The 30 Absolute Best Ingredients To Elevate Salads

A salad should be loaded, colorful, and diverse. When you pick up the bowl, it should be heavy, and after you enjoy your creation, you should feel full. Each bite should have a variety of textures and flavors. Let's break the cycle of boring, bland, food court salads. That's why we've gathered up the 30 absolute best ingredients to elevate salads.

If your salad consists of nothing but iceberg lettuce, whole cherry tomatoes, shredded carrots, and store-bought dressing, it's no wonder you're left feeling disappointed and hungry. There are plenty of things you should be putting on your salad but aren't, and it shows. But let's not dwell on the past. Each time you make a salad going forward, try to add something crunchy, something sweet, something fatty, and something tangy. When you're selecting ingredients, think about adding fruits and vegetables, nuts, and seeds found in similar geographical regions. And when it comes to color, the rule of thumb is the more the merrier. It's time to elevate your salad game, and we're here to help you get there.

Add crispy grilled Brussels sprouts

We've come a long way from boiling Brussels sprouts into oblivion. In fact, the cruciferous vegetable has made an incredible comeback in recent years. The second they dipped their toes in oil, everything changed. These are not your grandmother's Brussels. They're crispy, crunchy, flakey, and seasoned to perfection.

Roasted and fried Brussels sprouts have been increasing in popularity, and are often paired with balsamic. Balsamic roasted Brussels sprouts make a fantastic side dish, but an even better salad topping. Pair with a sweet dressing, toasted nuts, and dried or fresh fruit.

Make it creamy with avocado slices

Another comeback topping to make any salad pop is our favorite green mushy fruit, avocado. It pairs well with just about anything and has become quite popular in the U.S. in the past decade.

A perfectly constructed salad contains a variety of textures, and avocado certainly checks the box for mushy, fatty, and smooth. Because the fruit stays green when combined with citrus, this addition will stay fresh until the last bite. Love a creamy salad? Mash or blend avocado into your dressing to make a vegan substitute for mayo, yogurt, or cream-based dressings.

Absorb flavor with crumbled tofu

Tofu acts as a vehicle for flavor, taking on the spices and sauces it comes in contact with. Both baked and raw crumbled tofu can add the perfect amount of chewiness to a salad while incorporating nicely with any dressing. For a firmer texture, you can try pressing the tofu before baking it.

Because tofu is so versatile it's important to use handy-dandy tips for preparing tofu. For instance, pressing, marinating, and pre-freezing tofu can all change the flavor and texture of the plant-based protein.

Add some smokiness with grilled corn

Every salad tastes better with grilled corn. It's sweet, crunchy, and conveniently bite-sized off the cob. Corn pairs well with Southwestern and South American-style salads. Avocado, black beans, red pepper, pumpkin seeds, kale, and sweet potato pair nicely with the popular vegetable. Corn can be cut off the cob raw, or you can use grilled or even microwaved corn. Upgrade your grilled corn by dunking it in brine before cutting it off the cob. Enjoy little pops of sweetness in every bite.

Add chopped fresh basil

Fresh herbs are a top-tier salad ingredient. Not only do they blend in beautifully with leafy greens, but they add an element of flavor and spice that goes unmatched. Basil, in particular, is mild enough to add in quantity and pairs well nicely with blueberries, arugula, pine nuts, and lemon juice. Garlic and olive pair flawlessly with basil, so it's no wonder this herb works so well in salads. Never let it go bad again — this is a great way to use up your extra basil after making classic basil pesto pasta.

Sprinkle in sweet pomegranate seeds

There's nothing more satisfying than the sweet crunch and pop of the juicy little jewels we call pomegranate seeds. Sprinkle a handful atop any salad to bring it to the next level. Pomegranate seeds pair well with nuts like pistachios and walnuts, as well as rubbed kale.

Benefit from the variety of texture, explosive flavor, and aesthetic appeal that comes with adding these bronze-aged pomegranate seeds to any salad. Just be sure to avoid wearing a white shirt when you open a pomegranate — they've been known to get a little messy.

Incorporate crushed or chopped pistachios

Although they may be a pain to shell, pistachios can bring a salad up a notch or two. We'd say "let's go nuts" with pistachios, but as it turns out they aren't nuts at all. So what exactly are pistachios and how should you eat them? They are classified as drupes, and we recommend crushing or chopping them before sprinkling them onto your salad, after dressing it. Pistachios pair particularly well with dried fruits.

Sweeten your salad with caramelized onion

When we discuss including a sweet element in every salad, onions don't particularly come to mind. But if you know how to make foolproof caramelized onions then you're aware of just how sweet they can be. Instead of cutting them into rings, consider dicing them before beginning the caramelizing process. For a chilled or room-temperature salad, be sure to refrigerate the onions after cooking, or let them cool. If you're "killing" your salad, or serving a warm salad just toss them into the bowl, straight from the pan.

