Tips and tricks for making the perfect salad

Should I season my salad? How do I use kohlrabi? Read on for all your salad questions, answered.
Should I season my salad? How do I use kohlrabi? Read on for all your salad questions, answered. Photo: William Meppem

If you believe the adage "you don't win friends with salad", perhaps it's time you upped your game. Here are some winning ways to show you give a toss about the state of your salad.

How do I make salads delicious like they do in restaurants? L. Ho

Use glutamic acid. The real MSG – umami-rich ingredients such as parmesan, pecorino and anchovies. Take 180ml of extra virgin olive oil, 30ml of dijon mustard and 30ml of really good wine vinegar, add four anchovy fillets or two packed tablespoons of grated parmesan or good pecorino and blitz in a food processor or with a stick blender. Dress the salad at the table by pouring as much as you like into the bowl, adding the leaves then massaging the dressing through.

Do I need to wash "pre-washed" salad greens I buy in a bag? R. Peebles

The message from the Food Safety Information Council is to take food poisoning seriously. A recent listeria outbreak attributed to contaminated rockmelons resulted in seven tragic deaths and a miscarriage. When it comes to pre-packed leafy greens, the council recommends you choose "fresh whole lettuce for salads rather than bagged lettuce". An Australian salmonella outbreak in February 2016 was linked to bagged mixed salad and resulted in 28 cases of salmonella poisoning. The contamination was linked to fertiliser used to grow the greens. The council recommends washing all fruit and vegetables that are going to be served raw. This means washing in running water and spinning it dry. Thorough washing will help remove dust and dirt. The listeria that contaminated the rockmelons, for example, came from dust blown in from elsewhere and not from the farm where fruit was grown.

What is the best way to keep greens? R. Simonson

Water loss is the biggest enemy to freshness and slowing this down through the leaves and cut surfaces helps vegetables keep longer. Anything green with the roots attached, such as herbs or hydroponically grown lettuce, will keep longer if kept in a jug or mug filled with water. Loose salad leaves, spinach or soft-leafed herbs can be rolled in a tea towel and placed in loosely wrapped plastic bag. Soft leaves, such as baby lettuce, crush easily and can be cushioned by placing in a zip-lock bag, inflating it a little by blowing into it and then sealing and refrigerating. In my experience, freshly picked vegetables grown in compost-enhanced soils last longer than conventionally grown ones.

If I buy oil-and-vinegar salad dressing it lasts in the fridge without any change. But when I make my own with olive oil and vinegar it solidifies. J. Griffin


When manufacturers pack food in a jar with oil they rarely use extra virgin olive oil. It sets at low temperature and looks unappetising. Instead, they use canola or cottonseed oil. These are also less expensive and have a neutral flavour. Same with dressings. The only trouble is that extra virgin olive oil has some great healthy compounds. Stick to your guns, J. Griffin, and bring your salad dressing out of the fridge earlier, make less but make it fresh or cheat and warm the jar in warm water.

How do I stop my homemade salad dressing from wilting my greens? L. Jago

Funnily enough it is the oil in your dressing that is causing flaccid lettuce and less than tumescent rocket. The oil dissolves the waxy layer on the leaf that allows moisture to escape. Dress, toss, and serve your greens straight away and wilting will never be your problem, but leave it more than 30 minutes and limpness may occur. Mustard, honey or egg yolk mayo will act as a surfactant and help keep your oil and vinegar mixed together in an emulsion after you shake them together.

Should I season a salad with salt? E. Wong

Did you know that the word salad derives from salata, the Vulgar Latin for salted. Vegetables dipped in salted water were a Roman staple. A little salt will make salad taste sweeter. Salt acts as a bitterness inhibitor to the taste buds, suppressing your ability to detect a bitter terpene compound called lactucin that's found in some lettuce, endive, witlof and chicory. If you salt a salad, do so just before dressing. Sprinkle a little salt, pour over the vinaigrette and delicately massage the dressing through the leaves using your fingertips. Serve immediately as salt draws out liquid and will wilt greens quickly. Which is why it is good in making a coleslaw. Shred cabbage leaves finely, salt very heavily and rub salt in quite vigorously, cover and put aside for an hour. Wash away the salt, drain, spin in a salad spinner and dress with oil and lemon. Delicious.

My mayo always ends up being thin and yellow then splitting. G. Fairlie

The hardest part about making mayonnaise is starting the process of emulsification. This is when the oil particles are surrounded by enough egg yolk to stop them joining up to form a separate layer – or splitting. To do this you add the oil, drop by drop, into the egg-vinegar-mustard-lemon juice mixture. I use a clean eye dropper we once used to measure out the kids' medication. After it starts to thicken a little I then slowly pour in the remaining oil, whisking continuously. Since I started using the dropper I have never had a split mayo.

