toasted, sunflower seeds, pecans, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, etc...)
Fruit- Either dried, canned, or fresh, these often make nice additions to salads
  • Craisins- sweet, sour, and chewy.
  • Raisins- sweet and chewy.
  • Apples- crunchy, sweet, possibly sour.
  • Pears- sweet, either smooth/creamy and soft, or crunchy.
  • Oranges- sweet and sour, wet, soft (mandarin oranges are my favorite addition).
  • Mangoes- sweet, soft, smooth/creamy, wet
  • Pomegranate seeds- sweet, sour, crunchy, wet
  • Strawberries- sweet, sometimes sour, wet, soft
  • Peaches- sweet, soft, creamy and wet if canned and sometimes fresh, possibly crunchy fresh
  • Apricots- sweet and sour, soft and creamy, wet.
  • Figs- sweet, soft, creamy, wet (when fresh).
  • Grapes- sweet, possibly sour, soft, wet.
Foraged Ingredients: (other than all the ingredients mentioned above.) Some may be found in the grocery store.
  • Milk thistle- watery, crunchy ribs, a little bitter, leafy.
  • Purslane- watery, crunchy, slightly salty, lemony.
  • Nopales/cactus paddles- wet, lemony, slightly salty.
  • Yucca blossoms- wet, slightly bitter, creamy (use only after boiling in salted water for 5 minutes).
  • Redbud blossoms- sweet, sour, watery.
  • Wood sorrel- sour, leafy.
  • Wild mustard- spicy, leafy, slightly bitter. (Use only non hairy varieties.)
  • Pine nuts- creamy, crunchy, slightly sweet.
  • Dock- sour, leafy.
  • Grape leaves- sour, leafy.
  • Dandelion leaves- somewhat bitter, leafy.
  • Chicory leaves- very bitter, leafy. (Use very sparingly.)
  • Sow thistle- somewhat bitter, leafy, wet, crunchy stems.
  • Wild lettuce- extremely bitter, leafy. (Use very, very sparingly.)
  • Chickweed- leafy, watery.
Proteins and Starches-
  • Chicken- chewy, can add other flavors, depending on how it is cooked (use grilled, baked, or sauted).
  • Tuna fish- dry, needs a creamy addition like avocado or mayo or similar.
  • Eggs- creamy, dry (hard boiled, and chopped, sliced, or grated).
  • Beef- chewy, can add other flavors, depending on how it's cooked (make sure to cook until fully soft).
  • Beans- creamy/smooth, can be sweet or salty.
  • Cheese- creamy, can be salty or spicy.
  • Potatoes- smooth, creamy. (Boiled, baked, or fried.)
  • Noodles- smooth, creamy.
  • Quinoa- somewhat smooth, somewhat crunchy. Slightly bitter.
Herbs and Salad Dressing Ingredients
  • Oil- creamy, generally not powerfully flavored other than olive oil which is bitter, sesame oil which is somewhat bitter.
  • Tahini paste- creamy, somewhat bitter.
  • Peanut butter- creamy, can be sweet or salty, depending on the brand.
  • Lemon juice- sour, wet.
  • Lime juice- sour, wet.
  • Vinegar- sour, wet. Different types like balsamic and kombucha vinegar can be sweet.
  • Mayonnaise- creamy, slightly sour, slightly salty.
  • Mustard- creamy, spicy, a little bitter.
  • Soy sauce- salty, slightly sour, slightly bitter, wet.
  • Ketchup- sweet, sour, wet, creamy.
  • Passion fruit- sweet, sour, wet, crunchy.
  • Salt- salty. (Duh.)
  • Honey- creamy, sweet, a little spicy.
  • Sugar- sweet.
  • Maple syrup- sweet, wet.
  • Scallions- spicy, chewy.
  • Garlic- spicy, fresh is spicier.
  • Pepper- spicy, slightly bitter. Pink peppercorns are slightly sweet. Freshly ground is spicier.
  • Cilantro- somewhat bitter.
  • Parsley- somewhat bitter.
Other fun additions:
  • Tortilla chips- crunchy, salty.
  • Sesame seeds- crunchy, slightly bitter.
  • Croutons- crunchy, salty.
  • Soup nuts- crunchy, salty.
  • Flatbreads- crunchy, salty.
  • Ramen noodles- generally crunchy, soft after soaking.
Making Your Perfect Salad
Now that you have a whole bunch of ingredients in a list in front of you, all you need to do to create a delicious salad is to look through the list and make sure that you have something sweet, something sour, something salty, something bitter, and something spicy in your salad.
 Also add as many of these as possible- soft, crunchy/chewy, creamy/smooth, wet/watery, and leafy.
And of course, if you can make sure these are colorful, you get extra points.
If you're unsure how a certain ingredient will taste with all the others, try out a small bit (mix it in a spoon or small cup), and if it tastes good, make the larger amount. Just add a little bit at a time, and keep on adding more and more of your ingredients until you have the perfect flavor mixture.

A point to keep in mind- remember that the key to a perfect salad is balance. When using bitter ingredients, the more bitter you have, the more sweet and/or sour you need to balance it out. A salad with lots of bitter greens pretty much needs a sweet dressing, or something very sweet in the salad ingredients itself, like a fig. Sweet and sour balance out bitter. If using less bitter, you can get away with less sweet and less sour if desired. And on the other extreme, if you're making a salad pretty sweet, you need to add more sour or bitter to balance it out. If you add too much of a strong flavor without balancing it out, the salad will either taste "so-so" or bad. So go easy on the strong flavors unless you are providing something with which to balance and mellow it out.

