What is it that makes Caesar salad so appealing, so craveable? When I finish my last bite of one, I’m already looking forward to the next time I’ll get a taste of that crunchy, savory perfection. As much as I enjoy other salads—really—none elicit the same satisfaction.
Is it the cheesy tang? The crispy croutons? The creamy richness? The fact that it belongs on the menus at both shopping-plaza chain restaurants and fancy steakhouses? The truth is, it’s all of the above.
"Texture, acid, and umami—that's like the trifecta. Caesar salad has everything," says Karen Akunowicz, the 2018 James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: Northeast whose signature grilled broccoli Caesar salad is a day-one menu favorite at her Boston restaurant, Fox & the Knife.
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The most important component of any Caesar dish, of course, is the dressing. Pungent but not too strong, Caesar dressing comes together easily with a lineup of common ingredients—eggs and oil (or an even easier option, mayonnaise); garlic; lemon or white wine vinegar; a splash of Worcestershire; a dollop of Dijon; and ideally, a few anchovies.
It’s a bold combination that simply begs me to take another bite. The ingredients play off one another and lift each other up: It might be too garlicky without that bright lemon, or the emulsified base might be too rich if it weren’t for all that bracing garlic. Tossed with romaine or another sturdy vegetable, it’s a plate I am constantly craving.
I know I’m not alone. Caesar salad is an American tradition, and it’s nostalgic for sure. Caesar Cardini actually created the dish at his restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico, where it became popular among the Hollywood elite who reveled south of the border to avoid Prohibition. In the mid-1920s, a youthful Julia Child experienced a tableside preparation by the creator himself, which she recounts, along with Cardini’s original recipe, in her 1975 cookbook, From Julia Child's Kitchen. In 1953, the International Society of Epicures hailed Caesar salad as "the greatest recipe to originate from the Americas in 50 years."
This history doesn’t account for its staying power, however. Its deliciousness does.
Caesar salad is said to be a primary driver of the growth of farms specializing in romaine. But when the question is “Will it Caesar?” the answer is usually yes. The distinctive dressing is a great match for any crisp vegetable, from bitter winter lettuces to hardy kale to green beans. (Seriously, you must try this Caesar Green Bean Salad.)
Purists may argue that it’s not Caesar without minced anchovies adding depth to the creamy emulsification, but Akunowicz’s Broccoli alla Griglia "Caesar" is proof that’s not necessarily so: Her dressing gets its savory richness from white miso and colatura, an Italian-style aged fish sauce that is derived from pungent anchovies. At Fox & the Knife, diners can also order a vegetarian version of the dish, which replaces the colatura with a dash of tamari. (Our test cooks have also successfully replicated Caesar salad satisfaction in a vegan version of the dressing, using briny capers and nutty, cheesy, plant-derived nutritional yeast.)
There are plenty of ways to get there, but with a garlicky, savory dressing and a couple crunchy components, Caesar salad will always be king.