Perfect Spinach Salad

This classy spinach salad is a salad to impress! Smoky pecans and a creamy balsamic vinaigrette make the best counterpoint to this leafy green.

Spinach salad

Here’s a salad to impress. It’s everything a classy spinach salad should be, full of texture and flavor contrasts. You’ll barely notice you’re eating this healthy leafy green when it’s covered tangy balsamic vinaigrette. There’s crunchy smoky pecans, almost bacon-like glazed with maple syrup and soy sauce. Add hard boiled eggs or a crisp-tart apple, and you’ve got a stunning side salad that will make everyone ooo and ahhh. (It happens every time we serve it…really.) It’s almost like the little black dress of salads: it’s brilliant for any occasion.

Ingredients in the best spinach salad

You may notice this salad has a vague retro vibe. In fact, it’s a spin on my Grandma’s 1970’s spinach salad…with a few tweaks! For the dressing we went with a classic balsamic vinaigrette, which complements the flavors perfectly. Instead of bacon, smoky glazed pecans create the illusion of meat but make the salad vegetarian. (For a fully plant based salad, we’ve got options too!) Here’s what you’ll need for this classic spinach salad:

  • Hard boiled eggs or apple: Hard boiled eggs require forethought, so to whip this up in a flash substitute a crisp-tart apple. It’s just as good!
  • Smoky pecans: The secret to bacon flavor without meat! Glaze whole pecans in a mixture of soy sauce, maple syrup and smoked paprika.
  • Spinach: Baby spinach is more tender with a sweeter flavor; or, use chopped standard spinach.
  • Shallot: Thinly sliced shallot is the best trick for green salads. Its delicate oniony flavor is gentler than red onion.
  • Feta (optional): A sprinkle of feta cheese looks like confetti and brings a salty pop.
  • Balsamic vinaigrette: Tie it all together with this incredible homemade dressing.
Spinach salad

How to make smoky pecans (or use plain!)

One of the best parts of this salad is the pecans masquerading as bacon. Of course, if you’re running short on time: you can skip this step and just use plain pecans! But to make a truly magnificent spinach salad, it’s worth the time. Here are a few notes about the process:

  • You’ll need a skillet and 6 to 8 minutes. This is the time it takes to heat the glaze to cover the nuts.
  • They may come out soft or crunchy: either works! Making glazed nuts requires hitting the perfect sugar caramelization step to get them to dry into a crunchy glaze. If they come out soft: that’s ok! In fact, they taste more like bacon that way.

The best spinach salad dressing

What’s the best dressing for a spinach salad? Balsamic vinaigrette. Why? Spinach can have a bitter flavor undertone, so the tangy and subtly sweet notes of the dressing are the perfect pairing. Our favorite balsamic vinaigrette is very easy to whip up at home. All you need is 4 ingredients:

  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Dijon mustard
  • Maple syrup
  • Olive oil

The only other thing to note is to add the olive oil 1 tablespoon at a time and whisk vigorously. This is the key to getting a perfectly creamy emulsion. The Djion mustard also helps to make a fantastically creamy texture.

Balsamic vinaigrette recipe

Using hard boiled eggs in salad

This spinach salad is absolutely classic with hard boiled eggs, as it harkens back to that 1970’s bacon and egg salad. And, they add a great amount of protein! One egg has 7 grams of protein. This is specifically helpful when you are looking for a side dish with protein to round out a vegetarian dinner.

If you can, make up a batch of hard boiled eggs in advance. This makes the salad quicker to put together. Store the hard boiled eggs refrigerated with the shell on (this keeps them fresher).

Apple makes this spinach salad quick and easy (and vegan)

Often we don’t think ahead enough to have time for hard boiled eggs. So if we’re serving this for an easy weeknight meal side dish, we like to use an apple instead! Using a crisp-tart apple makes a great flavor and texture contrast and fills out the salad. Of course, it doesn’t have the protein that a hard boiled egg does. But it’s a great stand-in! Of course, you can also add apple to salad with the eggs: even better!

You can also use this as a vegan variation. Use a crisp tart apple and omit the feta cheese crumbles: or use a dairy free cheese crumble of your choice.

Best spinach salad

Other adders to this salad!

Here are a few more ingredients you could add to this salad that make it incredible tasty:

  • Mushrooms: Thinly sliced raw mushrooms are common in a classic spinach salad. Add these if you like!
  • Bacon: Can’t live without actual bacon? Swap the smoky pecans for bacon.
  • Prosciutto: Cured ham like prosciutto or jamón serrano would also work well.
  • Croutons: Try these Homemade Garlic Croutons.

Ways to serve this spinach salad

There are so many ways to pair this spinach salad! In fact, it’s one of the most versatile green salad recipes we have. Use it to round out a vegetarian dinner, or it pairs well with seafood and chicken. Here are our top ways to serve it:

Spinach salad

A few more spinach salads

Love spinach salad? Us too. Here are a few more variations on this easy side dish for all the seasons:

This spinach salad recipe is…

Vegetarian, dairy-free, and gluten-free. For vegan and plant-based, use the variations listed above.

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Spinach salad

Perfect Spinach Salad (No, Really)


1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (5 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)

  • Author: Sonja Overhiser
  • Prep Time: 20 minutes
  • Cook Time: 0 minutes
  • Total Time: 20 minutes
  • Yield: 4 1x
  • Diet: Vegetarian

Description

This classy spinach salad is a salad to impress! Smoky pecans and a creamy balsamic vinaigrette make the best counterpoint to this green.


Scale

Ingredients

  • 2 hard boiled eggs or 1 large crisp tart apple
  • 1/2 cup whole pecans*
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce (or tamari or coconut aminos)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons maple syrup or sugar
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 2 pinches kosher salt or flaky sea salt
  • 1 recipe Best Balsamic Vinaigrette
  • 6 cups baby spinach leaves or chopped standard spinach
  • 1 shallot
  • 1/2 cup feta cheese crumbles (optional)

Instructions

  1. Make the hard boiled eggs: Make the hard boiled eggs, if using (or make them in advance). Chop them into bite-sized pieces.
  2. Make the smoky pecans: Add the pecans, soy sauce, maple syrup and smoked paprika to a small non-stick skillet over medium heat. When it just starts to bubble, reduce the heat to low but still slowly bubbling. Simmer 6 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. In the last minute when the liquid is mostly evaporated, stir continuously until it is totally cooked out and the nuts start clumping together. Immediately remove from the heat and transfer the pecans to a sheet of parchment paper in a single layer. Sprinkle with 2 pinches kosher salt and allow to cool to room temperature, about 5 minutes. 
  3. Make the dressing: Make the Balsamic Vinaigrette
  4. Prep the fresh ingredients: Thinly slice the shallot. If using apple instead of hard boiled egg, thinly slice the apple. 
  5. Serve: Place the spinach on plates or in bowls. Top with hard boiled eggs or apple slices, smoky pecans, sliced shallot, and feta cheese crumbles.

Notes

*You can also use plain pecans and skip the soy sauce, maple syrup, and smoked paprika. Or, you can make maple glazed pecans.

  • Category: Salad
  • Method: Stovetop
  • Cuisine: American

Keywords: Spinach salad

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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.

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