I am scared of getting food poisoning from raw eggs. Can you use cooked egg yolk to make mayonnaise? F. Guild

Eggs are a good source of salmonella, and raw egg mayonnaise has been associated with some unfortunate and preventable incidents of food poisoning. If made and held at an unsafe temperature – above 4C – salmonella can breed and cause food poisoning. All egg mayonnaise sold in supermarkets is made with pasteurised eggs. You can make an emulsion sauce by mixing two egg yolks with 30 millilitres of cider vinegar, 30 millilitres water, one teaspoon sugar, one teaspoon French mustard, a large pinch of salt and one cup of olive oil in a small heavy-based saucepan. Place over very low heat, stir and allow to bubble. Remove from heat immediately and allow to cool for five minutes then pour very slowly into a food processor at high speed. You could also consider making the very delicious sauce gribiche made with hard-boiled egg, which is delicious with ham and baguette, on a terrine with cornichons or with poached chicken. Take two small hard-boiled eggs, peeled and finely diced, a French shallot, finely diced, a tablespoon of baby capers, the same of chopped cornichons, sherry vinegar and Dijon mustard, three tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Mix well and finish with several tablespoons of finely chopped flat leaf parsley.

I have recently become a vegan but I really miss mayonnaise. M. Matthews

Mayonnaise is an emulsion; liquids that normally can't be combined brought together into a homogenous mass. In this case olive oil and water-based vinegar come together in a thick sauce bound by egg yolk. Eggs come from chickens. Chickens are animals. Mayo, therefore, is off your list. Except you could make mayo from plants. Chickpea water to be precise. There are starches, proteins and saponins that leach into the water in which chickpeas have been cooked. Saponins are compounds in plants that foam in water. When whipped, this liquid becomes light and fluffy like beaten egg whites. To make the vegan mayo drain a tin of chickpeas and save 60ml of the liquid in a small bowl. Add a teaspoon each of vinegar and lemon juice, two teaspoons of mustard and several pinches of salt to taste. Blend using a stick blender. Slowly drizzle in 180ml of lightly flavoured extra virgin olive oil, or other oil while blending. The oil should emulsify into the chickpea water to create a thick sauce. The chickpea water has been named by American chefs as aquafaba from the Latin for "water" and "bean". Vegan mayo sales using aquafaba in the US have hit the $US50 million ($67m) mark a year.

How do I keep my potatoes firm for potato salad? D. Keith

If you slowly bring your potatoes to just under 60 degrees in a pot of water and hold the temperature there for about 20 minutes you can create firm cooked potatoes. By doing so you're activating an enzyme in the cell walls that changes the way calcium ions affect the pectin. Pectin is the starch that gives fruit and vegetables their rigidity and this process makes it more stable at higher temperatures. After this treatment the potatoes should remain firmer when cooked in the normal manner afterwards.

My grandmother made a potato salad with a vinaigrette that made a creamy dressing when it went on the potatoes. I make my potato salad with kipflers and I can't make it as creamy as Oomah's. L. Schulz

I deduce from your surname and use of the familial "oomah" that your family may be German? I suspect, then, that your grandmother would have used floury potatoes that release starch into the dressing, making a rich and thick slurry. You're using kipflers, which are waxy and hold on to their starch. Try cooking a starchy potato such as a coliban, russet or King Edward, alongside the kipflers. Then mash the starchy potato into some of the dressing and fold it through the rest of the potatoes.

Do bright red tomatoes with flavour have more nutrients than pale bland ones? L. Johnson

"Never eat tomatoes from the end of autumn until the first of the new season's crop in summer," an old Italian neighbour used to tell me. "A tomato should fill your face with aroma," she said. "When it gets cold you should only be eating tinned or bottled tomatoes in your sugo for pasta." A ripe, aromatic tomato is packed with phytonutrients, compounds that fruit and vegetables have evolved to naturally produce to protect themselves against pest attack. Funnily enough, we have evolved to find many of these ingredients not only attractive but delicious. Lycopene is a carotenoid and is the compound that makes tomatoes red. It also colours pink grapefruit pink and watermelon red. Populations with high levels of consumption of lycopene have been associated with decreased occurrence of certain cancers. The average Australian eats 3.8mg of lycopene a day while the average Italian consumes double this. But before you start popping lycopene pills from the Placebo Warehouse, research shows that the best health outcomes are achieved by populations who eat a broad range of different coloured fruits and vegetables.

How do I stop my red cabbage from losing its colour? A. Lim

Shortly after you slice the cabbage, dress it with an acidic dressing such as vinaigrette or lemon juice and then oil. The acid will help the anthocyanins in the cabbage keep their red colour.

How do I remove the strong flavour of really sharp onions? P. Ryland

You can soak them in milk or water but try rinsing them in a colander under the hot water tap. As long as the temperature is not above about 80C they will not go limp. Onion cell walls are held together with the starch pectin, which is resilient to temperatures up to about 80C. If you want colourful red onions without the sharpness, sprinkle cut onions with equal and generous amounts of salt and sugar then mix the onion and seasoning, squeezing as you go, for a minute or so. Rinse in water and dry thoroughly. Use to dress salads and vegetable dishes.

