How to Dress a Salad “all’italiana”

Frankcontorno, reference29 Comments

How to Dress a Salad, the Italian way

The proper dressing of a salad has got to be one of the most overlooked techniques in all of cookery. For many people, a salad is something so common that it hardly merits thinking about. But there is actually a kind of art to this everyday task that can really transform your salads from the pedestrian to—dare I say it?—the sublime. Perhaps nothing else demonstrates so well the importance of technique in the act of cooking. So here’s the skinny on how to dress a salad, the Italian way:

The Golden Rule

The Italians also have their own particular way of dressing a salad, which can be nicely summed up by the following proverb:

A ben condire l’insalata, ci vuole un avaro per l’aceto, un giusto per il sale e uno strambo per l’olio.

Which, loosely translated, means: “to properly dress a salad, you need a miser to add the vinegar, a judge to add the salt and a spendthrift to add the oil.” In other words, there are only three ingredients for dressing the salad and the proportions are as indicated—very little vinegar, the ‘right’ amount of salt (not too much, not too little) and a generous amount of oil.

The taste of the oil, in fact, should dominate, not—as is usually the case for oil-and-vinegar dressings in the States but also (albeit to a lesser extent) in a French vinaigrette—the vinegar. Of course, this means that a fruity extra-virgin olive oil is essential. (See my post on The Italian Pantry for details.)

Despite the popular misconceptions, everyday Italian dressing does not contain garlic or oregano or grated cheese or indeed anything else—not even, depending on who you ask, pepper.

The vinegar should be wine vinegar (of course!) but both white and red wine vinegars are perfectly fine, according to your preference. Personally, I like white wine vinegar as it is milder (or so it seems to me) and its light color does not ‘stain’ the salad. One common variation is to use freshly squeezed lemon juice in place of the vinegar. It is especially nice as part of a fish dinner, of course. But be very careful: lemon juice tends to be very sour, so use even less of it than you would vinegar. (Some varieties of lemon, like the lovely Meyer lemon, are milder in flavor and can be used with less restraint.)

On Dressing a Salad

This is all you’ll need…

Dressing is a verb, not a noun

The other thing that sets the Italian approach apart is that the dressing does not exist separately from the salad itself. You don’t mix the dressing in a bowl and then add it to the salad, as for a vinaigrette; you add the three ingredients, one at a time, to the greens, tossing quickly and very gently after each addition. Taste and adjust for balance, toss again if need be, and serve the salad right away, as the greens will begin to wilt almost immediately. The dressing should just coat the leaves so they glisten. A proper salad is never ‘swimming’ in dressing.

On the order for adding oil, vinegar and salt

I usually start with the oil, then the vinegar and then finally the salt, but not everyone does it this way. A reader named Giulia, now a scholar in Scotland, recently sent me this wonderful story about her experience making salad while visiting her native town in Treviso:

The Incident

Last time I was home visiting my family and friends (I come from a small village, south of Treviso), I went to a fundraiser lunch with a friend of mine. The kitchen was full of ladies, every one of them having her own task(s). But there was one lady in particular that seemed in charge and she looked like she knew what to do. I thought she was a bit grumpy, but maybe it was just the stress of the situation. When time came to dress a saeada, the salad, my friend took the bottle of olive oil in an attempt to help, since it was getting hectic in there. E ociáde, the looksshe got! Like flying knives! That one lady almost yelled at her and my friend froze with the bottle of oil of olive in mid air. That same one lady asked my friend: ‘Situ sposada?’ Are you married? My friend isn’t and the lady replied ‘Of course you aren’t. Because if you were, you would know that sale, pepe, olio, aceto, otherwise is not as good as mom (of the husband) makes it.’ Of course the answer revealed the traditional tension between wives and mother in laws. This incident got me thinking about the order of the ingredients. I never really thought about it until that day.

Giulia’s story got me to thinking and I did a little research. It seems that none other than Il cucchiaio d’argento, an authoritative cookbook, endorses that bossy lady’s position: salt first, then the vinegar and the olive oil last. No pepper mentioned. (They are specific about the order but don’t give reasons.) On the other hand, Ada Boni’s Talismano has a recipe for insalata di lattuga alla casalinga (“Housewife-Style Lettuce Salad) that tells you to do it ‘my’ way, starting with the oil, then vinegar, then salt and pepper. And then there are yet other methods: the doyenne of Italian cookery in the US, Marcella Hazan, tells you to start with salt, then the oil and the vinegar only at the last, saying that the vinegar wilts the lettuce, so it needs the oil as protection first. Another well-known cookbook author from Florence, Giuliano Bugialli, makes the same point about the vinegar but recommends mixing the salt into the vinegar in a large spoon before adding it to the salad and tossing.

I’ve also come across a number of online ‘debates’ among Italian home cooks. It seems there are, indeed, two schools of thought: both agree that the oil coats the lettuce and ‘seals’ it. Some see this as a good thing, others see it as a defect… I would suppose it depends on how prominent you prefer the taste of the vinegar to be. And then there is a minority that says the traditional Italian way is all wrong, and it’s better to mix all the ingredients beforehand, as the French do. And I even found at least one fan of American-style bottled dressings…!