Add chewy dried apricots

Fruit is the ultimate addition to any salad, and dried fruit adds an element of texture as well. If you plan on making a vegetarian salad, it might be difficult to find a chewy element to add. Chopped dried fruit, and apricots in particular, add texture, sweetness, and color to any bowl. You can pair them with nuts, mint, and berries (dried or fresh). Whipped cheese, honey, lemon, and olive oil complement the dried or fresh fruit nicely.

Mix in tangy banana peppers

Banana peppers ... you love 'em or you hate 'em. And if you've tried then, you know that this popular type of pepper makes a statement. For those who enjoy the elite tangy taste of those punchy yellow peppers, consider adding them to your salad. For first-time banana pepper users, try chopping the peppers into halved or quartered rings to distribute the flavor.

Pair with an oil and vinegar or Italian dressing, tomatoes, cucumber, and other mild vegetables.

Throw in smashed cucumber

Speaking of cucumber, did you know smashing the veggie can help to release the flavor and absorb flavor? This practice helps to break down the vegetable in order to allow it to incorporate with dressings and marinades. In fact, smashed cucumber salad recipes are quite common, containing nothing but the smashed-up veggie and its dressing.

Smash the cucumber with a blunt object while it's still whole, then chop it up before adding it to your salad.

Load it up with roasted broccoli or cauliflower

When you think of your basic food court salad, images of whole cherry tomatoes, shredded orange cheese, and large florets of raw broccoli and cauliflower come to mind. This is no way to build a salad. Elevate your ingredients by roasting them. Consider adding citrus-roasted broccoli or tamari-roasted cauliflower in bite-sized florets. Add them hot, or pre-roast and refrigerate them for an easy grab-and-go topping option. These fiber-rich veggies will boost any side salad to meal status.

Pump up the plant protein with green or black lentils

There are seven fairly recognizable types of lentils, and it's time to use them. It's key to follow a few basic tips when cooking with lentils, but generally, they are quite easy to perfect. Cook them in vegetable broth, and dress them with your favorite salad dressing before storing them in the refrigerator to cool. They are mild in flavor but pack quite a punch when it comes to protein and fiber, so add them to any salad to make it a meal.

Add some sweetness with sliced mango

What's sweeter and juicier than our favorite bright fruit, mango? This fruit is delicious in salads, and pairs beautifully with cilantro, red onion, citrus dressing, jicama, and pork, among many other things. Think tropical when it comes to building your mango salad creation, and pull from fruits and veggies from those regions of the planet. Use chopped fresh or dry mango, or even consider topping your salad with a homemade easy mango salsa recipe.

Sprinkle in hemp seeds

Hemp seeds are elite when it comes to salad because they retain moisture similar to sprouts or grated Parmesan cheese, and are loaded to the brim with protein, per Food Revolution. Consider adding hemp seeds to Caesar or other creamy salads, salads topped with croutons, or any salad that needs a protein boost. These seeds are slightly chewy, small, and relatively flavorless, so they pair well with just about any fruit or vegetable.

Mix in chopped fresh parsley

Although parsley is often used as a sad little garnish alongside otherwise bland-looking meals, it can be used as an incredibly important ingredient to elevate salads. Fresh herbs are always a good option when it comes to homemade salads, because they pack a punch of flavor, and blend in nicely with greens. Parsley has a fresh and peppery taste and is mild enough to be a key ingredient. It holds up nicely mixed with other leafy greens, and you can even eat the stems.

Toss in some salty capers

Every good meal has a balance of sweet, fat, acid, and salt. Capers certainly fit the bill when it comes to salt, and hold quite a bit of flavor in a teeny-tiny package. This is just one reason to always keep capers in your pantry. Capers come from the Mediterranean, so it's no surprise that they pair nicely with lemon, olive oil, olives, basil, and pine nuts.

If this is your first go-around with the salty buds, be sure to taste them first, and add them in moderation to your salad.

Load it up with roasted chickpeas

Roasted chickpeas are more than just a delicious snack. They can elevate almost any salad by adding a substantial amount of protein and a varied texture. Also known as garbanzo beans, these roasted wonders are chewy, and crunchy, and act as a vehicle for flavor.

Crispy chickpea recipes are quite simple to make and season to your liking. In fact, the more spices the better. Store them in your refrigerator and load up your salad bowl to the brim.

Add some punch with pickled red onions

Pickled red onions elevate almost any meal, so it comes as no surprise that they can make any salad pop. The sweetness of the onion paired with the tanginess of the vinegar provokes a mouthwatering reaction every time. The crisp crunch of each bite complements almost any vinegar-based dressing, and the beautiful bright aesthetic can make any salad go from bland to bold instantly. If you don't know how to pickle onions, don't fear. Perfect pickled onions are not hard to achieve. When in doubt, buy them pre-pickled.

