Crisp romaine, toasted croutons and a satiny, garlicky dressing are the key elements of a perfect Caesar salad. There are many variations — raw eggs or not, with or without anchovies — but the core elements endure.
When done right, each forkful should deliver a combination of savory, creamy, tangy, toasty and crisp. All senses are stimulated by the vibrant greens, the aromas of parmesan and garlic and the audible crunch of toasted croutons.
Making the perfect Caesar salad at home is easier than you think with a few simple upgrades like homemade croutons and the creamiest, easiest Caesar dressing ever. Here’s your foolproof recipe for a classic that you’ll want to make over and over again.
Where was Caesar Salad invented?
But first, a little backstory. There are a few different origin stories, but the most predominant starts with Caesar Cardini, an Italian-born restaurateur who, along with his brother Alessandro, emigrated to the US after World War I.
The Cardini brothers operated a restaurant in San Diego until 1920, when Prohibition motivated them to open a second location just over the border in Tijuana where they could serve alcohol. A thirsty crowd followed.
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According to Caesar’s daughter Rosa, he created the salad on July 4, 1924, when the restaurant was bustling with American tourists and the kitchen was short on supplies. Caesar grabbed what he had on hand — lettuce, olive oil, eggs, bread, parmesan cheese and Worcestershire sauce — and, for added flair, prepared the salad tableside. Just like that, an icon was born.
As with all claims to fame, there are disputes. By some accounts, it was Caesar’s brother Alessandro (“Alex”) who invented the iconic salad. That story asserts that Alex, an Italian pilot during World War I, fashioned the salad for a group of American airmen who traveled down from the Rockwell Field military base in San Diego. To impress his fellow pilots, Alex tossed together the same ingredients listed above, but added anchovies.
Alex coined the “Aviator’s Salad” concoction in honor of his comrades. This story alleges that when Alex left to open his own restaurants in Mexico City, Caesar tossed the aviator reference and dubbed the salad The Caesar.
Yet another story claims that it wasn’t a Cardini at all, but an 18-year-old restaurant employee named Livio Santini, who got the recipe from his mother.
It doesn’t really matter who created the first Caesar salad, I’m just thankful someone did.
And as wonderful as restaurant salads are, it’s often more rewarding to create one at home.
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What’s usually in a Caesar salad?
Is it the dressing room? The greens? The croutons? Yes, yes, yes – a great Caesar salad is a commingling of all those things. It is typically made with a creamy garlic and parmesan dressing, crisp Romaine lettuce and crunchy croutons.
It sounds simple, because it is! But when making a simple dish, it’s all the most important to make every ingredient count.
What lettuce should you use for Caesar salad?
Romaine is the classic choice for Caesar.
Use the inner Romaine lettuce leaves to keep the salad crisp. The outer, darker green leaves are softer and often wilt.
Peel off the outer leaves until you reach the ultra-crisp, pale-colored inner leaves and chop those to your desired size. Reserve the outer leaves for another use.
What kind of croutons are used for Caesar salad?
The best croutons are homemade and they’re so easy, you’ll wonder why you haven’t always made your own.
Here’s a pro-tip: Coat your cubes of bread with garlic-infused olive oil instead of fresh garlic. Garlic browns faster than bread and the little minced bits often burn before the bread is fully toasted.
You can purchase the specialty oil or create a garlic-infused oil yourself by combining olive oil and minced garlic and then pressing the oil through a fine-mesh sieve. Discard the garlic and use the oil for croutons will be scented with garlic, not dotted with charred bits.
To make them even more flavorful, toss the bread with parmesan cheese before baking. Baked parmesan cheese takes on a wonderful nutty quality, which marries perfectly with the sharpness of the freshly grated cheese used in the dressing and salad.
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How to make Caesar dressing
Skip the bottled stuff and make your own dressing.
The base of this dressing is mayonnaise, and since it starts with an “emulsified” ingredient, that means you don’t have to create an emulsion yourself using raw egg, olive oil and lemon.
The combination of mayonnaise and Dijon mustard (another emulsifier) keeps the dressing stable and satiny when the olive oil is added.
Why is this important? An emulsion is a combination of two or more liquid ingredients (such as oil and lemon juice) that normally couldn’t hang out together. When blended with an emulsifier like mayo or mustard, the liquids can marry into one smooth mixture.
Emulsified dressings are supreme because they evenly coat every inch of the lettuce and other ingredients.
One tip when it comes to oil: Try not to use extra-virgin olive oil when using an electric blender, as the high speed of the blender may cause the olive oil to break down and turn bitter. That said, it should be fine so long as you are hand whisking or using a food processor.
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Does Caesar dressing have anchovies?
If you aren’t a fan of fish, fear not, traditional Caesar salad has no real anchovies.
That said, the dressing does benefit from Worcestershire sauce, which contains anchovies, so the little fish make their way into the salad either way.
If you are an anchovy fan and you’d like to add more, arrange flat anchovy fillets on top of the salad just before serving.
The perfect Caesar salad recipe
This classic salad is simple and since there aren’t many ingredients in Caesar salad, it’s all the most important that you use high quality inputs since each one needs to bring a lot to the dish. The results are definitely more than the sum of the parts.
For the croutons:
- 3 tablespoons good-quality olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- ½ French Baguette, halved lengthwise and cut or torn into bite-size pieces
- 2 tablespoons good-quality, grated parmesan cheese
For the dressing room:
- ¼ cup fresh lemon juice, about 1 ½ small lemons or 1 large lemon
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 2 Dijon mustard teaspoons
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup good-quality olive oil, if you’re using an electric blender, avoid extra-virgin
- ⅓ cup grated good-quality parmesan cheese
For the salad:
- 3 heads romaine lettuce, outer leaves removed (and reserved for another use) and inner leaves rinsed, patted dry, and chopped or torn into bite-size pieces
- ⅓-½ cup shredded good-quality parmesan cheese
- Start by making your croutons. Preheat the oven to 350 F and line a large baking sheet with parchment paper or foil.
- In a small bowl, combine the olive oil and chopped garlic cloves, then press the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve to creating garlic-infused olive oil.
- Place the bread cubes in a large bowl, add the infused oil and Parmesan cheese and toss to coat. Transfer the croutons to the prepared baking sheet and bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until golden and crisp. Set aside.
- To make the dressing in a food processor or blender, combine the lemon juice, garlic, mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, ½ teaspoon salt and ⅛ teaspoon black pepper. Process until blended and smooth. With the food processor or blender running, gradually and slowly add the olive oil. Process until thick and creamy, then add the parmesan cheese and pulse on and off until just blended. Season to taste with more salt and black pepper.
- To assemble the salad, place the lettuce in a large bowl, add about ¼ cup of the dressing and cup parmesan cheese and toss to coat. Add more dressing and parmesan cheese, if desired. Top the salad with the croutons and serve with extra dressing on the side.
- Refrigerate leftover dressing for up to four days.