Deconstructing, Reconstructing, and Reviving this Classic
Chef’s Salad used to be a popular main-course choice for people who wanted to “eat light.” Particularly from the 1950s into the 70s, it was a go-to among “ladies who lunch.” Then people realized how much fat and sodium were in the cheese and cold cuts that typically garnish it — and the salad promptly fell out of favor.
Too bad. Yes, Chef’s Salad has a fairly high caloric count, but then it’s supposed to be a main course. Really a meal in itself.
It’s also exceptionally tasty and easy to make. So why not toss one together now?
Recipe: Chef’s Salad
A Chef’s Salad is nothing more than salad greens tossed in dressing, plated, and then topped with a variety of vegetables and proteins. The usual toppings include tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, and meat of some kind (often ham, chicken, or cold cuts). But you can use any salad vegetable or protein that captures your imagination. Red onion, green pepper, cucumbers, olives, turkey, roast beef, and shrimp are familiar options.
The choice and quantity of toppings is really up to the “chef” (which is how the salad got its name). Mix and match ingredients to suit your taste — or what’s available in your refrigerator. I often make Chef’s Salad when I have leftover cold cuts, for example. Or when I have leftover roast turkey, chicken, or ham. You can make the salad as simple or elaborate as you choose.
Salad dressing can be whatever you prefer. I like either vinaigrette or Blue Cheese Dressing.
This recipe serves 4. But you can easily adjust quantities up or down to serve more or fewer people. Preparation time is about 15 minutes (although it partially depends on how many ingredients you decide to incorporate into your salad). I don’t recommend making more than you need; leftover dressed lettuce deteriorates when stored.
- 1 head of lettuce (leaf lettuce, romaine, or Boston Bibb work best, IMO; I often use a mix of several types)
- 8 - 12 ounces of cheese, cut into sticks, cubes, triangles, or whatever (more/less if you prefer; Provolone, Swiss, and Cheddar are my favorites, but use what you like; see Notes)
- 8 - 12 ounces of sliced cold cuts, ham, turkey, or chicken (more/less if you prefer; see Notes)
- 1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes or 4 medium whole tomatoes (I usually slice or quarter the whole tomatoes)
- 2 - 4 Hard-Boiled Eggs, peeled and cut into slices or quarters
- 6 - 10 tablespoons of Blue Cheese Dressing (to taste; or substitute your favorite salad dressing)
- salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- parsley or another green herb as a garnish (optional)
- At least an hour (2 or more is better) before you want to serve the salad, wash and dry the salad greens, and tear into bite-size pieces. Wrap in kitchen towel, and place in refrigerator crisper to, well, crisp.
- Meanwhile, prep meats and cheeses. Cut into whatever shapes you prefer (see Notes).
- Shortly before making the salad, wash tomatoes. If using whole tomatoes, slice into your preferred shape.
- Peel and slice hard-boiled eggs.
- Place lettuce in large bowl. Add salad dressing — less than you think you’ll need. Toss lettuce thoroughly to lightly coat leaves with dressing. Taste, and add more dressing if necessary. (Particularly when using a high-flavor dressing like Blue Cheese, you don’t want the taste of the dressing to overwhelm or clash with the meats and cheeses that top the salad).
- Add more dressing if necessary and salt and black pepper to taste. Toss to incorporate, then place greens on 4 dinner-size plates.
- Arrange the cheeses, meats, tomatoes, and eggs over the salad greens in a pattern that pleases you (the pictures in this post offer several suggestions). Top with a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Garnish with parsley or other fresh herb if desired, and serve.
- Quantities truly are elastic in this salad. I don’t recommend overdoing the toppings, because the lettuce (you know, the “salad” part) really is important. But if you’re serving this as a main course, you do want enough veggies and protein to satisfy your appetite. You’re the chef, so make it your salad!
- And I’d always serve this as a main course. It’s too heavy for a traditional salad appetizer.
- To make it a bit less heavy — and much healthier — you can replace some of the meat and cheese with veggies (your choice — the possibilities are endless).
- When preparing the meat and cheese, keep in mind that the salad will be more attractive (and easier to eat) if you cut toppings into easily forkable pieces, preferably bite-sized. It’s traditional to use Julienned (thin) strips of meat and cheese. But cubes, triangles, and so forth also work well.
- Runny cheeses (like Brie) don’t work in this salad, but almost any other cheese will.
- However, you probably don’t want to use something with a flavor that’s too pungent — you won’t be able to taste the other ingredients. Provolone is excellent, and it’s my favorite (the flavor blends particularly well with Blue Cheese Dressing).
