How to Make the Ultimate Vegan Salad: 4 Chef’s Tips for Delicious, Healthy Oil-Free Flavor



The perfect salad hits all of these notes.

The ideal blend of colorful vegetables, hearty protein, and a flavorful dressing delights your taste buds without weighing you down.

How can YOU master the salad?  I’ve got 4 simple Chef’s Tips to help.  Follow these 4 easy steps and you’ll have delicious, interesting salads every time.

4 Chef’s Tips to make the Ultimate Salad

Tip 1: Color


Beautiful French Breakfast Radishes can be shaved for gorgeous pink color


Color creates that first appeal to entice you.  You start eating with your eyes first, and color is the key to delicious “eye candy”.

Color is also probably the easiest step to master in the plant-based world.  When it comes to color, the rainbow of healthy vegetables provides endless opportunity.  You’re probably already thinking of a big, colorful bowl full of orange carrots, red tomatoes, green cucumbers…maybe some yellow bell pepper or crimson radishes.

Experiment outside of the normal color ingredients, though.  Try some of the heirloom varieties of plants to add new twists on color.  Slice up some purple or black tomatoes.  Thinly shave purple beets.  Dice some white bell peppers.

Chef’s Twist on Color:  Create a Salad that is the SAME COLOR

Just as it’s fun to create a bowl full of a variety of color, I challenge you to create a bowl that is full of just one color.  For instance, you can create a Green Bowl with a variety of green vegetables:  Zucchini Noodles, Green Cauliflower, Arugula Pesto, Green Pumpkin Seeds. Create a Purple Bowl with: Purple Tomatoes, Purple Basil, Balsamic Reduction, and Chia Seed.

Create a Purple Bowl with: Purple Tomatoes, Purple Basil, Balsamic Reduction, and Chia Seed.
Green Bowl with: Zucchini Noodles, Green Romesco, Arugula Walnut Pesto,

Tip 2: Texture

Where there is Crunchy….there should be Creamy

Where there is Crisp…there should be Tender

Whole Foods Market Raw Detox Salad – Healthy, Gluten-Free, Grain-Free, Oil-Free, Plant-Based, Vegan Recipe

It’s simple:

Interesting Textures = Interesting Food

The types of vegetables you choose will determine how much texture is already in your salad to start.  For the crunchiest texture, go for raw vegetables like carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, and radishes.  To balance these crisp ingredients, add in some softer vegetables like cucumber, yellow summer squash, green zucchini, and cherry tomatoes.

For a bit of creaminess, use ingredients like canned cannellini beans, red kidney beans, cooked rice, ripe avocado, roasted butternut squash, or roasted sweet potatoes.  The dressing you choose to make can also add creaminess.

Walnuts and Apples work double-duty in the salad and dressing for this healthy, plant-based, oil-free, vegan Kale Waldorf recipe

Chef’s Tip for Interesting Texture:  Shave It

Sometimes the raw flavor of vegetables like cauliflower and broccoli can be “too healthy”.  As much as I love plants, there is a fine line between delicious and “Rabbit Food”.

Eating a spiced cabbage slaw?  Delicious?

Eating a bowl of raw cabbage?  Rabbit food.

The only difference between these is how the carrot was cut.  Use a Japanese Mandolin to thinly shave cabbage, radishes, and even heads of broccoli for a more tender crunch.  A veggie spiralizer can create thin “noodles” of carrots, zucchini, and beets.  Simply by cutting the vegetables into smaller pieces, you easily create more tender textures in your salad.

Chef’s Tip for Crunch: Nuts and Seeds

For an easy way to add quick crunchy texture to salads, think nuts and seeds.  Crunchy pumpkin seeds, slivered almonds, and roasted sunflower seeds are some of my favorites.  You can keep a small bag of these in your pantry and sprinkle on a few for quick, crunchy topping.

This West African Sweet Potato Curry gets a crunchy finish from roasted peanuts – Healthy, Plant-Based, Oil-Free, Gluten-Free, Spicy, Ghanaian, Vegan Recipe

Tip 3: Flavor

Choose a part of the world…and go

Curry Forbidden Black Rice Salad – Healthy, Gluten-Free, Oil-Free, Spicy, Plant-Based, Vegan Recipe with Mango and Coconut

When it comes to flavors, I recommend choosing a specific cuisine and playing with those flavors.  If you think of your big salad bowl of plain vegetables as your blank canvas, flavor will come from the dried spices, fresh herbs, and types of dressings you add.  One bowl of spinach, peppers, and cucumbers can be Italian with a quick Balsamic and fresh basil.  The same bowl can take on a Mexican twist with a Avocado Lime Dressing or a Chipotle Cashew Dressing.

Fresh Thai Basil is torn over cucumber noodles, shredded bok choy, bean sprouts, and grated carrots for a pop of Asian flavor

Chef’s Guide for Basic Flavors:

  • Italian: Balsamic, parsley, basil, oregano, thyme, lemon
  • French: Tarragon, chives, lavender, lemon, rosemary, Champagne vinegar
  • Mexican: Avocado, cilantro, cumin, chipotle, chili peppers, lime
  • Asian: Miso, Soy or Tamari, Ginger, Red Chili, Cilantro, Mint
  • Indian: Curry powder, cumin, ginger, lime, coconut

Dried Spices can be added to anything that’s going to be cooked.  Think roasted vegetables, cooked grains, simmered beans.  Add the dried spices at the beginning of cooking to get the most flavor.

