The Caesar may be the most iconic salad of them all. We show you how easy it is to make a classic Caesar Salad at home that rivals the best restaurant versions.
After a few tests, we had completed our final Caesar salad and it was a thing of beauty – a simple collection of parmesan and coddled egg-laced lettuce mixed with a mashed anchovy-enhanced lemon vinaigrette. We finished the salad by tossing it with large homemade olive oil sourdough croutons in a garlic scented wooden bowl.
We were so impressed with our creation that we decided to serve the salad to European travel blogger friends who dropped by our apartment that evening for a quick aperitivo to start the night in Lisbon.
We thought they’d jump on the free food, as people in our industry often do, but instead, they approached the Caesar salad with a certain amount of trepidation. Being internationals and not having had the benefit of eating the American restaurant stalwart in its homeland, they’d never enjoyed the pure pleasure that this legendary salad often evokes.
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In fact, to one of them, the phrase Caesar salad evoked images of limp lettuce topped with yogurt sauce squeezed out of a bottle….
Caesar Salad – What happened?
Over the years, many American gastronomic classics have been ruined by the country’s ongoing quests for low prices and convenience. Remarkably, the bastardizing of Caesar Cardini’s salad occurred relatively late in the game, around the 1980s and into the 90s. The explosion of corporate chain restaurants introduced the addition of grilled chicken and processed Caesar Salad dressing. Apparently, just the idea of the word salad meant ‘healthy’ regardless of actual nutrition and calories.
Before long, a host of premade, ready-to-serve, bottled Caesar dressings lined the supermarket shelves and filled American refrigerators. Finally, the Caesar even made appearances at fast food joints in wraps and on top of baked potatoes.
The thing is, the classic Caesar is a great salad. Even today, if you go to a New York steakhouse or old-school, high-end Italian restaurant, you can reasonably expect your Caesar Salad to be made tableside by a server who will transform a few ingredients like romaine lettuce, lemon juice, eggs and oil into a masterpiece right before your eyes.
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What Is Caesar Salad?
Done right, a Caesar Salad is light, savory and flavorful.
Its combination of greens, acid-based emulsion and grated cheese should never feel heavy. This is a balanced salad where all the flavorful elements are present – the slight hint of lemon, the crunchiness of the freshest lettuce, the hint of an uncurrent of garlic, the richness of egg and the lasting umami of parmesan and (typically) anchovy.
When we were young, part of the fun of ordering this timeless dish at a restaurant was to watch a tuxedoed server wheel a cart topped by a large wooden salad bowl and range of Caesar mis-en-place. That server would compose the salad in a ritualistic manner by mixing the dressing, mashing the anchovies and tossing the greens. The show would always finish with a crank of pepper from a large wooden pepper mill.
Our homemade Caesar Salad contains all of these elements. And, while Caesar’s original version did NOT contain anchovies, the tiny cured fish has earned its place in this classic salad over the years. Being anchovy lovers, we’re uncompromising in this regard.
Oh, in case you were wondering, our travel blogger friends loved our Caesar Salad. There were no lettuce leaves or croutons left five minutes after they took their first bites.
History of the Caesar Salad
Unlike legendary foods like pizza and hamburgers, Caesar salad has an almost definitive origin story involving Tijuana and a restaurant owner (Caesar Cardini) originally from Northern Italy. During a shortage of food in his kitchen, Cardini or his brother Alex or his chef Livio Santini invented the salad out of desperation, using ingredients on hand to create salad magic.
Cardini opened his self-named, south-of-the-border restaurant during Prohibition in the 1920s to cater to liquor-thirsty patrons looking for food after a day at the nearby racetrack. Legend has it that Cardini served his famous salad to a range of notable celebrities including Clark Gable and Jean Harlow.
Julia Child ate Cardini’s famous salad well before she mastered the art of French cooking.
As with the recipes for many iconic dishes, arguments abound about the original nature of the salad. Cardini’s daughter Rosa claims that Worcestershire sauce provided the anchovy flavor. She said that her father never added the mashed anchovies which have become ubiquitous in the restaurant version. Meanwhile, according to Caesar’s brother Alex, the salad is a finger food that should only contain ribs of lettuce smothered with dressing.
Whatever the true history may actually be, we’re confident that our version of the leafy green melange satisfies our Caesar urges and also satisfies the crowd at any dinner party. In other words, we love the mashed anchovy version easily eaten with a fork and you will too.
