For summer-fresh salads, start with produce that’s in season. Corn, tomatoes, beans, peppers and fresh herbs are abundant this time of year. Then dress them with pantry items such as high-quality oils and vinegars; condiments such as mustards or hot sauces; and cured foods such as olives, capers or prosciutto. In deciding what ingredients to pair, remember to include complementary flavors. Vinegar or citrus balances sweet fruit, a little sugar tones down hot pepper, and salty ham or olives counter bitter greens. The following ingredients are key to making every summer salad delicious.
Oil Olive oil is the most common choice for salads. Modestly priced extra-virgin olive oil works fine, but if it’s within your budget, try higher-quality oils from Italy, France, Spain or California. Like wines, these oils have individual flavor profiles ranging from fruity to peppery, grassy or herbaceous.
Nut and seed oils, such as walnut, hazelnut, pistachio, pumpkin or sesame, lend their own distinct flavors and richness. Because of their intensity, however, they should be treated like seasonings. It’s often best to combine them with milder olive or vegetable oils. Keep nut and seed oils refrigerated after opening to prevent them from turning rancid.
Vinegar Three vinegars—red wine, white wine and cider—have a pleasant sharpness and should be pantry basics. In addition, keep some specialty vinegars on hand. Sherry vinegar has a light, nutty character; balsamic vinegar has a sweet, complex flavor. For even milder flavor, turn to champagne vinegar or unseasoned rice vinegar. Seasoned rice vinegar has mild acidity and added salt and sugar; it makes an excellent vegetable dressing on its own.
Herbs Nothing enlivens an ordinary salad like fresh herbs. Those with soft leaves, such as basil, tarragon, chervil, cilantro, marjoram, parsley or dill, are best in lighter salads. To preserve their full flavor, coarsely chop them right before you add them. Hardier thick-leafed herbs, such as sage, rosemary and thyme, are best with more robust ingredients and should be chopped finely if they’re not cooked. Keep the flavors distinctive by using only one or two types of herbs for each salad.
Potatoes Potato varieties range from starchy to waxy. Starchy ones, such as russets, are best for frying or mashing. Potatoes that tend to be more waxy—round white or red potatoes, often called boiling potatoes—hold up well in salads. If you’re leaving the skins on, most small potatoes work well. Fingerlings, such as Russian Banana or Ruby crescent, are especially good for their nutty flavor and dense texture. Yukon Gold and Yellow Finn are excellent all-purpose potatoes.