Fresh herbs, vinegar, and citrus can be added right at the end, while assembling your salad.  Tear up some fresh mint and right into your lettuce for a Thai-twist.  Toss fresh tarragon into a French-themed salad.  Squeeze some fresh lime on a Mexican bowl right before eating.  These simple steps will add big “pops” of flavor.

Adzuki Bean Salad with Peanut Dressing – Healthy, Gluten-Free, Oil-Free, Plant-Based Vegan Recipe

Tip 4: Dressings

“A salad without a dressing is just naked.

Cold, boring…craving some style”

– Chef Katie

Vegan Caesar Dressing can be made from pureed white beans for a healthy, delicious “dressed” salad

Let’s be honest, a salad without dressing is just bowl of vegetables.  However, dressing tends to be the downfall for most salads.

On one side, dressings can be the fattening, calorie-bombs that throw all sense of “healthy” out the window.

On another side, dressings can have sneaky dairy, cheese, eggs, and even gluten — making it challenging for anyone trying to avoid these.

Sounds like we need the help of a healthy, plant-based chef.

Chef’s Beginner Dressing Tip:  Start with Hummus

If you’re totally lost on the thoughts of making your own salad dressing, start with store-bought hummus.  Choose from any of your favorite flavors, like roasted garlic, spicy chipotle, creamy spinach, or roasted red pepper.  To make dressing, combine a few spoonfuls of hummus in a small bowl with a couple teaspoons of warm water.  Use a fork to mix together.  Add more water or more hummus, until you get a creamy, salad dressing-like consistency.

Chef’s Intermediate Dressing Tip: Start with Creamy Fat

Most traditional salad dressings start with oil.  To make an oil-free salad dressing, start instead with a whole foods fat. Nut and seed butters are the easiest to have on-hand.  Think cashew butter, almond butter, and tahini.  Even ripe avocado works.  Start with a few tablespoons of this fat.   Add a couple teaspoons of an acid like fresh lime, rice vinegar, or lemon.  Add enough warm water (just like you did with the hummus dressing) to get a creamy, pourable consistency.  Season with spices, salt, and pepper.  You’re ready to go.

Lemon Tahini Dressing – Healthy, Easy, Gluten-Free, Nut-Free, Oil-Free, Plant-Based, Vegan Sauce Recipe

Chef’s Advanced Dressing Tip: Pureed Beans, Sweet Potato, Tofu, and Soaked Cashews

When you’re ready to get a little fancier, you can make your own salad dressing base by pureeing ingredients like soaked cashews or pureed beans.  These recipes take a little more preparation, and a bit more attention to measuring, but then you have more control over what goes in the dressing.  Pretty much all of these ingredients can be swapped out for each other, giving you plenty of opportunity to play with different flavors and textures.  This also lets you play with calorie density — you can choose how rich or how low-fat you want your dressing.

Get your Salad On!

Hungry yet?

Here are 10 of my favorite recipes for endless salad ideas.  All are whole foods, plant-based, oil-free, vegan.  To see the full list of salad possibilities, check out the “Salads and Slaw” section.  Or just search “Salad”.

Add your own twists of colors, texture, flavors, and dressing.  Please share your creations and discoveries in the comments below.

It’s time for the Ultimate Salad!

Big ‘Ole Italian Salad – Healthy, Gluten-Free, Grain-Free, Oil-Free, Plant-Based, Vegan Recipe
Cabbage Apple Creamy Slaw with Oil-Free Poppy Seed Dressing – Healthy, Vegan, Plant-Based, Gluten Free Easy Summer Salad Recipe
Roman Chickpea Tu-No Salad – Healthy, Plant-Based, Oil-Free, Gluten-Free, Easy Recipe
Farro Butternut Squash Salad – Healthy, Whole Grain, Plant-Based, Oil-Free Vegan Recipe
Kale Avocado Salad – Healthy, Gluten-Free, Grain-Ree, Oil-Free, Easy, Plant-Based Vegan Recipe
Sun and Moon Watermelon Calypso Bean Salad – Healthy, Plant-Based, Gluten-Free, Oil-Free, Vegan Recipe
Jicama, Corn, and Black Bean Avocado Salad – Healthy, Easy, Vegan, Plant-Based, Oil-Free, Gluten-Free Gaucamole Recipe
Italian Three Bean
Italian Three Bean Salad -Healthy, Gluten-free, Oil-free, Plant-Based, Vegan Recipe



Chicago Personal Chef Katie Simmons

About the Author:

Chef Katie Simmons

Katie is a Personal Chef based in Chicago.  She specializes in creating delicious, healthy recipes for those with special dietary concerns like gluten-free, oil-free, plant-based, and low-residue.  Outside of the kitchen, she is a Fitness Instructor for Equinox, with over 13 years experience in the fitness industry, and a blogger for Kuli Kuli Foods.  For fun, she loves to travel, with her favorite trips including 4-days on the Incan Trail, 10 days of hiking in the Patagonia of Argentina and Chile, 5 months backpacking in New Zealand, and recently exploring the Bavarian pretzels, beer, and wine of Germany.


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