Get salty with sliced Kalamata olives

Fatty, salty olives are irresistible. Be sure to pit them before you slice them into rings, and sprinkle them on almost any salad. These Mediterranean gems pair well with any pick from the world of Greek cheese, oregano, olive oil, citrus dressings, marinated vegetables, and arugula. When enjoyed with crisp iceberg lettuce, the contrast in texture and flavor makes for a satisfying rounded mouthfeel. Kalamata olives look beautiful in salads, but you may consider exploring some of the other varieties of olives as well.

Toss in tangy sweet berries

Although salads typically consist of a majority of vegetables, fruits make a wonderful addition and can even be a focal point. Berries are sweet, crunchy, tart, and beautiful and have every right to be considered for a salad as vegetables do. Most berries pair wonderfully with nuts, spices, honey, soft cheeses, and herbs. Try a strawberry salad recipe with honey vinaigrette, or a blueberry walnut salad with goat cheese. Don't skimp on the berries.

Sprinkle on toasted sesame seeds

For any salad using an Asian-based dressing, dolloped with hummus, or laden with fruit, toasted sesame seeds make an incredible topping. Not only do they add a toasted, nutty flavor, but they are a great way to add texture and crunch to each bite. Toasting sesame seeds is actually quite simple, and the main aspect is keeping a close watch over them so they don't burn.

There's a reason why sesame seeds were once deemed as valuable as gold. Now get toasting.

Top with roasted delicata squash

These sweet little U-shaped veggies pair well with kale, pomegranate seeds, and pretty much any other fruit or vegetable your can find in North America. This fall-time favorite transforms in the oven into a sweet, soft snack with crunchy skin. It requires no peeling, so this salad addition is easy-peasy to roast. And that isn't the only reason you should start cooking with more delicata squash. It's sweet in taste, fiber-rich, and full of nutrients, per Livestrong. Consider adding this nutrient-packed squash to any salad needing a boost.

Mix in hearty quinoa

If your salad is feeling a little dry and light, consider adding hearty quinoa to the mix. This ancient South American seed is a superfood, per Ancient Grains, and can be used to bulk up any salad into a main course. There are a few mistakes that anyone can make when cooking with quinoa, but generally, it is quite easy to cook, and it can even be toasted. Because the seeds expand when boiled, they absorb dressing quite nicely and can help carry the flavors of your vinaigrette or citrus-based dressing.

Add some color with raw bell peppers

Raw bell peppers come in a variety of colors, making it easier for you to beautify any bland or boring salad. Eating the rainbow is important for our health, and ensures we get a variety of nutrients, per the Mayo Clinic. In addition, colorful salads are just aesthetically pleasing. Toss in diced red, yellow, and green peppers to your salad for an added nutrient boost, crunch, and pop of sweetness.

Mix in sliced oranges and citrus fruits

We've all heard about citrus dressing, but what about adding chunks of citrus right into your salad? Oranges are a wonderful way to add moisture, acidic flavor, and sweetness all in one. Luckily, oranges can be added to salads all season long. Elevate a summer salad paired with beets, pistachios, and dark leafy greens. For winter, consider adding dried cranberries, ginger dressing, spinach, and almonds. Try charring or grilling oranges before adding them, or treating them as the centerpiece of a SuperBite citrus salad.

Grate in lemon zest

Speaking of citrus, who says you have to throw away the rinds? We could all use a little more lemon in our lives, and the yellow citrus fruit does wonders in elevating home-cooked meals. Consider grating lemon zest over your salad, and using the juice to make a lemon vinaigrette recipe to glaze those leafy greens. The refreshing flavor of lemon zest along with the intense aromatics can create a double sensory experience for your guests, family, or yourself.

Dollop on creamy hummus

Hummus is quite a common salad-enhancer, but there are several ways to up your hummus game when it comes to a leafy bowl of goodness. Consider creating a two-ingredient salad dressing with hummus and pickle juice (wow, that was easy). If you enjoy a creamy salad but are looking for a dairy-free option, try mixing your hummus right into your salad. When all else fails, make your own simple creamy hummus recipe and dollop it right on top of your bowl of greens.

Toss in crunchy toasted almond slivers

Time to go nuts again. Toasted almond slivers can give your salad a nutty, rich flavor that vegetables have a hard time achieving. Almonds are used for pretty much everything these days from plant-based milk to moisturizer, so why not add them to your lunch? These crisps will add a crunchy texture to any salad, and pair beautifully with any fruit or vegetable. In addition, the added fiber and protein boost will help you stay fuller for longer.

Pile on the cooked mushrooms

Cooked mushrooms often go overlooked when it comes to salads, but can add the umami element that your bowl of leafy greens is missing. There are many types of mushrooms, and a variety of ways to cook them, but we recommend cooking them in a little olive oil and tamari to bring out the umami. Add them hot to dark leafy greens or cold to delicate lettuce varieties. Pair with hummus or chickpeas, seeds, and cucumber.