Few subjects inflame the ire of culinary pedants more than salade Niçoise. They’re not wrestling over historic points like where the dish originated (as the name suggests, it was in the French coastal city of Nice) or aesthetic considerations, such as the most attractive way to plate the salad (thoughtful composition or playful jumble?). No, the most spirited debate focuses on what actually belongs in this iconic dish.
New-School Salade Niçoise is Cold, Hot, Crisp, and Creamy
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Salade Niçoise first showed up in the 19th century as a simple trio of tomatoes, anchovies, and olive oil. Renowned chef Auguste Escoffier, who was born near Nice, bulked it up with boiled potatoes and green beans. In 1972, Nice mayor and cookbook author Jacques Médecin decreed that the salad must be comprised mostly of tomatoes that had been salted three times and slicked with olive oil; hard-cooked eggs and canned tuna were allowed, making the salad a substantial main course, but Escoffier’s boiled vegetables were strictly forbidden.
Since the dish is perpetually evolving, I had no compunction about adding a few tweaks of my own. I ended up sticking with what I considered to be the vital Niçoise elements—green beans and potatoes (apologies to the mayor), tuna, eggs, and the briny olives, anchovies, and capers that tie the salad to the Mediterranean—but putting my own spin on them.
These diminutive olives with a high pit-to-flesh ratio are grown in France and range in color from deep violet-brown to brown-black, depending on ripeness. After harvesting, the olives are cured in brine and often stored with herbs. The result is soft, sweet, earthy, and slightly smoky—just right for embellishing salade Niçoise or for eating out of hand.
Use Grape Tomatoes and Macerate Them
There’s nothing wrong with the usual round summer tomatoes, split into wedges, but using grape tomatoes, which are reliably flavorful year-round, makes the recipe seasonless. To ensure that they would be juicy-sweet and perfectly seasoned, I split the petite tomatoes in half lengthwise and macerated them with salt and sugar.
Boil the Green Beans in Supersalty Water
Years ago, a coworker employed an ingenious technique in his collection of green bean salads. He salted the water for boiling the beans really heavily: 1/4 cup of table salt for just 2 quarts of water. The copious salt didn’t just season the legumes; it also hastened their cooking. Sodium ions displaced some calcium ions in the bean’s cell walls, disrupting the pectin molecules, which allowed the beans to soften quickly while maintaining their brilliant color.
The bubbling salt water worked its magic here, too, thoroughly seasoning my green beans and turning them crisp-tender in a mere 4 minutes. As soon as they were done, I fished them out of the boiling water and sent them for a dive in ice water to stop their cooking, chill them down, and lock in their verdant hue.
Crisp the Potatoes and Serve ’Em Hot
I chose small red potatoes for their creamy flesh and delicately snappy skins. The supersaline water worked just as well here as it had on the beans: After only 12 minutes, the potatoes were deeply seasoned and tender. I could have just set them aside to cool, but I kept going, looking for an upgrade.
I ended up going way off script, producing potatoes so good that you’ll make them even when Niçoise isn’t on your menu. First, I gently flattened the cooked potatoes with the side of my chef’s knife. Then, I pan-fried the disks in hot extra-virgin olive oil. As they sizzled, their craggy edges browned and crisped, transforming them into something really special. I used the potatoes straight from the skillet, enchanted by the juxtaposition of the warm, crackly, salty spuds against the cool and tender tuna, beans, and tomatoes.
Mince the Anchovies
Many classic Niçoise recipes call for draping slender anchovy fillets atop the salad. While I love the salt and umami imparted by these tiny cured fish, I always wish their briny richness was more evenly distributed. My fix? Mince a couple of fillets and blend them into the vinaigrette, where they stealthily improve the flavor of the entire salad.
Go for Tinned Tuna
In the ’90s, chefs seared fresh tuna loin and fanned ruby-centered slices over their salads, but I selected oil-packed tuna from a can (or jar). There are a lot of moving parts in a salade Niçoise, and tinned fish simplifies the preparation, not to mention that premium canned tuna is rich, meaty, and luxuriously silky.
Mix a Punchy Lemon Dressing
Speaking of the vinaigrette, an extra‑lively mixture was called for to perk up the rich, hearty elements of the salad, so I used twice as much acid as I normally would. My vibrant, citrusy blend contains 2 parts lemon juice to 3 parts extra-virgin olive oil, as well as a spoonful of Dijon mustard and minced fresh shallot and thyme.
Make Warm, Jammy Eggs
The warm potatoes were such a hit that rather than hard‑cooking and chilling the eggs as is typical, I decided to serve them warm, too. I boiled the eggs for just 8 minutes so that their yolks would be jammy, not dry. It was a departure from the tradition of hard-cooking, but the sunny yolks would add lush creaminess. After peeling, I perched the eggs yolk-side up on my salads.