varieties of salad bowls

Whether as a side or main dish, colorful salads are a mainstay for everything from make-ahead work lunches and easy weeknight dinners to summer barbecues and holiday gatherings. With a simple formula of the base, mix-ins, and dressing, salads come in an expansive variety of combinations. From classic salads like creamy Caesar or French Niçoise to modern mixes featuring unconventional ingredients or TikTok phenomena like the Jennifer Aniston salad, our definition of salad continues to morph and grow. Browsing a deli counter to find a dozen different types of salad or encountering the marshmallow-laden potluck classic known as ambrosia salad might have you believing anything goes when it comes to making the mealtime staple. However, putting together a tasty creation requires more than mixing a few ingredients in a bowl with a drizzle of dressing. Crafting a delicious and satisfying salad is an art.

What makes a great salad? An outstanding dish should delight the senses. In addition to simply tasting great, the dish should look and smell inviting with an alluring array of colors, shapes, and aromatics. A variety of textures brings interest to the meal with crisp, crunchy elements playing an important role in the sensations we experience while savoring the flavors on the plate. Whether you are preparing a salad from scratch or simply jazzing up a packaged salad kit, the result should be bountiful, fresh, and flavorful with plenty of contrast, especially from that all-important crunch factor.

Vegetables

preparing vegetables for salad

Rather than haphazardly throwing leftover vegetables over some lettuce, coating them in ranch dressing, and calling it a day, instantly upgrade your salad by considering the variety of textures you can create from the contents of your produce drawer. The addition of raw vegetables such as broccoli or cauliflower florets, cucumbers, cabbage, carrots, or bell peppers lends a firm, snappy crunch to the dish along with a healthy dose of nutrients. Experiment with less common salad ingredients such as jicama, daikon radish, or water chestnuts. Even if your vegetables aren’t at their most fresh, there is an easy way to revive wilting produce and maintain that satisfying crunch. Clean your vegetables and let them soak in cold or icy water for an hour or more before preparing your salad to rejuvenate lackluster greens and vegetables.

For another quick way to add crunch to your vegetables, roast them in the oven or air fryer for a crisp, caramelized exterior that adds some bite to your salad. Try roasting hearty vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, beets, squash, kale, turnips, okra, or even green beans with different seasonings for an extra punch of flavor.

Croutons

homemade croutons with herbs

As a staple complement to soups, salads, and even beverages, the familiar crouton has been adding its signature crunch to dishes for centuries. Believed to have originated as a way to use up stale bread sometime between 500 and 1500 A.D., the word crouton appeared in France at the end of the 16th century, (via National Crouton Day). Over the next 300 years, the simple garnish made its way to the dinner tables of England and American recipe books, securing its place in culinary history.

The classic addition is easy to make and an economical way to add crunch to your salads while minimizing food waste. Stick with traditional squares of baked or fried white bread, or swap them for flavorful alternatives such as sourdough, rye, or cornbread. Infuse the versatile crouton with flavors from around the world, incorporating exciting blends of herbs and spices such as smoky paprika or bright lemon thyme.

Flake salt

bowl of flake salt

Perhaps the most humble and essential ingredient in the culinary world, salt has a long and powerful legacy that has shaped the course of history. Salt not only makes food taste better, but it also plays a crucial role in food preservation and provides life-sustaining sodium ions to our bodies. While iodized table salt might be the most common for filling salt shakers across the country, there are actually many different kinds of salt available from Kosher salt and rock salt to crisp, airy sea salt flakes. Each type of salt has unique distinguishing qualities from shapes and colors to flavors and uses.

Sea salt flakes are made by allowing salt crystals to form under specific conditions and speeds that result in a signature hollow pyramid or cube that is thin and brittle. Prized for their crunchiness, salt flakes offer tiny bursts of flavor as each delicate flake crumbles on the tongue. A light sprinkle of high-quality flaky salt such as Maldon, a brand approved by Queen Elizabeth II, elevates both the flavor and texture of even the simplest salad.

Bacon

bacon strips and crumbles

Whether mixed into a classic Cobb or crumbled over a towering wedge, bacon is a go-to powerhouse for easily adding both texture and taste to a salad. In addition to its crunch, bacon provides an unctuous layer of smoky, savory flavor to any dish. Amp up the flavor even more with the addition of candied bacon or bacon spiced with cayenne to bring a bit of sweet heat to the mix. Those who refrain from eating pork don’t have to miss out either, since many varieties of bacon bits are actually vegan!

Why do we love bacon so much? Sensory expert Linda Papadopoulos explained to CNN that the signature salty, sweet, and smoky combination found in bacon triggers a response in the brain that keeps us craving the savory ingredient. Thanks to its delightful flavor profile and satisfying crunch, a generous handful of crispy bacon might be just what you need to win over reluctant salad eaters.

Seeds

various seeds, wooden spoons, bowls

Sunflower seeds have been a long-time staple of salad bars across the country — and for good reason. Seeds are loaded with nutrients, including dietary fiber, healthy fats, and a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, (via BBC Food). Hemp and chia seeds are also healthy sources of plant-based protein suitable for vegetarian and vegan diets.

