Over the last few months, I’ve observed something about summer barbecues that I can’t ignore: Most people make really bad fruit salads. It’s a rough scene, typified by huge bowls of cut-up apples, grapes, and slimy watermelon, sometimes topped with browning banana slices. Rarely do guests empty the bowl; instead, the fruit slowly releases liquid under the hot sun and turns into a lumpy soup.
This is a shame, because fruit salad can be more than just a mediocre dessert option or the side dish that time forgot. It can be a delicious amalgam of flavors and textures—especially in summer, when most fruits are sweet and ripe and inexpensive. You just need to put a little bit of thought and effort into your fruit salad, instead of randomly tossing together all the fruits you have without any consideration for their compatibility.
As I see it there are two big issues with fruit salad. The first is that people don’t think about the density and composition of their fruits when they combine them. Mixing too many types of fruit is usually what leads to the soup described above, because as great as variety is, too many harder fruits mixed with soft, juicy fruits lead to so much flavor co-mingling that the salad ends up tasting like generic fruit flavor instead of the sum of its ingredients. And some textures and flavors just don’t go together. Those little blackberry drupelets are just going to be popped and generally destroyed by filler honeydew. Pineapple juice is going to make grapes slimy. Kiwi and cantaloupe that sit out together are going to start to taste muddy. A good rule of thumb is to imagine that you’re going to make a smoothie out of all the fruit you’re planning to put in your salad and ask yourself if it would taste good. If there are too many flavors competing, you risk a salad (or smoothie) with that generic fruit taste.
The second issue with fruit salad has less to do with the person making it and more to do with the people eating it—but it has an enormous effect on the fruit salad’s quality. You might deny it, but you’ve committed this cardinal sin, and seen other people do it too. It’s picking. Not picking fruit from a bush or tree, but picking through a fruit salad and only taking the good stuff. Pickers, you know who you are. You pull pieces of mango out from between the chunks of orange, and take all the sliced strawberries that adorn the corners of the platter. Your soul is as black as the seeds of the kiwi you selectively pilfered.
So what can be done to improve the state of fruit salad? Obviously, pickers need to stop picking—but at the same time, fruit salad architects need to start making salads that are so good that no one even wants to pick through them.
Slate editor-in-chief Julia Turner recommends, “strawberry, grapefruit, honey, mint, lime zest. The end.” And that recipe is a great reminder that fruit salad doesn’t have to be made of just fruit. Sweeteners like agave can rescue a tart salad; citrus can be juiced, sliced, or zested over hardy fruits; herbs like basil and mint can add something bright and unexpected; and even dairy like yogurt or cheese can get involved. Watermelon and feta salad is a classic combo for a reason.
But there’s also no harm in keeping it radically simple. One of my favorite fruit salads only has stone fruits in it, like peaches, plums, and apricots. You just cut them up together, and that’s all. It might sound like the slices just sit next to each other and don’t produce a cohesive salad. But when fruits are similar yet distinct they produce really cool-tasting hybrids when they’re all in one bite. Putting two or three similar berries together can make a great salad, as can mango, pineapple, and banana.
You might also reconsider presentation. I think fruit salad is better on a platter than in a deep bowl—that way the fruit toward the bottom isn’t stewing in the juice that trickles down. But regardless of how you serve it, fruit salad never benefits from sitting around. Don’t think you can get away with covering it with plastic wrap and leaving it in the fridge for a few hours while you light the grill. Fruit salad should be the last thing you make before your guests arrive.
It’s no potato salad, but fruit salad can achieve glory days, too. You just have to have a vision instead of throwing mealy apple chunks in a bowl.