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How to Make Smokin' Hot Grilled Salads

Sponsored by Whole Foods Market

Firing up your grill often means a meat-centric meal with a supporting cast of sides. But the same high-heat cooking tricks that give snap to your hot dogs and burnt ends to your brisket also transform a surprising veggie—lettuce!—into a smoky heavyweight so that grilled salads can vie with hamburgers for the title of cookout king. I'll show you how easy it is to give your summer salads extra oomph with a little help from your grill.

You’ll find an array of fresh, crisp, grill-worthy lettuces at Whole Foods Market.

Grilled Hearts of Romaine

Photo by Molly

Pictured Recipe: Grilled Hearts of Romaine

Putting a heartier lettuce like romaine on the grill chars it, enhancing the taste in a way that goes well with bold ingredients: tart vinaigrettes, blue cheese dressings, and even meats cooked alongside on the barbecue. For bitter lettuces like radicchio and endive, it tones down their intensity; and for hearty greens like cabbage, it caramelizes the sugars and turns ordinary veggies into incredible salads.

Cabbage on the Grill

Photo by Molly

Pictured Recipe: Cabbage on the Grill

Which Greens to Grill

When it comes to grilling greens, the key is to pick a dense, firm lettuce. Romaine is about the softest you can go—avoid butter or green leaf lettuce. Iceberg lettuce won't have the same flavor as romaine, but the classic wedge salad takes on new life after a go on the grill. Cabbages, chicories, and even traditional cooking greens like kale and chard all work, too, as the base for a grilled salad. Note that kale and chard can be grilled as individual leaves.

How to Grill Greens

What you need:

  • whole head of lettuce, cabbage, or other green
  • oil
  • salt
  • pepper

Directions:

  1. Cut head of lettuce into halves or quarters, making sure to cut lengthwise, to split through the thickest part—the core or stalk. That section gets nicely softened by the heat, while the edges of the lettuce char up. Coat the lettuce well in oil, salt, and pepper. The lettuce doesn't have natural fats or oils like meat, so the oil is key for flavor development and to keep the edges from burning to ash while the center softens.
  2. Place the greens cut-edge down, over medium-high, indirect heat—meaning have the hottest coals to one side of the grill and place the lettuce on the opposite side (for a gas grill, turn the burners on for only one side of the grill and place the lettuce on the opposite side). Let it cook until the edges char and the center softens, about five minutes for romaine, longer for cabbages. If the head is in quarters (so there are two cut edges) flip it and repeat. For maximum char, you can turn it upside down for a quick 30 seconds or so to get the outer leaves dark.

3 Tips for the Best Grilled Salad

Cutting Lettuce for Grilled Salads

Cutting Lettuce for Grilled Salads | Photo by Meredith

1. Keep it in halves or quarters.

For maximum visual impact, the best grilled salads leave the halves or quarters whole and stack add-ons and dressings on top. Make sure to give everyone steak knives so they can cut up their own salads. As an alternative, you can cut the leaves into big strips and chop the stalk before serving.

2. Add a flavor-packed dressing.

The smoky, crisp leaves of a grilled salad beg for big flavors. Creamy Caesar salad dressing (with plenty of anchovies, if desired) and blue cheese dressing work well, as do acidic vinegar- or citrus-heavy options like cilantro-lime dressing.

Find all the salad dressing recipes you need.

3. Pile on even more grilled ingredients.

One of the best parts of grilling a salad is the opportunity to add more grilled ingredients to it for a full-on smoke experience. Grilled vegetables like zucchini, onions, corn, and tomatoes add texture and sweetness. Using grilled chicken to top the salad turns the side into a main dish—and makes incredible leftovers.

Try tossing your grilled greens in with one of these 10 Best Grilled Corn Salads For Summer.

When designing a grilled salad, the more that goes on the grill the better: Add crunch with grilled bread chopped into croutons, add sweetness with grilled peaches, and even throwing a lemon on the grill and then squeezing it over the lettuce before dressing it intensifies the flavor.

Still not sure where to start? We've got plenty of grilled salad inspiration. Try one of these top-rated recipes:

Knife and Fork Grilled Caesar Salad

Coconut Lime and Grilled Kale

Grilled Romaine Salad

Watch: How to Grill Hearts of Romaine

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Naomi Tomky

About Naomi Tomky

Naomi Tomky writes about food and travel. Her award-winning work has been published by Saveur, AFAR, Vogue, Food & Wine, and Fodor’sShe is a contributing editor for Seattle’s Child and teaches an introductory class on travel writing.