In addition to their many health benefits, when sprinkled into salads, seeds bring that vital crunch to the dish. There are many varieties to choose from, each with its own flavor profile and texture, including pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, flax seeds, chia seeds, poppy seeds, and sunflower seeds. You can even get creative with a few seeds you might not have known you can eat, such as watermelon, papaya, apple, and butternut squash seeds. Try them raw or gently toasted to add a subtle depth of flavor. Mixing in a handful of seeds brings a salty, savory bite to your favorite salad.

Nuts

bowls of nut varieties

Accessible, easy to store, and perfect for snacking on the go, nuts are a crunchy, satisfying, and nutritious part of a healthy diet. Rich in unsaturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, and other vital nutrients, research has found that regular consumption of nuts as part of a healthy diet may improve artery health, reduce inflammation, and decrease the risk of heart disease as well as lower blood pressure and cholesterol, (via Mayo Clinic). Although they are packed with important nutrients, nuts are also a high-calorie food and should be enjoyed in moderation. A handful of nuts mixed into your favorite salad is a great way to include this nutrient-dense ingredient in your meal.

Sliced almonds, cashews, walnuts, pecans, and peanuts are all popular choices for a crunchy addition to salads (though we will note peanuts are technically legumes and not a tree nut). Walnuts are a traditional ingredient in the classic Waldorf salad, while pecans are a frequent pair for hearty autumn or winter salads. With their varied characteristics, each type of nut brings unique textures and flavors to the mix. Try adding crisp, toasted hazelnuts, rich, buttery macadamias, or salty pistachios to level up your favorite salads.

Fruit

apple pomegranate kale salad

Crisp and refreshing fruit brings a range of colors and textures as well as a sweet counterbalance to the savory flavors in your salad bowl. Draw inspiration from bright and crisp seasonal fruit such as watermelon, apples, pears, or pomegranate arils to create colorful salad combinations for any time of the year.

Fresh watermelon is juicy and sweet while still offering a satisfying bite to your summer salad. It pairs especially well with salty feta and peppery arugula for an intriguing interplay of sweetness, salt, and spice. With a wide variety to choose from, apples and pears can be a sweet or sour addition to a vibrant autumnal salad. The sturdy crunch of a juicy Honeycrisp or a tart Granny Smith complements a range of savory nuts and cheeses and fall vegetables for building a hearty harvest bowl. Jewel-like pomegranate arils brighten up holiday salads with a thrilling pop of color, texture, and flavor.

Cereal

different types of cereal

It may sound bizarre, but a handful of cereal can bring a bit of fun and crunch to an average bowl of salad. Each with its own signature texture, some of the best cereals for salads bring an airy crunch along with a subtle sweetness. Jazz up savory salads with milder cereals like cornflakes, Chex, or Cheerios. Play off the sweetness of fruit or other mix-ins with more sugary cereals like Fruity Pebbles, Raisin Bran, or Honey Bunches of Oats.

Oats and granola clusters are also great ways to add textural interest to your salad. As discussed in the National Library of Medicine, including oats and other grains in your diet offers a variety of health benefits. A good source of fiber as well as a variety of vitamins and minerals, oats have been shown to help lower cholesterol and contain anti-inflammatory properties. Boost the nutrient level while enhancing the crunch factor of your salad with a handful of satiating toasted oats or crunchy granola.

Crispy chickpeas

crispy chickpeas spilling on board

A staple ingredient in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and Indian cuisines, chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, have been enjoyed in a variety of dishes and even used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years, (via Biena Snacks). Classic chickpea dishes such as hummus, falafel, and chana masala are found on menus all over the world with new interpretations evolving the ancient chickpea into the modern food scene. With uses for each part of the garbanzo bean, from aquafaba to chickpea flour, the versatile, nutrient-rich legume is a go-to protein source and egg substitute frequently used in vegan cooking.

Although many iterations of the chickpea are eaten soft, roasted chickpeas have become a popular crunchy snack. With a few simple ingredients, this crunchy salad mix-in can be ready to enjoy in just about 10 minutes. Simply roasted or pan-fried with a dash of salt or coated in bold spices, crispy chickpeas add texture and flavor to salads, soups, grain bowls, wraps, and more.

Chips

potato chips salty snacks

Innovative chefs and creative home cooks have been finding exciting uses for chips, utilizing their signature crunchy texture to enhance everything from soups and sandwiches to salads and deviled eggs. Tortilla chips, whether crushed, whole, or in colorful strips, have a long tradition of adding crunch to spicy tortilla soup, chili, and even as an edible bowl for the iconic taco salad. They add a satisfying bite along with a hint of sweetness and salt to a Southwestern-inspired creation or a fresh barbecue side salad.