As for so many things Italian, I guess there is no definitive ‘right’ answer and the debate will no doubt rage on forever. For myself, I’ve tried different methods and still like ‘my’ way the best. I don’t like assertive sour tastes and adding the oil before the vinegar does soften the sourness of the vinegar.

Lettuce is the star: Insalata verde and insalata mista

Although generalizations are always a bit risky, it is fair to say that Italians don’t generally weigh their salads down with lots of different ingredients in the manner of a salad bar. The most common type of salad is an insalata verde, a ‘green salad’ of lettuce, more often than not a mix of different types. The most popular mix in Rome is called a misticanza. It’s actually quite similar to the mixed baby greens you can buy here in States, although a true misticanza, consisting as it does of wild greens picked from the Roman countryside, can only be had in Rome itself. Salads of arugula only (called rughetta in Rome, rucola in standard Italian) are also quite popular. What I never saw was the kind of lettuce sold in the US as ‘Romain’ which, despite the name is very un-Italian in its super-firm texture and near tastelessness. And of iceberg lettuce, well, the less said the better, at least when it comes to making an Italian salad. (I actually have a weakness for a wedge of iceberg with Roquefort dressing, but that is a salad from a completely different tradition.)

When you do add things other than lettuce to a green salad, you get an insalata mista, or mixed salad. These other ingredients are used sparingly: a few carrot shavings, a few very thin slices of cucumber, some shredded green onion, a few finely sliced mushrooms, a thin wedge of tomato, etc. (Tomatoes for salads, by the way, are best when still quite green; a fully ripened tomato will make your salad red and soggy.)

When to serve a salad

I’ve heard different things about the proper place for salad in an Italian meal and the answer, as so often is the case, is “it depends”—on the region, on the family, on personal preference. When I was in living in Rome, a green or mixed salad was typically served as a contorno, or side dish, especially for grilled or roasted meats or breaded cutlets. But Angelina served the salad as a separate course following the secondo, the usual habit among Italo-Americans, and I am told this custom is also not unheard of in parts of southern Italy.

Besides its usual role as a side dish to meat, salads can also be an integral part of a dish as a bed for sliced steak (tagliata di manzo) as featured in my Italian cookout post—it’s a fabulous combination. And nice green salad can be wonderful served over a salmon carpaccio, a great meal for times when you want something light to eat.

On Dressing a Salad

Other kinds of salad

This post has been about the most typical of salads, those based on lettuce. But there are other kinds of dishes also called ‘salads’ that made with more substantial ingredients. They are traditionally served as antipasti but could pass as a vegetarian main course: insalata caprese, insalata di fagioli e tonno, insalata di rinforzo to name just a few that have been featured on this blog. And I remember a place close to work back in Rome that made a great insalatone, or ‘big salad’, during the summer months. It was a kind of composed salad in the tradition of a salade niçoise that was a meal in and of itself. And there’s even a salad of orange and fennel that can serve as a kind of dessert.

Finally, I can’t write a post about salads without mentioning the exception that proves the rule(s): puntarelle, a kind of chicory that is a quintessential part of Roman cookery. It is also unique, as it breaks most of the rules I’ve just outlined for you: for one thing, it is the singular example of a ‘dressing’ that is actually made separately from the salad, and the dressing includes not only the holy trinity of oil, vinegar and salt, but pepper, garlic and anchovy as well. The strong flavors of this dressing are the perfect balance for the assertively bitter taste of this unusual green. It is near impossible to find puntarelle outside Italy (as far as I am aware) but the hearts of curly endive, which is a variety of chicory, makes for a decent substitute. See my post on puntarelle for more details.



29 Comments on “How to Dress a Salad “all’italiana””

  1. Pingback: Italian Food Culture: A primer - Memorie di Angelina

  2. Is there any region that excludes the vinegar? Just oil and salt? Because I find this to be delicious but cannot find any information on whether this is actually a “thing”. I would be curious to know!

    1. Not that I’m aware of, with a couple of specific exceptions, such as the tomato salad that sometimes goes on top of a milanese and, most famously, the insalata caprese which, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t call for vinegar.

      That said, typically the amount of vinegar in any Italian salad should be very miserly, as explained in the post, much less than you might think. It’s there more to brighten the salad than to give it acidity. So if you wanted to take it a step further and skip the vinegar altogether, why not? After all, that’s the beauty of home cooking. We can tweak recipes to suit our personality!

  3. I grew up with a unique salad that my Sicilian Nonna made for special dinners: celery salad. Trim both ends of the stalks and remove outer strands with a vegetable peeler. Cut celery into 1/4 inch pieces. Add thinly sliced red onion, Sicilian green olives (smashed to remove pits and coarsely sliced) fresh mint, salt and pepper. Dress with freshly squeezed lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil. A refreshing salad that’s always a hit whenever I serve it.

    1. That sounds awesome, Joe! Celery is such an underrated vegetable. So refreshing with a wonderful crunchy texture. I’m going to try that salad soon.

