Everyone and their mother thinks they know how to make a caprese salad but they do not. The irony is a caprese salad is so simple that it seems impossible that it is not always made correctly and well. First and foremost, I would like to let the world know that a caprese does not EVER have vinegar on it. Balsamic or any other type does not belong on this dish. I didn’t make up this rule, it is an Italian culinary statute as old as mozzarella itself. Italian food laws are not to be messed with. They might not be able to run a country properly, but they can cook.
The key to a caprese is the choice of ingredients, and though I would say that about any dish, since a caprese uses so few ingredients and because they are all uncooked, it is particularly important in this case. Now that said, it is imperative to choose good tomatoes, good mozzarella and good olive oil and unfortunately this is the arena in which Americans fall behind. It’s not just that we don’t have the same quality ingredients as they do in Italy, it’s that we don’t even know how to choose correctly from what we do have. Here is the essential guide.
One: the tomato.
Summer is the season of the tomato and so you will make your best caprese in those months. You are looking for the sweetest tomatoes, however you do not want the ripest tomatoes, which paradoxically usually are much sweeter. The extra ripe ones are soft and great for making sauce, in fact if you have tomatoes that have gone soft, cook them up. But for salads and the caprese you are looking for tomatoes that are just ripe enough to be sweet but still firm enough to be cut neatly. Go ahead and gently squeeze them all in the market until you find the perfect plumpness you are looking for.
I find that summertime heirloom tomatoes are the best and my second choice are vine ripened tomatoes. Yet, no matter what tomato you choose DO NOT EVER put them in the fridge. The cold moist air will turn this beautiful fruit into a mealy mush of yuck and rob it of all its natural sweetness. Leave them on the countertop to ripen naturally and add a flare of color to your kitchen.
Two: the mozzarella.
If you have never been to Naples and eaten a ball of buffalo mozzarella right out of the water-filled container, better for you. You do not know what you are missing. There is no substitute in the States, but as my friend Andrea Palloaro says, with olive oil and salt you can make almost anything delicious.
Still, you must choose the best mozzarella available. Mozzarella for caprese comes in water, not vacuum packed logs of cheese also called mozzarella. If you can find buffalo mozzarella from Italy, grab it. Burrata, a special creamy mozzarella-like cheese from Puglia (the heel of the boot) will also make for a fabulous caprese, though it won’t look as neat as the picture above, which does not matter at all. Messy means yummy. There are some good domestic brands of mozzarella…I have found that Franco and Anie works just fine for a caprese and does not cost an arm and a leg.
Three: the olive oil.
Extra virgin olive oil is the only kind of olive oil that exists. All the others are worthless.
You should always have two bottles in the house. One for cooking and one for drizzling on salads, soups or bruschetta, etc. This second olive oil should be a higher quality with a distinct olive oil flavor and smell. The darker and murkier the oil, the better it will be. Olive oil is light sensitive so you will find your best olive oils in dark glass that protects it.
You are also looking for an olive oil that comes from a specific place. Italian olive oil is a general term and will most likely mean that it uses the leftover olives from all over the peninsula, even places that don’t grow great olives. Tuscan olive oil, Cretan olive oil, Santa Barbara olive oil – these are oils that will heighten the palate. Have fun trying different ones out. It’s ok to spend more on this bottle because you will not be using it for everyday cooking and hence, it will last longer. However, I will tell you that the organic Tuscan olive oil at Costco is not bad and it is inexpensive enough that you can use it for all cooking needs as well. Please don’t tell that to anyone; those of us who can afford it need to keep small family owned farms alive and thriving.
This spiel is over: You are now ready to make a caprese.
Four: salt. You need it.