Just to give you confidence- when following this technique, I've never, ever made a salad that wasn't a hit. The only times I've ever flopped a salad was when I didn't balance it properly, like I included too many bitter greens, or when I went overboard with lemon and ended up with something too sour. But if you only add a little bit at a time, tasting as you go, it's sure to work out.

Generally, when you're making a salad, keep the wet ingredients separate until right before you serve it, otherwise it'll get the whole thing soggy. Add the dressing and the things that get soggy quickly (like tortilla chips, croutons, soup nuts) right before serving.
The exception to this rule is when making a marinated salad. If marinating, use only ingredients that are on the crunchier end, so that they don't get soggy during the marination process.

To inspire you, some of my best salads that I've ever made that I created on a whim, using precisely these techniques:

Marinated Rainbow Salad:
Zucchini, carrots, purslane stems, peppers, pomegranate seeds, scallions, and poppy seeds, with a vinegar, lemon juice, honey, jaggery, garlic, and salt dressing.

Lets see how it meets up with the technique of how to make a perfect salad.

Sweet- pomegranate, carrot
Sour- pomegranate, lemon juice, vinegar
Salty- purslane, salt
Bitter- peppers
Spicy- pepper, scallions

Crunchy- carrots, zucchini, purslane
Soft- pomegranate
Creamy- oil, zucchini
Watery- purslane, zucchini

Colors- orange, yellow, green, red, black.

The salad was slightly lacking in the creamy/soft side if it hadn't been marinated, but since it was marinated, all the vegetables softened, and the zucchini got a somewhat creamy texture.

Cabbage, Soy, and Fruit Salad
Purple cabbage, mandarin oranges, pomegranate, scallions, sesame seeds, with a soy sauce, oil, passion fruit, sugar, and garlic dressing.

Sweet- pomegranate, purple cabbage, mandarin orange, sugar
Sour- pomegranate, passionfruit, soy sauce, mandarin oranges
Salty- soy sauce
Bitter- soy sauce, cabbage
Spicy- scallions, garlic

Crunchy- cabbage, pomegranate, passionfruit
Soft- mandarin oranges
Creamy- oil, passionfruit
Wet/Watery- mandarin oranges, pomegranate

Colors- purple, orange, red, green, white, black.

Cactus Paddle Salad-
Black olives, nopales, tomatoes, chickpeas, purslane, hearts of palm, oil, salt, garlic.

Sweet- tomato, hearts of palm
Sour- nopales, olives, purslane, tomato
Salty- olives, hearts of palm, purslane, chickpeas
Bitter- olives
Spicy- olives, garlic

Crunchy- hearts of palm, olives, purslane
Soft- tomato, nopales
Creamy- heards of palm, chickpeas, oil, passionfruit
Wet/Watery- nopales, hearts of palm, purslane

Colors- black, green, brown, white, red

Yucca Fig Salad
Yucca petals, radish slices, figs, sow thistle, wild lettuce, mayonnaise, mustard, lemon juice, salt.

Sweet- fig
Sour- lemon juice
Salty- salt, yucca
Bitter- yucca, wild lettuce, sow thistle
Spicy- radish, mustard

Crunchy- radish
Soft- yucca, fig
Creamy- yucca, mayonnaise, mustard, fig
Wet/Watery- yucca, radish
Leafy- sow thistle, wild lettuce

Colors- yellow, white, pink, purple, green

Mediterranean Salad
Tomatoes, chickpea, red peppers, green olives, olive oil, salt, cilantro, garlic, and lemon juice.

Sweet- tomatoes, red peppers
Sour- tomatoes, red peppers, green olives, lemon juice
Salty- green olives, chickpeas, salt
Bitter- green olives, olive oil, cilantro
Spicy- garlic, green olives.

Hopefully, with this technique in your repertoire, you will be able to whip up a delicious salad any time you open your refrigerator, even without an exact recipe, and even if you've never before heard of a salad that combined those exact ingredients.
P.S. Did you know that this technique of balancing ingredients works with many other types of dishes as well, and not just with salads? Even soups, stews, and casseroles can benefit from this technique. Just try it out!

Are you an experimenter in the kitchen, or do you find you need to follow exact recipes? Are you a salad eater? Do you generally make salads from recipes or off the cuff with what you have in the house? If you make them off the cuff, what technique do you use to ensure it'll come out yummy? Have you ever heard of this technique of balancing a salad before?
Do you think you'd be adventerous to make up your own delicious salad with whatever it is you have in your house after reading this, or are you still a bit unsure?
What is your favorite salad recipe? Does it fit this technique of making the perfect salad, with the balance of flavors, textures, and colors?

Penniless Parenting

Mommy, wife, writer, baker, chef, crafter, sewer, teacher, babysitter, cleaning lady, penny pincher, frugal gal


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  1. This really opened my eyes to what a salad could be. My problem is I do like recipes to spell out what I need. I always like to have a fresh raw component to my meals. I'm going to bookmark this page and refer back to it! Btw I made the Italian dressing recipe earlier today for my rosemary chicken and white beans. Its almost done in the slowcooker!

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