How to Make the Best Caprese Salad
And other ways to combine tomato, mozzarella, and basil
One of my favorite things about the arrival of summer is seeing the counters at farmer’s markets shift from predominantly earthy tones to a dazzling spectrum of sunset pinks, glossy reds, and fluorescent yellows. Whether it’s a pulpy peach or the crisp bite of a watermelon slice, there’s something particularly exhilarating about summer produce, which brings me to high-summer’s most treasured ingredient: tomatoes—or more specifically, the combination of tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil.
Whether it takes the form of a pizza, panini, salad, or pasta, there’s something to be said about the world’s love affair with tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil. The timeless combination takes us to the Italian island of Capri, where summer is synonymous with insalata caprese: antipasti platters decked with thick slices of juicy tomato, velvety mozzarella, fragrant basil, and a generous drizzle of olive oil.
The key to caprese
We love caprese for its simplicity, but simplicity doesn’t always equate to deliciousness. The key to having the juiciest, sweetest, most floral arrangement, is to have high quality ingredients that are fresh and ripe. Seek out the very best of each component and you’ll find the caprese formula doesn’t just shine as an al fresco starter, but for many other recipes as well.
Juicy, sun-ripened tomatoes: Caprese should be reserved for the summer, when tomatoes are at their peak. If you follow this simple rule, then almost any tomato you pick up between June and August will taste fantastic—even garden tomatoes! If there’s a farmer’s market near you, I suggest following your nose and collecting a variety of colorful tomatoes in different shapes and sizes. Each heirloom tomato has its own distinct flavor, and what better way to showcase each one in all its citrusy sweet glory than sliced and strewn atop milky mozzarella? Just be sure the tomatoes you choose are plump and heavy.
Creamy, whole-milk mozzarella: While fresh cow’s milk or buffalo mozzarella are the best options here, not everyone has access to a local dairy. Your next best bet? Mozzarella balls packed in water or brine, which can still provide lush, milky noshes in between slices of tangy tomato. Avoid mozzarella that comes in vacuum-sealed bags, as these are often rubbery, making it impossible for the tomato juices and olive oil to cling to the cheese.
Bright and fragrant basil: It’s not hard to find fresh basil, and if you can find sweet Italian basil with smaller leaves, your tastebuds will thank you. Otherwise, large leaf basil will work just as well as long as it’s bright and well-hydrated.
High-quality olive oil: If you don’t already have a pure, extra-virgin (and preferably cold-pressed) olive oil stocked in your pantry, now’s the time to get one. Think of olive oil as the ingredient that ties sweet tomato, creamy mozzarella, and floral basil into one coherent dish. Since the choice for olive oil is vast—ranging from peppery to fruity to bitter—you get the final say of how you want to tie the whole thing together.
Flaky sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper: These are non-negotiable—if you can, stay away from table salt and sprinkle on flaky maldon or kosher salt instead. Why? Because salt and pepper do more than seasoning in this dish: They provide satisfying crunches to complement the other ingredients’ softness, as well as bursts of punchy flavors.
The extras: Pinches of dried oregano, handfuls of arugula, a sprinkling of olives, or more controversially, a drizzle of balsamic vinegar or pesto—who’s stopping you from the insalata caprese of your dreams?
Every which way to caprese
Once you’ve gathered your ingredients, the different incarnations of caprese are practically endless. Squeeze them in between fluffy slices of focaccia for a light summer sandwich, or pile them into a breakfast caprese quiche, tortilla, or pasta salad. Don’t be afraid of variations either. Swap in another summer fruit like peach, watermelon, strawberry or cherry, or for something more decadent, use rich burrata instead of traditional mozzarella. To make the dish vegan, toss in avocado slices. Sweet and juicy tomatoes won't be around much longer, so make sure you've tried as many caprese-style recipes as you can. Here are some ideas to get you started:
What’s your favorite spin on the classic tomato, mozzarella, and basil combination? Let us know in the comments or upload your favorite caprese recipe in the app to share it with the community!
Published on July 11, 2020