Why is it sometimes impossible to peel a boiled egg cleanly and other times the shell comes away perfectly? A. Ries

It's all about freshness. And perhaps not in the way you think. Egg whites change from being slightly acidic when freshly laid, to more neutral as they get older. In freshly laid eggs this acidity makes the egg white attracted to the membrane lining the eggshell. This means that when you boil a fresh egg the membrane, or skin, cooks onto it so when you peel off the shell and membrane, bits of egg white go with it. As the egg ages the pH rises, or becomes less acidic, and the albumen becomes less likely to stick to the membrane. So if you want perfect peeled boiled eggs, use them a bit older. You can artificially raise the pH by adding a little baking soda to the water in which you boil fresh eggs, but beware this can exacerbate the egg smell. To slice a hard-boiled egg, tie a piece of cotton, dental floss or fine fishing line to an immovable object, making the line taut, then pull this down through the boiled egg to slice it.

I always find my boiled quail eggs get torn or damaged when I try to peel them with my old fingers. Is there an easier way? J. Driscoll

I love a good quail egg. They can make rich punctuation to a summer salad or a diminutive sunny-side decoration to a fried puck of black pudding. Egg shells are mostly calcium carbonate. This is a compound that dissolves easily in acid. Take your boiled eggs, allow them to cool. Soak them in cheap white wine vinegar. The acid will dissolve the calcium carbonate, at the same time releasing little bubbles of carbon dioxide. Do this for 10 minutes or so or until the shells soften enough to peel off in a single piece. Rinse in cold water. Pat dry. Enjoy.

I am cooking a Mexican salad and it asks for jicama. What is it and where can I get it? A. Dawe

It's the swollen root of a bean plant, looks like a big shiny potato and is a native to Mexico. Spaniards took the plant to the Philippines and from there it took a holiday across to Vietnam. It avoided detention and landed on our shores. Look for it in Vietnamese grocers where it is called cay cu dau or san nuoc.

Can I eat purslane growing wild in my garden? G. Edmonson

I remember visiting the floating island farms of Lake Xochimilco in Mexico City. They are large plots of land floating on what was once a massive volcanic lake. Soil from the lake bed was dug up and plonked on top of the islands to create fertile soil. The islands were stopped from floating away by tree roots that tethered them to the shallow lake bed. I started kicking what I thought was a weed. The farmer called me "gringo estupido" and spat onto the dusty ground. I was kicking out his precious verdolaga. We call it purslane. Botanists call it Portulaca oleracea. It grows wild and spreads over the thin layer of rich topsoil in Xochimilco, stopping it from washing or blowing away. Mexicans prize this prostrate succulent for its health-giving qualities: it's high in magnesium and omega-3. If I were a betting man, I would have $1000 on this to be the superfood of 2017. Pick the new leaves on the tips and add them to a salad, where they will bring a bit of crunch. Add the older leaves and stems to vegetable braises, where they will add a slightly sticky texture to the dish.

What is kohlrabi and how do I use it? L. Kernow

It looks like a turnip but is actually the swollen stem of a type of cabbage. Kohlrabi takes its name from the German word for cabbage and the Latin for a type of radish. I peel it, julienne it with apple and serve it with walnuts and aioli as a type of Waldorf. It is good cut into batons, steamed then lightly fried in hot butter and sage.

Help! What do I do with zucchinis? We have a plague of them! G. Cole

Mmm ... locusts, gnats, frogs, dead fish — just doing the research, I can't see zucchinis listed as a plague either on the Department of Primary Industries website or in the Bible. Rosa Mitchell, a chef at Hobson's Bay Hotel, has a Sicilian recipe for zucchini that uses paper-thin strips of young zucchini, sprinkled with salt and left overnight. Next day, it's gently dried in a tea towel and dressed with a vinaigrette of balsamic vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, a little mint and crushed garlic.

What is the difference between farro, einkorn, spelt and freekeh? C. Fraser

Centuries ago, Western civilisation had a midlife crisis and dumped a whole lot of wholesome and dependable grains for a newer, more glamorous species from the same genus – namely, wheat. We mostly stopped growing grains such as einkorn (Triticum monococcum), spelt (Triticum aestivum spelta) and farro (Triticum turgidum dicoccum) in favour of modern wheat varieties such as durum (Triticum durum). Freekeh is made from modern wheat varieties that are harvested green then roasted. Einkorn is still grown in parts of Europe on poor soils. In France, it is called petit epeautre, or "little spelt", and in Italy, it is called farro piccolo or "little farro". It can be cooked in a chewy pilaf or tossed through a salad with beans and tomatoes. Farro, sometimes called emmer, can be cooked as one would steam brown rice and added to salads, but is delicious made into farrotto, similar to risotto, or simmered in chicken stock with sauteed carrots and celery to make soup. Spelt is high in protein and quite commonly ground into flour and used in baking. Depending on how the grains are processed, they may require soaking before cooking.

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