Caesar Salad Ingredients
These are all of the required ingredients in our recipe:
While we appreciate the tradition of exclusively using the ribs of Romaine lettuce, we prefer eating Caesar Salad with a fork.
After you cut or tear your Romaine in bite sized pieces, clean the greens by soaking them in a large bowl of water and then dry them by leaving them in a colander for about 30 minutes or spinning them in a salad spinner. You’ll want to remove as much water from the greens as possible to keep the salad from becoming too watery.
While some recipes call for homemade mayonnaise, we prefer coddling an egg by placing it in boiling water for one minute. We let it cool in an ice bath after we remove it from the boiling water.
Ideally, your egg should be room temperature. If you start with a cold egg, you can soak it in warm water for about 5 to 10 minutes. See this article from Bon Appetite for more details.
Since we love anchovies, we add three high-quality Spanish anchovies to our dressing. These anchovies bring big-time umami flavor to the salad.
Use a fork to mash your anchovies into anchovy paste on a flat surface.
Essentially, our Caesar dressing is a lemon vinaigrette that calls for 1/4 cup of olive oil and 1 1/2 tablespoons of lemon juice. We also add garlic and Dijon mustard – see below.
One lemon should give you enough juice.
Some Caesar dressings contain an overpowering amount of roasted garlic. Our dressing does not.
We achieve a hint of garlic flavor by rubbing the garlic against the wooden salad bowl. Our goal is for the garlic flavor to be just present in the salad, not to overpower it.
Although Cardini didn’t add mustard to his dressing, we add the condiment to ours. In our experience, a teaspoon of Dijon mustard adds remarkable zip to the finished salad.
We typically add homemade sourdough croutons to our Caesar Salads. We make them with sourdough bread that we buy at local bakeries. Sourdough is becoming more and more common in bread these days. If you can’t find or bake quality sourdough bread, you can use any rustic loaf.
To make the croutons, slice or tear the bread into one inch cubes until you have about 3 cups of croutons. After you toss the cubes in a tablespoon of olive oil, bake them for about 10 to 15 minutes in a 350°F / 175°C oven.
Many recipes call for up to three tablespoons of oil. However, using just one tablespoon is a fine lower calorie option.
We use either Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese in our simple Caesar Salad recipe. Since Cardini was from Northern Italy, we imagine that he preferred cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano over Southern Italian favorites like Pecorino-Romano.
You could use Pecorino-Romano and we assume that many American Italian restaurants use it too. However be careful not to oversalt your dressing if you go that route.
Fresh Ground Pepper
Grinding a big peppermill over your Caesar Salad is the best part of the Caesar Salad show. We recommend grinding pepper to taste in your vinaigrette but also encourage you to grind major amounts of pepper on the salad in front of your guests.
→ Click here to buy a show-stopping pepper grinder.
How to Make Caesar Salad at Home
For all its mystique and legend, you can easily make a restaurant style Caesar Salad at home.
Aside from the chopping the lettuce and cutting a garlic clove in half, you’ll barely need to use a knife. After you build flavors and richness in the dressing without a lot of ingredients, you’ll feel infinite joy when you toss the ingredients together to create Caesar Salad magic.
The first step is to prepare your lettuce and assemble the croutons. Then you’ll coddle the egg. You’ll then be ready to prepare the vinaigrette
Make the vinaigrette by slowly whisking the olive oil into the lemon juice until the vinaigrette is emulsified. Season your dressing with salt and pepper to taste. Then whisk Dijon mustard into the lemon vinaigrette for extra flavor.
Mash the anchovies on a flat plate or bowl. Then mix the mashed anchovies into the vinaigrette until they’re well incorporated.
Next, halve the garlic clove and rub it all along the surface of a large wooden salad bowl.
Place your lettuce into a wooden salad bowl and pour the parmesan cheese on top. You’ll want to thoroughly mix the cheese into the greens.
Once your cheese and lettuce are mixed, start tossing in the vinaigrette until it’s fully incorporated. Break the coddled egg over the greens and toss in the salad, making sure to spoon out any egg whites or yolks left in the shell.
Pour in your croutons and toss them until they’re spread throughout the salad.
Add fresh ground pepper in front of your guests and serve.
Caesar Salad Recipe
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About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.