At their best, a vegan salad is one of the most satisfying foods in existence. Unfortunately, salads often suffer from unimaginative preparation. You’ll often get a meager assortment of not-very-fresh vegetables. No wonder it’s a menu item that many people shy away from. Too often, they’re a bland almost-meal that leaves you hungry. But it’s easy to do salad right. When prepared with a little effort and enthusiasm, salads become worthy of eating every day.
Necessary Kitchen Items
So how do you elevate your salads from OK to amazing? To start, if you want to make outstanding salads based on lettuce and other greens, you must have a contraption known as a salad spinner. These whirring devices may seem like the epitome of those gimmicky kitchen gadgets that never quite work as advertised, but the truth is they are indispensable to making a fantastic salad.
In fact, a salad spinner is right up there with a chef’s knife, a skillet, and a cutting board as items no kitchen should be without. Why are they a crucial tool for salad preparation? It stems from the fact that oil and water don’t mix—so if your lettuce and greens are even slightly wet, your salad dressing will slide off your veggies quicker than rain off a raincoat. Without a salad spinner, the dressing won’t cling to your vegetables. You’ll end up with a watery pool of dressing on your plate. Blech.
Apart from a salad spinner, the only equipment you’ll need is a good chef’s knife, a mixing bowl for washing your vegetables (or, better yet, just use the bowl part of your salad spinner), and a large cutting board. If your kitchen sometimes prepares meat, it’s wise to have a separate cutting board just for vegetables to prevent cross-contamination. Though not strictly necessary, a grater can further liven up your salads by enabling you to add grated carrots, beets, cabbage, or peeled broccoli stalks.
Vegan Salad Ingredients
Once you’ve purchased the required kitchen equipment, your next step is to go beyond the usual assortment of vegetables. Lettuce, cucumber, and tomatoes are all fine, but why not get creative and add at least a five other items? Apart from raw hard winter squash or potatoes, pretty much every vegetable in the produce section is fair game. Some especially good choices:
- shredded spinach or kale
- sliced bell peppers
- grated carrots or beets
- sprouts of any kind
- sliced radishes
- thinly-sliced purple cabbage (adds wonderful color)
- sugar snap peas (always de-stringed!)
Remember that super-fresh vegetables are key to a great salad. Since salad vegetables are usually raw, their quality and freshness (or lack thereof) are obvious.
And don’t forget that both broccoli and cauliflower are fantastic on salads. Unfortunately, they’re usually broken into big, imposing pieces. Instead, consider slicing them thinly. Prepared that way, they’ll give your salad a nice crunch that provides an altogether different texture than a salad based only on lettuce. And always remove the skin of the floret stems, as it doesn’t break down when chewed.
Once you’ve got all your veggies together, it’s time to give some thought to how to serve your salad. Most people just use a dinner plate, but a large bowl is a superior choice since it’ll do a better job of containing all your vegetables and dressing. In fact, to digress for a moment, dinner bowls are superior to plates for a variety of meals.
Most bottled salad dressings are needlessly expensive, and they’re commonly made from low-quality oils. Better to make your own dressings based on good fresh ingredients like avocados, tahini, or olive oil. A simple dressing made by whisking together tahini, lemon juice, minced garlic, tamari, and water is all you’ll ever need. For more easy and delicious dressing ideas, please also see our salad dressings page.
If you must go commercial, one of tastiest dressings on the market is Annie’s Goddess Dressing.
Maybe the biggest complaint people have about salads is that they don’t fill you up. It’s frustrating to eat a huge salad and then find you’re hungry thirty minutes later. That won’t happen if you garnish your salad with one or two protein-rich ingredients, such as:
- roasted pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds
- chopped nuts (tamari roasted almonds are especially great)
- roasted hemp seeds or sesame seeds
- slices of sautéed tamari-seasoned tempeh or tofu
- black beans or kidney beans
- pine nuts (expensive but outrageously tasty on salads)
- nutritional yeast (which, to be frank, belongs on almost every salad)
And here are some more terrific vegan salad toppings, that, while not protein-rich, will add some exciting colors, textures, and flavors:
- seaweed, especially dulse flakes or soaked hijiki
- sauerkraut or kimchi
- minced parsley or basil
- nutritional yeast
- sliced pickled vegetables, sauerkraut, or vegan kimchi
- sliced pickled cucumbers or pickled peppers
- croutons (vegan)
- sliced avocado
Don’t Limit Yourself to Lettuce
Many people assume that salads must be made mostly of lettuce. But there’s no rule book that says this is required. In fact, if you’re not a fan of lettuce, there’s no reason you need to include any when making your salad. Only in North America and Europe are lettuce considered mainstay salad ingredients. In Thailand, the most popular salad is made from grated green papayas. And in the Middle East, tabbouleh is by far the most widely-eaten salad.
If you’d like to avoid lettuce in your salad, consider replacing it with grated cabbage or finely-sliced kale. Skinned grated carrots, beets, or broccoli stems are also excellent options. Any of these vegetables will produce a heartier salad than one dominated by lettuce, but they do require some labor-intensive grating. With that in mind, a salad shooter is an unfairly derided appliance. If you’ve got just a little grating to do these devices will handle it in a jiffy, with far less cleanup than what’s required if you broke out your food processor.
So there you have it—all the information you need to make a salad that’s incomparably superior to anything served by restaurants. Between the various types of veggies, dressings, and toppings that are available, there’s no reason to ever again eat a monotonous uninspired salad.
And all this is just the beginning. If you want to pull out all the stops, get yourself Terry Hope Romero’s cookbook Show up for Salad, which takes salads as seriously as any other meal option when it comes to creating memorable flavor combinations.
Ordering Vegan Salads at Restaurants
Once you get the hang of making salads at home, the salads served at restaurants will pale by comparison. Lots of otherwise terrific restaurants can’t do justice to a preparing a decent dinner salad. Too often, you get a poor and unimaginative assortment of vegetables. Maybe it’s because places that don’t take salads seriously rarely sell enough salad to consistently have the freshest vegetables on hand.
That said, I’m rarely disappointed by the salads served by Israeli or Lebanese restaurants. These cultures take salads seriously, and never treat them as an afterthought. Fresh, vibrant salads are a big part of these cuisines. In addition to fresh chopped lettuce, you’ll get wonderful diced tomatoes, minced bright green parsley, and sliced olives. These places will offer a creamy tahini sauce that’s about the tastiest salad dressing imaginable. If that’s not enough, they’ll usually throw a few falafel balls into your salad, which will give your meal extra staying power.
These restaurants usually also have a cheap, small side order of tabbouleh on the menu. Tossing in your tabbouleh side dish will turn your salad into a full-fledged meal.
Vegan or vegetarian restaurants also reliably serve better-than-average salads, doubtless because vegetables play a disproportionately large role in meat-free cooking.