Caprese salad is a feature on lots of Italian restaurant menus; the classic combination of tomato, basil, and mozzarella cheese is hard to beat. So often, though, I’ve had mealy, tasteless tomatoes with large hunks of rubbery cheese and a sprinkling of tired basil – and that’s just not worth my time or money. But if you do it right, caprese is a flavorful, refreshing summertime meal.
This is my go-to dish for parties and potlucks. It’s quick and easy, especially if you have a local Trader Joe’s to shop at (I use one box of basil, three boxes of tomatoes, and the cheese that looks the best to me). This recipe makes enough for a ton of people – at least 10-15 – so half it if you’ve got a significantly smaller group (or plan on leftovers!).
Elisa’s Caprese Salad
- 36 oz cherry, grape, or pear tomatoes (the best-tasting ones you can find, please!)
- 18 oz good mozzarella cheese (you’ll see below that in the photo I used the ciligine size; I actually prefer the fresh log-shaped mozzarella, as I find it tends to taste a little better and be easier to work with…)
- 4 oz fresh basil
- 1/2 cup good extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 1/2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp fresh cracked black pepper
- 1/4 tsp granulated garlic (this is the dehydrated stuff – NOT garlic powder or garlic salt… Otherwise you can use one clove of fresh garlic, minced or pressed very fine, but be careful – fresh garlic can take this dish over!)
- 1/4 tsp dry parsley (I suppose you could use fresh here, but I worry about fresh parsley overtaking the basil flavor, as it often can)
The method to this dish is simple. Cut, drain, mix.
First, cut the tomatoes. Depending on how large they are, I either cut them into halves or quarters. Just make sure they’re all as close to bite-sized as you can get them. It’s important to cut the tomatoes to allow them to really marinate in the dressing, so even if you find really tiny ones, take the time to do this. As you cut them, lay the cut side down on a paper towel and let them sit for at least 10 minutes, or until you’re finished cutting the rest of your ingredients. This will drain some of the juice out of the tomatoes so that your caprese salad isn’t swimming in tomato juice.
As your tomatoes drain, cut the cheese into bite-sized pieces. I like to cut my mozzarella into pieces just slightly smaller than my tomatoes, but do whatever you prefer. I’ve used all sorts of mozzarella in this dish, and I prefer to cut pieces from the log-shaped cheese rather than use small pieces of cheese, even though using cheese that’s already shaped into small pieces is less labor-intensive, because I find that the flavor is better.
Separate your basil into piles of large leaves and small leaves before trying to cut it. I like to cut my small leaves all at once, chopping with my knife as best I can, while I roll my large leaves into a cigar-shape and chiffonade them (cut into thin strips). I tried to take photos of this but just couldn’t handle the camera and the knife at once – if you’re curious, though, you can certainly google “chiffonade” and come up with the step-by-step technique.
In a separate bowl or measuring cup, mix the dressing together. Add all the remaining ingredients (oil through dry parsley, above) and whisk until blended.
Many restaurant caprese salads don’t include balsamic vinegar, but I think that it brings excellent flavor to the dish. Once the dressing is whisked, add the tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil to a large bowl, pour the dressing over the salad, and mix carefully with a big spoon until combined.
Refrigerate 1-3 hours or overnight (the basil stays nice and green for the first few hours, but wilts in the fridge, even though the flavors of the whole dish intensify).