Greek salad is an old-fashioned immigrant story—an imported original nudged into an alternate version of itself so that it fell more in line with mainstream American expectations.
Real Greek Salad
The traditional Greek version, known as horiatiki salata, is a colorful, chunky mix of raw tomatoes, cucumbers, green bell peppers, and onions; briny kalamata olives and (sometimes) capers; and thick slabs of rich, sheepy feta. These components are drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and maybe lemon juice or vinegar and sprinkled with dried oregano. A staple accompaniment at Greek meals, this simple, hearty dish (also called “village salad”) made its way to the United States during the 19th- and 20th‑century waves of Hellenic migration and landed on the menus of many Greek-run diners and pizzerias. When the dish didn’t gain much traction with American consumers, restaurateurs turned it into a recognizable salad by diluting the vegetables with lettuce (iceberg or romaine), crumbling the feta, and tossing the whole affair in a thick vinaigrette. That Greek American adaptation balanced familiarity and intrigue, eventually earning such a following that it became a standard not just at diners and pizzerias but also at chain restaurants, pubs, delis, and even convenience stores nationwide.
The popularity of Greek salad rages on, but in recent years American interest in more traditional Greek fare has started to catch up. That’s good news for horiatiki fans such as myself, who’ve always preferred the original version of the dish—without the lettuce filler and vinaigrette bath, every element comes into bright, sharp, saline focus—and I took it as an excuse to hone my own version. I looked for ripe tomatoes and good-quality olives, feta, and olive oil, since that’s best practice for any ingredient-driven dish. But it would be just as important to figure out the best way to prepare each item so that it was the best version of itself and the jumble of flavors and textures would hang together in perfect balance. Here’s a component-by-component deep dive into my testing notes.
Give the Onion a Soak
There’s nothing like raw onion to add sharp, savory bite and crunch to a salad, as long as it’s used in moderation. Even just half an onion’s worth of thin slices tasted harsh, so I tried soaking the slices in three different liquids to temper their bite. In each case, the soak drew out the onion’s harsh-tasting sulfur compounds (thiosulfinates), but only ice water did so without introducing new, distracting flavors.
Salt and Drain the Tomatoes
Ripe, sweet tomatoes are a must for horiatiki, but they’re also loaded with juice that flooded the salad when I added them directly to the mix. So my first step was to toss the tomatoes (halved wedges, for chunky but manageable bites) with salt and set them in a colander to drain for 30 minutes. The salt pulled out a whopping ½ cup of juice, preventing all that liquid from saturating the other vegetables; plus, it seasoned the tomatoes more deeply and evenly than I could have by simply seasoning the salad before serving.
Choose Dried, Not Fresh, Oregano
Greeks cook extensively with oregano, particularly the dried leaves, which they use in cooked applications and as a finishing touch for meat, fish, vegetables, legumes, and salads such as horiatiki. The woodsy, floral profile of dried oregano leaves is subtler and more complex than that of fresh leaves, but it’s still fragrant because oregano is a hardy herb that retains much of its flavor and aroma when dried. We found that subtlety ideal for horiatiki when we tasted the salad sprinkled with both fresh and dried oregano, noting that the dried herb’s more delicate flavor complemented—but didn’t upstage—the vegetables.
Go for Greek Feta
It’s not just folklore that Greeks make great feta. Of the eight different fetas we tasted from Greece, France, and the United States, the Greek ones boasted almost universally superior flavor and texture—and for several good reasons, which stem from Greek government regulations that control the feta-making process.
First, the milk itself is rich and complex: At least 70 percent of it must be sheep’s milk, which contains twice as much fat as cow’s milk; any remainder must be goat’s milk. Because Greek sheep and goats eat uniquely diverse diets, their milks contain fatty acids that impart distinctively gamy, savory flavors to the feta. Second, Greek feta is produced via a slower, more methodical process that encourages the development of exceptionally complex flavors. Our favorite fetas, made by Real Greek Feta and Dodoni, work equally well in our salad. Avoid crumbled fetas, which are produced from cow’s milk and lack the complexity and rich, dense texture of the real deal.
Give Green Bell Peppers a Chance!
Even if you don’t care for the grassy, vegetal, faintly bitter flavor of green bell pepper, consider using one here. Those qualities (which are due to flavor compounds in unripe peppers called methoxypyrazines) uniquely balance the horiatiki, complementing the fresh, sweet, briny, and rich flavors of the other components.