- Speaking of blue cheese, some versions of this salad feature sprinkles of Roquefort cheese as a garnish. Pretty good, but I think the flavor of the blue cheese works better in the dressing. Which, of course, is why I use it that way in this recipe.
- Almost all varieties of salami are great in this dish. I particularly like Genovese, Milanese, and Romano.
- In fact, these days when I see Chef’s Salad on a restaurant menu, it’s almost always in an Italian restaurant, and they typically showcase some great Italian salami.
- Although I really like my Blue Cheese Dressing in this salad, a vinaigrette is traditional. If you don’t have a favorite recipe for vinaigrette, I recommend the one I used in my Poached Scallops on Artichoke Scoops recipe. The mustard in that vinaigrette adds a nice zing to the salad.
- Hard-boiled eggs almost always appear as a topping on Chef’s Salad. I like mine sliced or quartered, but many people prefer them chopped fine.
- Croutons typically aren’t used as a garnish in this dish. But if you’d like some, go for it! I recommend my recipe for Homemade Croutons.
- Rather than croutons, though, I’d recommend serving this salad with a nice hard roll and some good butter. And a glass of wine.
Time to Revive This Classic
Although it’s not clear how Chef’s Salad originated, both Wikipedia and The Food Timeline speculate that it may be derived from a 17th century English dish called Salmagundi (a salad composed of cooked meats and vegetables). Or it may be a 20th century dish, probably first made in New York or California.
Whoever invented it, though, the salad became associated with Louis Diat, who was chef at the New York City Ritz-Carlton during the 1940s. The dish appeared on the menu there and became very popular. Word of Chef’s Salad soon spread and it began showing up on restaurant menus throughout the US, where it remained for decades.
Today? Not so much.
But it’s still a great salad. With a few well-chosen toppings, you can have tons of flavor. And you can mix and match ingredients to suit your fancy (or your waistline).
You know it’ll be good. After all, they served it at the Ritz.
Blue Cheese Dressing & Wedge Salad
Scallops on Artichoke Scoops
Potato Salad Basics
Spinach Salad with Hot Bacon Dressing
White Bean and Tuna Salad
Spinach Salad with Parmesan
Pineapple, Coconut, and Carrot Salad
I am all about deconstructing and reconstructing some old favorites. Your photos shots are just amazing. I am having a huge craving for a salad at midnight. I should know better than to read your blog late at night as I always get the munchies.
For just a minute I thought I was back in the 60s and 70s :) I felt right at home.
It's a classic! That top photo I could fall in love with.
Hi Bam's Kitchen, sorry to bring on a case of the munchies! It's a good salad, though - you'll enjoy having one. ;-) Thanks for the kind words and your comment.
Hi Maureen, I get the feeling we're both somewhat chronologically gifted. ;-) And it is a classic. I really like the top photo too, and am delighted you like it. Thanks for stopping by.
When I first saw this photo I thought, "Oh Wow, it's a Dagwood," you know Dagwood Bumsted? Then I realized it was a salad.
I love chef salads but it's funny I rarely eat them anymore. I use to get one all the time years ago at Culpeppers in the West End. Now I'll make my own with just grilled chicken and fresh fruit and sometimes but rarely with cheese. This looks quite yummy!
Hi Vicki, it does look a bit like a Dagwood! But that's appropriate - in the top picture I was trying to visually deconstruct and then reconstruct Chef's Salad, and a lot of the same ingredients are in both the salad and a sandwich. I went years without eating Chef's Salad, but over the last few years it's become a much more frequent dinner - several times a year, at least. Really is a tasty salad. Thanks for commenting.
oh so delicious..looks & sounds awesome
Hi Jay, it is indeed delicious! And awesome is a great way to describe it. Thanks for taking time to comment.
Love the top photo! In fact, wish I could hang it on my wall. ;)
Hi Carolyn, ;-) Thanks so much for your kind words, and your comment.
It's been a while since I've made a chef's salad, and I don't know why. It's a delicious way to use up leftovers, not to mention a quick way to put dinner on the table. Thanks for the reminder!
Chef's salad is really so tempting...I have never made it myself yet though! The picture is absolutely mouth-watering!
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I love chef's salad and I love that 1st pic - thanks!
Hi Beth, it's funny, but there are all sorts of dishes that I like but forget about for awhile - only to wonder why when I make them again! Probably because there are always so many new things to make. Thanks for commenting.
Hi Purabi, oh, if the ingredients appeal to you, you should give it a try sometime! A great recipe. Thanks for the heads up on the awards - and thanks for both the awards and for commenting.
