This Simple Caprese Salad Will Impress Every Guest

There's nothing more comforting than a homemade Italian dish. Who could refuse the layers of cheese and sauce in a heartwarming tray of lasagna? Not us. While the American version of Italian cuisine is typically fat laden and heavy, true Italian food is light while relying on fresh and seasonal ingredients. Italian chefs lay their hearts and souls on their plates with regional specialties, dishes passed down generation to generation, and fresh homemade pasta. What we know in America as "Italian" food, like chicken parmigiana and garlic bread, simply is not a thing over there.

Caprese salad, or traditionally known as Insalata Caprese, can be found on menus throughout Italy as well as here in the states. The relatively simple dish, featuring all fresh ingredients, originates from the Isle of Capri, in Italy's Campania region. It is comprised of mozzarella, tomatoes, and olive oil, but nowadays, it is common to see the addition of fresh basil and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. It is the perfect light start to any meal, especially in Italy where their multi-course dinners typically include both a pasta and a meat or fish course. Our recipe, created by chef Nathaniel Lee, is a traditional preparation of the dish with quality ingredients and fresh basil leaves.

Gather the caprese salad ingredients

The best part about preparing a caprese salad is that no cooking is required. This dramatically cuts your time in the kitchen while still leaving an impressive start to the meal. You'll want to begin by gathering your fresh mozzarella, Heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, as well as some salt and pepper. Chef Lee suggests that while he has no preference for the brand of fresh mozzarella, it must always be fresh and high in moisture. In this preparation, he uses the brand BelGioioso. BelGioioso is found in many major grocery stores and uses only fresh local milk that is free of antibiotics.

Another cheese that would also work in this salad would be burrata. Burrata has been all the rage these last few years. If you are not familiar, burrata cheese has the same firm exterior that you find in fresh mozzarella but gives way to a creamy inside comprised of stracciatella. Given its soft texture, Lee suggests spooning it onto the tomatoes.

Quality ingredients make all the difference in a caprese salad

As with all authentic Italian cooking, quality is of the upmost importance when gathering ingredients, especially for something as simple as a caprese salad. Chef Lee explains: "Whenever dealing with so few ingredients in a fresh preparation, the better the ingredients, the better the final dish will be." In addition to a quality fresh mozzarella, the quality of the olive oil and balsamic are just as important.

For olive oil, Lee suggests an extra virgin cold press. A Picholine style would be an ideal pairing for a cheese based dish as it offers a slight nutty flavor while leaning towards a strong herb flavor as opposed to fruity. You also have the option to use a basil infused olive oil that would bring out the earthiness of the dish. For balsamic, traditional or "Tradizionale," is best. When it comes to this, the more aged the better. Lee suggests a 15-25 year aged balsamic as the ideal component as the more aged it is, the more complexity and sweetness it offers while still maintaining a smooth finish. 

Slice tomatoes and mozzarella for the caprese salad

All tomatoes are not created equal. The Heirloom variety may look like the runt of the bunch as they are often colorful and oddly shaped, but what makes them special is that they are grown from seeds that the farmer has specially collected from his previous best crop. The farmer goes for flavor and acidity, as opposed to a uniform shape, like with chemically modified tomatoes. When choosing your Heirlooms, just give them a gentle squeeze. If they feel like they would give under pressure, you know they are ready to be consumed. For a traditional caprese, the tomatoes should be sliced in roughly 1/4 inch slices. At this point, you can also slice the mozzarella to roughly the same thickness as the tomatoes. 

Assemble the caprese salad

As we begin to assemble the dish, you're going to want to gather your sprigs of basil and pick the stems off. Fresh basil is an absolute necessity to round out the plate as it brings a brightness to the dish. While summer is basil season, you should be able to find small containers of the fresh variety in your local grocery store's produce section. Another option is to purchase a small basil plant. They are relatively inexpensive and easy to grow in your kitchen – making them a wonderful asset to have in your cooking arsenal. It's also possible to keep your basil plant indoors throughout the winter months bringing a lightness to your dishes all year long.

To assemble, simply layer the dish by alternating with basil, mozzarella, and tomato. Continue until you've used up all your sliced ingredients. Drizzle a light coating of your olive oil and balsamic over the entire dish. Finish off by seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. You may want to be lighter handed with the salt depending on the sodium level of your mozzarella.

There's more than one way to plate a caprese salad

As an alternative, if you are looking for a salad style dish as opposed to the Italian sliced version, you could plate this by dicing your ingredients. Upon washing all vegetables, you would dice the tomatoes and fresh mozzarella into small cubes of your desired size. Lee explains: "By dicing the tomatoes you increase the surface area that contacts the olive oil and balsamic. This means you get better coating per bite. Additionally, I always find it a bit easier to eat than working with the sliced version."

With this version, instead of leaving the basil leaves intact, you will chop them in a chiffonade style. To accomplish this, start by stacking the leaves and then rolling them. You will then use a sharp knife to slice it into small ribbons. Using big basil leaves and a sharp knife is critical to maintaining the integrity of the basil as it will minimize crushing and tearing. These ribbons will be mixed in with the already diced tomatoes and mozzarella. Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic before gently tossing. Once again, you will season with salt and pepper to your preference. Regardless of your desired preparation, the result will be a flavorful and light start to your meal, or a meal on its own, sure to impress even the most fickle of eaters. 

This Simple Caprese Salad Will Impress Every Guest
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This caprese salad is easy to assemble and bursting with the fresh flavors that Old World Italian cuisine is known for.
Prep Time
10
minutes
Cook Time
0
minutes
Servings
4
Servings
caprese salad on plate
Ready in 10 minutes
Ingredients
  • 8 ounces of fresh mozzarella
  • 3 small heirloom tomatoes (2 medium, or 1 large)
  • 2 sprigs fresh basil
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • salt and pepper to taste
Directions
  1. Slice tomatoes and mozzarella.
  2. Pick basil off stems.
  3. Layer alternating: basil, mozzarella, tomato.
  4. Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic
  5. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
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