The Secret Formula to Salad Success

Amy Machnak
by Amy Machnak
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The Secret Formula to Salad Success

Regardless of the other ingredients, the amount of dressing can make or break a salad. Too little dressing and it seems like you’re trying to eat grass, too much and your light lunch becomes an edible oil slick. The amount you drizzle is obviously the main culprit of both scenarios, but a lot of it also has to do with matching the right greens to their ideal dressing.

If you’ve ever experimented in your own kitchen with disappointing results, you likely wished you had understood the secret formula for salad success. We’ve compiled a quick guide for the most popular salad greens and the dressings that we’ve found — through lots of tests, trials and trash-bin attempts — are the best match.

This tender green wilts quickly but has a natural, peppery flavor so the best dressings are generally light in viscosity and subtle in flavor. Rather than coating the greens in liquid, “spoon-dress” the leaves with a drizzle of oil and a spritz of lemon, quickly tossing to coat everything evenly. Anything more and you’re only disguising the best part of this irresistible, cool-weather green.

Creamy yogurt dressings or a vinaigrette with chunks of cheese stirred in are ideal for this popular lettuce green that’s as sturdy as (you guessed it) an iceberg. It takes a long time for these leaves to get soggy, keeping their crunch through the thickest slathering of dressings. That said, we say skip the high-fat, high-sodium bottled stuff and stir up your own. You’d be surprised how satisfying a vinaigrette with a dollop of low-cal yogurt or Paleo-friendly mayo can be.

This large, round head of delicate greens has tender, dinner-plate-sized leaves that can’t handle anything too heavy, with even some vinaigrettes being too much if poured with gusto. Instead, this is our go-to for a simple spritz of lemon juice without any oil. That’s right, if you’re really counting calories and fat, this is the green we suggest going au natural with.

Of all the greens, this one is the heartiest. We intentionally serve this one when we’re feeding a crowd and we can prep it ahead and let it sit awhile, as the dressing helps to slowly soften the thick, dense leaves. We’ve served it with a vinaigrette but it’s great with creamy dressings like yogurt “ranch” or a mayo-based Pecorino dressing.

Technically a chicory, this salad green is not only hearty but it’s a tad bitter, which does well when paired with bold flavors like strong garlic, sharp acid and coarse salt to help balance it. We suggest vinaigrettes made with fresh-squeezed citrus juice, garlic and herb blends and briny dressings made with olives or anchovies.

Like iceberg, romaine lettuce is sturdy and can handle a heavier dressing as mentioned above. But we suggest trying to lighten up the traditional Caesar dressing by starting with a vinaigrette and adding heavy spoonfuls of minced garlic and anchovy paste. You’ll get all the pleasure of the classic but with fewer calories.

This green does double duty as both a lettuce when served raw and as a side dish when wilted with a flash of heat. Therefore, we don’t mind if these greens get just a tad soggy. In fact, this iron-packed green is ideal when served as a warm salad. Try a mustardy vinaigrette drizzled over the top.

No matter which lettuce you’re serving, it’s destined to be tasty if you pour on the right type of dressing without going overboard. Use lots of flavorful ingredients like garlic, herbs, black pepper, spices and good salt. Making sure your dressing is as flavorful as it can be on it’s own guarantees you don’t need a lot and your salads will always be crave-worthy.

About the Author

Amy Machnak
Amy Machnak

Amy is a James Beard award-winning food writer. A former staff writer at Sunset magazine, her work has also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle,, Cooking Light, Tasting Table, and more. She’s contributed to seven cookbooks with Sunset and William’s Sonoma, and written one of her own. When she’s not writing or cooking, you can find her in a sweaty yoga class, drinking wine she can’t afford or on social media mentally correcting people’s punctuation.


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