How to Build a Salad Without a Recipe

How to Build a Salad Without a Recipe

I used to think a salad meant a pile of greens with a few veggies on top. I’ve since realized that “salad” is a ubiquitous term used for any sort of ingredients thrown together in a delicious way.

Summer is a prime time for salads, with the variety of fresh and delicious ingredients available. But a stellar salad can be built any time of the year. And you can build your own – without a recipe!

I used to be a religious follower of recipes. Little by little, I started to realize what a recipe is – simply a guideline for recreating something someone else found delicious. Most recipes follow standard principles, but once you understand the basic ideas, you can free yourself to think outside of the box and create your own masterpieces.

Here are a few ideas for building your own salad, based solely on our own experience and preferences. Feel free to try out some suggestions, and let us know your own ideas!


Vegetables are at the heart of a great salad. Use veggies that are in season if you can, or think of combinations using what you have on hand. You can use them fresh or cooked – consider roasting them for some added flavor.

Grains / Pasta

Cooked grains provide a great backbone to a salad. There are tons to choose from – rice, barley, quinoa, farro, and bulgur are all great choices. You also can use any type of pasta, including couscous or orzo.

Beans / Lentils

Beans are a perfect addition to any salad, especially if you’re looking to add protein for an entrée salad. Use canned or cooked of any type – black, kidney, garbanzo, cannellini, etc. Lentils are also a great addition (French lentils are usually a good choice since they hold up well; some types of lentils become mushy when cooked).


Yes, fruits can be part of a salad too – and not just the proverbial fruit salad! Consider trying them in new and inventive ways (like along with savory ingredients). And don’t forget dried fruits, like raisins or cranberries.


Cheese bring a wonderful flavor to a salad, and some protein if you’re looking to increase the “filling” factor. Try crumbles or chunks of your favorite types – some of ours include feta, smoked gouda, fontina, and parmesan.


Nuts / Seeds

Nuts and seeds add a great texture and nutritional element to any salad. Consider roasting them to get an enhanced flavor. (One note is that they tend to become soggy in leftovers, so I generally leave them out of an entire dish and use them as a topping prior to eating.)

Acidity and Oil

Acidity can be used to make flavors sing – usually a squirt or two of lemon juice can do wonders for a dish. Experiment with different types of vinegars and citrus juices to find your favorites. Great options include balsamic vinegar, red wine or white wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, sherry vinegar (one of our favorites), lemon juice, and orange juice.

Oil brings flavor and smoothness to a salad. We generally use olive oil, but you can experiment with other flavored oils as well.

To flavor a salad, I usually add a few tablespoons each of acidity and oil (usually more acidity and less oil), taste, and then add more as necessary. Another option is to mix up a vinaigrette first by shaking the ingredients in a jar or whisking them together, and then adding the mixture a bit at a time. You also could add a bit of mustard or honey for additional flavor.

Herbs and Spices

This is where you get to add flair – use your favorite fresh herbs and spices to amp up the dish. If you’re not sure about quantities to add, take a guess, but start conservatively!  You can always add more, but you can’t take anything away.

Salt and Pepper

One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned in cooking is that some kosher salt and a bit of fresh ground pepper can take a dish from underwhelming to delicious. Again, start conservatively, and add to your taste. We recommend using kosher salt, since you’ll find it has a better flavor and salts food much better than table salt (which has a bit of metallic taste).

And finally…some inspirations to get you started!

Subscribe for free weekly recipes & more!

About the Authors

Sonja Overhiser

Cookbook Author and writer

Sonja Overhiser is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best healthy cookbooks of 2018. She’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the food blog A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Sonja seeks to inspire adventurous eating to make the world a better place one bite at a time.

Alex Overhiser

Cookbook Author and photographer

Alex Overhiser is an acclaimed food photographer and author based in Indianapolis. He’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the recipe website A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Alex is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best vegetarian cookbooks by Epicurious.


  • Reply
    Lauren @ Healthy Food For Living
    August 31, 2011 at 7:14 am

    This is a great post! I love big salads, and my husband lovingly teases me that I put the most random things together in a bowl. If I’m going to make a meal out of a salad, it’s got to be filling, as well as have layers of textures and flavors! I have to check out some of the recipe links you provided!

    • Reply
      August 31, 2011 at 8:15 am

      I couldn’t agree more!! I love salad dinner :)

  • Reply
    Lindsay @ Pinch of Yum
    August 31, 2011 at 8:00 am

    Whoa. I like that huge list of salad ideas! :) You guys make some awesome nontraditional (and delicious) salads!

    • Reply
      August 31, 2011 at 8:16 am

      Ooo, thanks! I’d say you have a great list of delicious salads yourself :)

  • Reply
    August 31, 2011 at 10:48 am

    I love the ‘maters in your photo…they are so…REAL!

    • Reply
      August 31, 2011 at 2:29 pm

      Thanks! Straight from the garden… :)

  • Reply
    meg jones wall
    August 31, 2011 at 7:22 pm

    great tips! can’t wait to get started.

  • Leave a Reply

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.