  4. Pingback: Dressing a Salad - Sula and Spice

  5. In Finland, it’s pretty common to serve the dressing on the side for those who want. That’s why I am very much accustomed to eating my salad plain, without any dressing at all :). Dressed salads are all fine and well, but on an everyday basis I enjoy tasting the pure taste of the vegetables themselves. Anyone who wants can dress their own salad with the spices on the table 🙂

  6. I’m coming to this discussion very late but would like to add one more dimension to the argument … my mamma would insist that to properly “condire” a salad, it must be mixed by hand.

    1. Interesting! I can see her point, mixing by hand—if you’re very gentle—would be less likely to bruise the lettuce.

  7. What a brilliant post! This “dressing” is on my to-do list for my blog, but I would never have done it as well and extensively as you have! Love it! Btw, I do oil, salt and then vinegar because I think after the oil goes on, the salt sticks to the leaves more…but my mother does it your way too! 🙂

    1. Not yet, Carla! I’ve been asked the question often (never by publishers, by you!) but I’ve just not had the time to pursue the idea. Perhaps one day..

      In the meanwhile, if you have Flipboard on a mobile device, why not check out my Flipboard magazine, which come close:

  8. This is exactly how I love my salads to be dressed. I want to taste the fresh ingredients being complimented by the dressing -not drowned with thick dressings and cheese.

  9. I am rather tardy finding and reading this excellent post! “Dressing” the salad has been discussed often in my family. Several years ago a friend showed me how her daughter in law, from Panama, does it. I liked it and it is my way now. First she puts the oil in the bottom of the bowl with some chopped garlic and salt and yes, pepper. THEN, in go the greens, washed and dried thoroughly, then the greens are tossed and only then is the vinegar splashed on. I don’t like the bite of too much vinegar either. Sometimes I “forget” the vinegar and then I get the comment, “did you use vinegar?” Thanks for explaining how it should be properly done according to Angelina!
    I will be returning to read your blog more often and I am getting my husband to read it regularly, too. Thanks so much!

    1. You’re welcome! And thank you, Caterina, for your readership!

      PS: I’m going to try your daughter-in-law’s method some time soon. Sounds intriguing!

  10. I personally go for balsamic vinegar, a lot of balsamic vinegar… I know it is technically wrong as it covers the delicate salad flavor, but I don't like salad all that much and balsamic vinegar is so good 😉

  11. Wow, I enjoyed reading this. I personally use lots of vinegar and lots of oil in salads, I used to actually drink vinegar right out of the bottle when I was young, my father made his own vinegar and oil in Sicily at the time. Happy New Year Frank!

  12. Thanks, friends, for your wonderful comments!

    @Dianeuk @Linda: Good to know that the debate rages on. :=)

    @Drick: Now you have me curious about that West Indies salad. Is it on your site?

    @Arturo: Thanks! That's exactly how I wished readers to react!

    @Claudia: I can imagine that you feel like you're preaching in the desert at times. We all do, I think…

    @Trix: One thing about Italians: they love to argue! But, as Linda says, in a gentle, friendly way (most of the time ). And, yes, we can all agree about bottled dressing. It's one of those inexplicable things, when making your own really is almost as quick and easy.

  13. I love it when people are so set in their ways about things like this, I really do. It's fascinating and wonderful that there can be so much passionate discussion on it – I suppose that's one of the things I also love about New Orleans. (Ask two people whether po boy bread should be toasted or not and then sit back and enjoy the debate.) Anyway I think the one thing everyone with ANY sense can agree upon is that bottled store bought dressings are the WORST and should never ever be used!

  14. Amen. I grew up doing this and it is the only thing that works on a salad for me. What I love (and missed for years when I moved to MN) are all the lettuces possible – there's a world in a good salad.

  15. Wow! I felt like I was at a class (and liking it) have a new perspective on salad dressing. I guess I did not pay a lot of attention to it. Never really saw it was “real food” LOL!

  16. dressing a salad in a correct order is an important step as I was taught to sprinkle a few drops of a seasoned vinegar, toss with a shake of salt then the mix wih a very light coating of a good oil, but I see if differs in regions and countries …
    now in preparing something like crabmeat salad, (as in West Indies Salad which was first created here in our locale, not the Indies) we believe it is very important the order of ingredients… to us, any deviation is an atrocity … Happy New Year Frank, wishing you the best in 2012

  17. My late Mother and I had this discussion regularly. She always maintained that the vinegar was tossed first, and I always coated the leaves first with olive oil…
    Italians love to “gently” argue over food topics.
    Here's one for you: Do you serve parmesan over a plate of seafood pasta?
    I listened to a lengthy discussion among two 19 year old Italian cousins over this topic.

  18. What a good topic for discussion my grandmother taught me salt first and toss, then vinegar and toss and finally oil and toss again she was of the opinion that if you put the oil before the vinegar it would be shunned by the oily leaves and end up in the bottom of the bowl. However I think we can all agree that there are only three ingredients and that they are applied directly to the leaves.

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