One of the most common questions friends and family have asked me since I became a cook is ‘how do restaurants make ____ taste so good’. This can be steak, seafood, veggies, sauces, dessert, or in this case salad. Now don’t get me wrong – restaurant salads can be notorious for being hit or miss in terms of taste. But when they’re a hit, they’re really a hit. Just like a good steak, eating a good salad at a restaurant leaves you thinking, ‘how did they do this?’ and ‘why can’t I make salads like this at home?’.
Restaurant salads are good for a number of reasons. Not all restaurants will employ each technique when making their salad, but any combination will make a salad great. And when you combine all five, you’ll have a four-star appetizer.
1 – Restaurants Can Make Their Own Vinaigrettes and Dressings
The first restaurant salad secret is that they can make their own vinaigrettes or dressings. A sign of a true quality restaurant is one that makes their own dressings in house. Making dressings allows complete culinary freedom when it comes to the taste of a salad, and adds to the amazing flavor you can experience. Making vinaigrettes and dressings is also surprisingly easy to do.
I remember nights working in the restaurant when I’d have to make a custom vinaigrettes for VIP clients on the fly, meaning in under 3 minutes. After a quick trip downstairs to our dry goods storeroom I’d return with 90 seconds to spare and still have enough time to whip up something tasty. Knowing how easy it is to make your own vinaigrettes, it always surprises me when I hear a restaurant is buying them from a food supplier. Making your own vinaigrettes and dressings allows you to improve the taste of your salad and to be creative with the flavors.
2 – Restaurants Season Their Dressings
The second restaurant salad secret may not be welcome news to the health-conscious reader, but it’s true: a properly made house vinaigrette or dressing will come with a generous helping of salt and pepper. You might be thinking, ‘salt in a salad? Really?’. Yes, really.
Dressings and vinaigrettes will taste good when a) they’re made with quality ingredients, b) they’re made with the right proportion of ingredients and c) they’re seasoned correctly. Restaurant salads wouldn’t taste so good unless this was true. You should be able to eat a good dressing on its own, and still enjoy what you’re eating. We used to make a champagne vinaigrette at the restaurant that you could eat by the spoonful – it was just that good.
You can even try this at home with a store-bought brand. The next time you go to make a salad, stop and taste the dressing. Is it bland? Could it use some seasoning? If so, take a little bit in a bowl and season it with a little salt, pepper and lemon juice. Toss the salad and taste – you’ll notice the difference right away. Now, if seasoning salad dressing is weird to you, just wait – it gets weirder.
3 – Restaurants Season Their Salad Greens
The third restaurant salad secret is that some restaurants will actually season their salad greens. Yes, you read this correctly. The seasoning of salad greens is not a widely used technique, but it is used at high-end restaurants to bring out the flavor of the greens themselves. Now for the health-conscious out there, don’t panic: we’re talking a very small amount of salt. But this small amount of salt is enough to change the flavor of the salad leaves considerably.
The next time you go to make a salad, try adding a pinch of salt to your greens before you add the vinaigrette or dressing. Then add your dressing and toss. You’ll be certain to notice the difference.
4 – Restaurants ‘Refresh’ Their Salad Greens
Restaurant salad secret number four has to do with the texture of the salad leaves. Ever notice the salads you get at a good restaurant have a very crisp texture, even though they’re coated in dressing? The answer is that a good restaurant will use fresh salad greens, and will ‘refresh’ them before serving.
Refreshing salad leaves is the process of dipping them in cold water, then drying. Refreshing salad leaves in this way helps crisp up salad leaves that have been packaged. After refreshing, salad leaves must be dried completely (i.e. salad spinner) to ensure that the dressing adheres properly to each leaf. Refreshing seems like a lot of fuss, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
5 – Restaurants Use the Correct Amount of Dressing
The final restaurant salad secret is that good restaurants will use the correct amount of dressing for the amount of greens in each salad. The worst possible scenario when eating a salad is having one that’s swimming in dressing. It’s unappetizing to look at, and having that much dressing completely changes the flavor profile of the dish.
What we were trained to do in the restaurant is to mix salads in batches in small bowls. We’d add our greens, a pinch of salt, then a squeeze of one of our house-made dressings. After tossing, we’d taste one of the greens for seasoning and amount of dressing. When we were satisfied with the taste we’d remove the salad from the bowl and plate it on another plate. Mixing in one bowl and plating somewhere else allows the excess dressing to stay in the bowl, and away from the customer’s plate.