Back when I was in culinary school, my teachers often told our class that the real litmus test of a chef’s skill was whether he could prepare a perfect plate of eggs to order. But I have a theory that watching someone build a salad can be much more informative. To begin with, salads provide an opportunity for experimentation and self-expression: no two people, be they accomplished chefs or inexperienced amateur cooks, will prepare even the most classic salad in exactly the same way. And if you excel at making salads when you really enjoy it, this can be an opportunity to show your sense of taste and balance, your knife skills, your ability to observe spices and dressings and your complete culinary creativity.

Fortunately, it’s not difficult to be excellent in salads – all it takes is a little know-how. I’ve put together the techniques we’ve shared with our readers over the years, as well as tips from chefs across the country, to give you some simple, actionable tips that will make better, tastier salads. Let’s take a look.

We all know that good food almost always starts with good ingredients, but the saying is doubly true when your ingredients are mostly raw. Your first step towards a good salad is to look for the best products you can find — crunchy, non-crumpled vegetables; ripe seasonal fruits; and bright, crunchy vegetables. Sometimes this means blanching (and even freezing) your vegetables for a longer lasting freshness. Other times you may want to swap the mushy midwinter Tomato and chalky avocado for cabbage, radishes and potatoes.

But quality is only half the action – you also want to think about balance. “In our test kitchen, I like to prepare salads using the four corners of flavor (sweet, salty, bitter, sour),” explains Sweetgreen Chef Michael Stebner. One or more of these flavors may come from your salad dressing, but each ingredient you choose should do something to improve the mixture. Do you have a lot of rich and creamy avocado in your salad? You’ll probably want a bright, acidic leaf, like a spicy citrus vinaigrette or even grapefruit slices, with something that offers a bit of contrasting crunch, be it radishes, toasted grains or croutons. Likewise, “when you put fruit in a salad, you want to balance it with some kind of fat, usually in the form of cheese,” says Stuart Brioza, chef/owner of State Bird Provisions in San Francisco. “It’s also a good excuse to use your bitter Radicchios and dandelion leaves,” he adds. In other words, you want to be constantly looking for complementary flavors and textures that harmonize.

If your favorite lettuce leaves come from a prepackaged mix, maybe it’s time to expand your horizons. “Mixed greens look great, but there’s really not a lot of flavor and they don’t keep as well in a salad,” says Stebner. “Green and red curly lettuce should be on more people’s radar,” he adds. “Usually people buy this type of salad for burgers because of its crunchiness, but it is perfect for salad.”Stebner’s favorite dishes also include stronger greens such as cabbage, Swiss chard, broccoli leaves and Bok Choy.

San Francisco bar-Toast chefs Nick Balla and Cortney Burns agree — they are big fans of hardy leaves, and in particular Asian vegetables like Choy and mustard. How to prepare them? “We often poach or salting salads,” Balla and Burns say. “It transforms the ingredient safely, but can be awesome. The wilted gemstone salad with horseradish sauce is an alternative to creamed spinach. Kale, spinach and cabbage are perfect when wilted briefly and served with crunchy ingredients in a salad.”

Even more tender greens can hit the heat – Burns likes to grill salads and chicory and serve them hot with cold side dishes. If you’re skeptical, just try these grilled Roman hearts in a spicy buttermilk vinaigrette. Seared on a hot grill, they come out charred and smoked, with a crispy and tender texture that balances a layer of juicy grape tomatoes and crispy and peppery radishes.

In the meantime, if you’re a gardener, you may have more greens available than you think, Brioza says. “One of my favorite salad vegetables is all the clarifications and harvest covers of peas, faves, beets, Swiss chard, etc.,” he explains. Unlike their tougher mature relatives, these budding leaves are tender, tender and ready to eat with little more than a light dressing.

In any matter, if you plan to serve your greens crispy and raw, you will want to maximize their freshness. “I like to wash my greens very well,” says Cesare Casella, author of the upcoming cookbook Feeding the Heart. “Ideally, you should wash and dry your ingredients, then refrigerate them until they cool down. This will help you give a little more crunch.”

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