Potato chips have also made their way beyond the bag as a popular addition to deli sandwiches or wraps and even mashed potatoes. The crispy snack has even been spotted standing in for croutons in modern salad sensations like Trader Joe’s Dill-icious Chopped Salad Kit. There are entire grocery store aisles full of possibilities for dressing up a boring salad with crunchy, flavorful chips. Stick with the original for a crisp, slightly salty addition that won’t overwhelm a delicate mix or pump up the flavor with bolder varieties such as barbecue and jalapeño.

Fried onions

bowl and spoon fried onions

The traditional topping for classic dishes like green bean casserole, crunchy fried onions have been long under-utilized. Whether store-bought or homemade, the delightful addition has plenty of potential for bringing a layer of rich flavor and crisp texture to much more than holiday sides. If you are preparing a batch of crispy onions from scratch, be sure to choose the right type of onion for the job; yellow and white tend to work best. Soak them in water or milk for at least an hour, and be generous with the salt as it helps draw out moisture while seasoning the onions.

Although not the most nutritious mix-in, a little goes a long way with this crunchy addition. Just a sprinkle enhances salads, bowls, sandwiches, soups, casseroles, pasta, baked chicken, and more with deep, savory flavor and a satisfying crunch. Try adding fried onions to bold salads that pack a lot of flavors such as your favorite barbecue salad or a hearty steak salad with gorgonzola cheese.

Crispy noodles

Chinese mandarin salad

When searching for new and interesting ways to add a bit of crunch to your usual salad, try taking a cue from popular Asian-inspired salads with the inclusion of crispy noodles. Crunchy chow mein noodles, typically made with enriched wheat flour, are a traditional complement to Madame Wu’s now-famous Chinese chicken salad. According to Saveur, Wu created the salad to satisfy a request from her celebrity crush, Cary Grant. Typically containing a colorful mixture of fresh cabbage, carrots, scallions, water chestnuts, mandarin slices, and chicken, this classic salad born in Los Angeles is often finished with a generous handful of crunchy chow mein noodles.

Perhaps a descendant of Wu’s vibrant, noodle-topped salad, crunchy ramen noodle salad incorporates toasted, curly ramen noodles broken into pieces and mixed throughout the salad. Often packed with a rainbow of vegetables coated in savory soy or sesame dressing, the noodles play a key role in the taste, texture, and presentation of this unique salad. Especially when finishing Thai or Vietnamese-inspired salads, fried rice noodles, such as vermicelli, make a crispy, show-stopping garnish.

Cheese crisps

cheese crisps on baking sheet

Cheese is a wildly popular addition for amping up the flavor of a salad. However, a sprinkle of cheese generally doesn’t have much to offer when it comes to texture. Level up the crunch factor in your salads with quick, one-ingredient cheese crisps. These crisp, keto-friendly bites are remarkably easy to make and are ready in just five minutes. Simply grate your cheese, sprinkle a pile onto a baking sheet, and pop it in the oven until crisp and golden. Parmesan is a popular choice for making these savory chips, but you can experiment with different cheeses and added seasonings for an extra flavor boost in salads, soups, tacos, and even baked goods.

For the best results, select cheeses with a lower moisture content such as Parmesan or cheddar. According to the International Dairy Federation, hard and extra hard cheeses have the lowest moisture content (most under 50%), including varieties such as Parmigiano Reggiano, grana padano, cheddar, Gruyère, Emmentaler, and Manchego.

Crispy grains

puffed rice in wooden bowl

Grains are an essential element of practically every cuisine across the globe. Many types of grains have been cultivated for centuries and proliferating diverse varieties may help ease food shortages in the future. They also make great crunchy salad mix-ins. Although it treads the line between a grain and a seed, quinoa is a versatile addition to salads, bowls, and stews. Often enjoyed soft in pilafs or soups, when toasted, quinoa will darken, developing an earthy, nutty taste and crunchy texture. Quinoa typically comes in three colors, white, red, and black, each with its own unique characteristics. For an attractive and nutritious crunchy salad mix-in, try making quinoa crisps by air drying, then baking cooked quinoa on a sheet tray. Season with a little salt and pepper or your favorite blend of spices.

Puffed grains are another fun and interesting way to add crunch to your salad. Easy to make with a mild flavor, puffed rice, amaranth, and even popcorn bring a note of intrigue to the average salad.

Fried protein

salad with fried chicken pieces

Transform a meager side salad into a hearty, satisfying meal with a generous portion of crunchy, fried protein. Although it is not the healthiest preparation method, fried chicken, shrimp, or tofu gives your salad taste, texture, and staying power with a filling dose of fat and protein wrapped in crispy breading. For a less oily alternative, try preparing your crunchy protein in a skillet, an air fryer, or the oven. No matter which method you use, applying high heat is the secret to achieving that crisp, caramelized exterior, especially when trying to make ultra-crispy tofu.

Many of the best salads can be elevated into a filling main course with the inclusion of your favorite protein. Bring some crunch to a classic Cobb or Waldorf salad with a chopped fried chicken breast or change up a briny seaweed or hearty winter salad with some crisp cubes of tofu. Topping the dish with a few rounds of fried goat cheese is another way to add protein, texture, and intrigue to a hearty main course salad.