Hi Vic, great salad, isn't it? Thanks for the kind words, and your comment.
I love this salad and the photographs are stunning especially the first one.
Hi Asmita, me too! It's a wonderful salad. Thanks for both your kind words and your comment.
I love the first photo! The photograph states this salad as main dish! Really beautiful photography. I love salad that has hard boiled eggs and I almost always put it on top of my salad. I can happily eat this as main!
This chef salad looks great, especially the first photo. The cold cuts, cheese, and eggs go really well with lettuce and veggies, and salad dressing, lots of great textures and flavors.
I want this for lunch. Just out of curiosity how long does it take you to stage your photos? I'm going to have to check out some of your other posts for summer salads. The time is here!
When you started about ladies wanting to eat 'light' I kinda went 'uuhhm'... but that was clarified quickly. ;)
Don't know the last time I have had a good old chef salad. (Psssst don't tell anyone, but I think it was back when McD's still sold the good old basic ones...)
Beautiful first picture!
You have recreated this old time classic perfectly - a wonderful dish my friend :D
Choc Chip Uru
Hi Nami, really great main dish. And I'm a sucker for hard-boiled eggs in my salads, too. Thanks for the kind words and for commenting.
Hi Biana, such a nice combination of flavors, isn't it? The texture is one of the things I really like about salads. Thanks for taking time to comment.
Hi Abbe, it's great for lunch! Most of the photos don't take that long to stage - a bit longer than I'd normally take to plate the dish, because I'm trying to be careful with garnishes, etc. Preparing the camera and the set takes maybe 5 minutes. A lot of photos I've thought through before I actually shoot them, so things go pretty quickly. The top photo in this post, for example, I had actually predetermined which ingredient was going to go where - although of course there were a couple of small changes that I made as I saw how things actually came together. Anyway, thanks for stopping by.
Hi T and Tea Cake, ;-) We all eat way differently than we did back then! Good thing, too - at least speaking for myself. I no longer have that capacity. Anyway, I didn't eat this salad for years - I don't know why - until I rediscovered it a few years ago. Thanks for taking time to comment.
Hi Guru Uru, a great dish! Thanks for the nice words, and for stopping by.
What I love about chef's salad is I can throw in something that I have not tried before...Leftover ham or chicken chunks, name it...I think I will be whipping one now.
Hi myFudo, I agree — it's a really versatile salad, and leftovers are a natural in it. It's incredible how many interesting flavor combinations one can come up with. Enjoy your salad! And thanks for commenting.
Neat images! I remember serving Chef's Salad in several restaurants in the days before Ranch dressing. Thanks for the memories.
P.S. Saw your pic on Zenspotting!
What a beautiful chef's salad! We eat these quite often during the warming weather and I love them, but sometimes it's hard to mix it up. I need to make your bluecheese dressing and add hard-boiled eggs. I keep forgetting those! Great post!
Hi Lori, glad to refresh your memories! thanks for the kind words, and the comment.
Hi mjskit, they're great, aren't they? I always have hard-boiled eggs in the refrigerator (I eat one for breakfast almost every day, with fresh fruit), so they're east to add to any salad. Thanks for stopping by.
Mmm I like the idea of a mustard vinegarette with this salad! Would probably keep it lighter!
Hi Patty, good point - the Blue Cheese Dressing is a bit heavy. OK, more than a bit! So good, though. Thanks for your comment.
Your photos are gorgeous! You elevated the humble chef salad to something beautiful.
Hi Lynne, I enjoy the challenge of looking at everyday food in a new way. Thanks for both the compliment & the comment.
I always love coming to your blog to see the photography, It is always so exciting to see. Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving a comment also, thanks for complimenting my granddaughter she is truly my heart.
Hi Cooking Lady, that was a really fun post you wrote about your granddaughter. and thanks for the kind words, and the comment.
I have to admit that chef's salad isn't typical my favorite, but I love the idea of a salad you can throw together with whatever you have on hand. And yours really does look appealing! Great photo as always.
Hi Katherine, it's funny, I went years without eating a Chef's Salad, but not that I'm making them again, it's become a real regular. Thanks for the compliment, and of course the comment.
Thank you for linking back to this recipe.
I am bookmarking it to try real soon.
P.S. I am in love with your pictures, you can make even the simplest of recipes look amazing
Hi Sawsan, it's a good salad - well worth trying. Thanks for both your comment and your kind words. I do have fun looking at things we all know, and trying to see them in a new light.
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