The Secret to Fancy 7-Layer Salad: 8 Layers

By | February 21, 2016

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

The classic seven-layer salad is a sight to behold, and I mean that more in the literal sense than the figurative. It’s generally served in trifle dishes or glass bowls so that the kids at the potluck can all go, “Ooh, there really are seven layers!” as they count up from the bottom: lettuce, tomato, cucumber, bacon, cheese, onions, and boiled eggs (sometimes celery or frozen peas make it in there as well), all topped with a thick layer of mayonnaise that seals in the ingredients like spackle over drywall. When ready to serve, you fold that heavy layer of mayonnaise into the mixture and scoop it out.

Let’s admit it: A seven-layer salad is really just garnished mayonnaise. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it’s potluck food—not exactly what you’d serve at a dinner party or holiday gathering. It’s too bad, because the seven-layer salad offers one really serious advantage to the harried home cook: It’s meant to be made ahead. That layer of mayonnaise seals everything air tight. I’m not convinced that there’s much marrying of flavors going on (as Kraft seems to suggest), but it does mean you can assemble the whole thing several hours in advance and place it on the table with no need for further dressing or futzing.

I decided to take that concept and upgrade it a bit with some more seasonal and holiday meal-appropriate ingredients. Here’s what I do:

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For the base of the salad, I wanted something a little heartier than straight up greens. I first tested this recipe with cooked grains (farro and wheat berries) which were good, but required cooking, which sort of defeats the point of an easy make-ahead salad. I opted instead for a layer of chickpeas (canned chickpeas that are drained and rinsed work fine). On top of that, I spread a layer of thinly sliced endive. It’s crisp and hearty enough to be able to survive under a layer of other ingredients without going limp.

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I like cucumbers (even winter cucumbers from the supermarket!), so I kept them, but rather than simply slicing them and tossing them in, I peel, seed, and salt them, letting them rest in a strainer for a few minutes in order to draw out excess moisture and improve their texture and flavor.

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For the next layer, I wanted to add something a little punchier. Scallions are a typical seven-layer salad ingredient, but their onion-y aroma can get overpowering, especially if the salad is rested before serving. Instead, I went with some of Daniel’s quick-pickled red onions, which are extremely simple to make: just slice onions and pour vinegar over them. Adding the vinegar right after the onions are sliced tames their pungency. In the end, I found that the salad needed just a touch of sweetness for balance, so I also added some sugar to the vinegar. The nice thing is that the vinegar from the onions trickles down and seasons the chickpeas at the bottom of the bowl as the salad rests.

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For the top two layers, I wanted some extra-crunchy vegetables. Celery and radishes fit the bill. I peeled the celery before slicing it on a sharp bias (peeling celery is a simple step that can really improve its texture when served raw in salads. No more celery string in your teeth!). The radishes I scrubbed and cut into small wedges.

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To seal the whole thing off, I first tried using mayonnaise, but even homemade mayonnaise comes out heavy given the volume you need to seal the salad. (The only time I’m comfortable eating a spoonful of mayonnaise is by the warm glow of the refrigerator light at 2 a.m.) Yogurt was an obvious substitution. I gussied mine up with some lemon juice, extra-virgin olive oil, and chopped dill and mint (I tried garlic too, but it can get overpowering as the salad rests).

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Remember that salty liquid we drew out of the cucumbers? It’s mostly water, but it’s got some great flavor in it as well. Rather than tip it down the drain, I decided to use it to thin out and season (the liquid is salty) my yogurt topping. The liquid also adds just a hint of cucumber flavor. I spooned the mixture on top of the assembled layers and spread it out, then smoothed it over using a thin offset spatula.

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The seventh and final layer goes on top of the yogurt: crumbled feta cheese (I also really liked it with crumbled blue cheese, if that’s more your style).

The salad was tasty just like this, but I couldn’t help myself. It’s pomegranate season ’round these parts so I had a few lying around my kitchen. Paired with some toasted sunflower seeds and sprinkled onto the salad just before serving, they add a great pop of flavor, texture, and color. Okay, so that drops the salad down from 100% make-ahead to almost 100% make-ahead, but still, it’s a pretty small bit of extra work, and look how pretty the results are! It’s like that whole more-blades-are-better-on-your-razor thing: If a seven-layer salad is great, isn’t an eight-layer salad even better?

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If any producers are reading, I’ve also got this great idea for an action-packed TV series I’m calling 25.

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