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The Key to Better Salads Is at the Bottom of the Bowl

Restaurants use this sauce trick and you should too

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A stoneware bowl with a yogurt sauce at the bottom, with bulgar, brussels sprouts, dukkah-crusted chicken, and broccoli on top. Shutterstock

This post originally appeared in the October 10, 2022 edition of The Move, a place for Eater’s editors and writers to reveal their recommendations and pro dining tips — sometimes thoughtful, sometimes weird, but always someone’s go-to move. Subscribe now.

One of my all-time favorite kids’ stories is Dr. Seuss’s 1984 classic The Butter Battle Book. In anapestic tetrameter, it tells of two neighboring communities — the Yooks and the Zooks — who are divided and eventually reach a full-blown nuclear standoff over one hot button issue: whether spreading your bread butter-side up or butter-side down is “the right, honest way.”

I have been living my life as a devoted butter-side-upper — or, in this case, a dressing-on-topper. I was brought up to believe that a proper salad is broadly composed of a pile of fresh ingredients topped with a smattering of wetter ingredients. Eventually the whole assortment gets jumbled and tossed, but my general rule of salad architecture has been, to start: ingredients below, saucy stuff above.

Recently, however, I’ve begun shaking up my dogmatic salad structure by moving the more viscous elements from up to down. And as it turns out, not only have a total of zero nuclear wars broken out, but my salads — and a lot of other dishes, actually — are, overall, fundamentally better. I think the Zooks were right.

The treason all started with too many tomatoes. I wanted to make a caprese salad to use up my late-summer glut, but I didn’t have any fresh basil or mozzarella. I did have a jar of pesto and a tub of ricotta in my fridge, but blobs of pesto and ricotta on top of a delicate salad felt, well, too blobby, too heavy, too — as one might say today — thicc. So I decided instead to try mixing the ricotta and pesto together and smearing it over the bottom of the salad plate, piling the fresh tomatoes on top, and achieving that same basily-cheese vibe that’s key to a good caprese — but somehow now better.

As I spread the back of a spoon across my plate in dramatic fashion while making an audible “whoosh” sound, I realized I’d seen this trick at restaurants for ages, where a thick, creamy element often sits at the bottom of a salad or other cold starter. It’s always made for fun eating, encouraging you to swipe your lettuce or beet or radish or whatever through a bed of something, scooping up as much or as little as you like in each bite. It’s a technique that’s long been a favorite of cuisines from across the eastern Mediterranean, where wiping food through hummus and other dippy substances is a way of life.

A chef friend explained that this upside-down style also creates some stability in your salad, so the ingredients don’t go sliding around willy-nilly on the plate, which is especially important if your food has to be swished across a dining room by busy servers. But even at home, the ability to complement delicate, crisp things with heavier, creamier things without weighing everything down opens up a whole world of textural combinations that just wouldn’t work spready-side-up.

TikTok content creators have been seizing upon the saucey-side-down trend, with whipped feta to labneh emerging as frequent stars on a salad’s lower level. And it doesn’t need to stop at salads. Meatballs? Don’t smother them in red sauce — arrange them on top of it. Keep roast chicken skin crispy by plating portions on top of your pan gravy or tart piri piri. Pile roasted carrots over whipped tahini. Spread Greek yogurt under lamb. Put Nutella under pretty much anything fruity.

Do I still shower my greens with vinaigrette, and sprinkle Parm over pasta? Yes. And FWIW I also still proudly fly my butter-side-up toast flag. But thinking of the plate’s surface as another layer upon which to build flavor has inspired me to try all sorts of new combinations, and anything to break us out of our cooking routines is a good thing, amirite? Because Yook or Zook — we’re all just hungry for something good.