Caprese is a simple Italian salad made with tomato, mozzarella, and basil. The flavors of the ingredients with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt mix perfectly on your tongue.
An Italian would scoff at the idea that there would be a recipe for Caprese. What you see is what you get. Perfectly ripe, garden-fresh tomatoes with mozzarella, basil, olive oil, and some salt and pepper.
(This post was first published on July 18, 2012. As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn commission on qualifying purchases)
Caprese – A Simple Salad to Savor
Resist the temptation to add ruffles and bows, like garlic or balsamic. Instead, savor each bite.
The juxtaposition of sun-ripened tomatoes, the texture of the creamy, smooth mozzarella, the pungent bite of the licorice scented basil, the buttery rich olive oil, and the pop of the sea salt on your tongue brings all the notes together in a delicious and refreshing symphony in your mouth.
Ingredients in a Caprese Salad Recipe
Mozzarella, tomatoes, basil, olive oil, and salt and pepper are the main ingredients.
Caprese salad is a dish made for the summer. Store-bought, greenhouse tomatoes, bought in the middle of winter just won’t taste the same.
The best tomatoes for caprese are garden-fresh tomatoes. I like to pick mine in the afternoon while they’re still warm. Tomatoes from your neighborhood farmer’s market are a great option too.
Note: Do not store tomatoes in the refrigerator. Chilling them will dull their flavor.
Mozzarella cheese is a fresh Italian cheese traditionally made from buffalo milk (mozzarella di bufala).
Most mozzarella cheese in the US is made from cow’s milk. While it might be difficult to find true mozzarella di buffalo, most towns or cities have either international grocery stores or Italian grocery stores which generally carry high-quality mozzarella cheese.
Seek out an Italian grocer in your area or a good cheese store if you’d like to find authentic mozzarella. Fresh mozzarella will be packed in brine and is best eaten within a couple of days.
Avoid “low moisture” mozzarella, which is usually sealed in plastic and not packaged in brine. It will be drier and you’ll miss out on the moist and creamy texture of the cheese.
This one’s easier to get right. Only fresh basil will do, it’s easy to get fresh basil leaves in the grocery store or at Trader Joe’s unless you’re lucky enough to grow it in your yard.
Learn more about what you can cook with basil, the different types of basil, and more useful basil facts here.
The same applies to olive oil. Since olive oil is one of the stars of this show, please buy the best quality extra virgin olive oil you can afford.
This is the time to pull out your favorite olive oil. I keep several bottles of olive oil with different flavor profiles.
The most expensive one I use for the “drizzle” or for making salad dressing. A nice olive oil for Caprese should have a fruity smooth flavor. This is really a personal taste preference. Choose the one you love.
Salt and Black Pepper
The salt you sprinkle on your salad is just as important as the rest of the ingredients.
Use kosher or coarse sea salt, but whatever you do, don’t use table salt! Regular table salt is too salty. A large flake salt like this flaky sea salt is perfect!
Top off the caprese salad with a nice crack of ground black pepper to add a bit more to the already beautiful flavor profile of the dish.
Should you use a Balsamic vinegar for Caprese salad?
Balsamic vinegar is not traditionally drizzled on a Caprese salad.
A restaurant serving balsamic dressing on a tomato mozzarella salad is most likely trying to mask inferior ingredients. This is a salad that stands on its own.
Resist the urge to add a balsamic glaze, especially since most “balsamic” vinegar sold in the US is not truly balsamic vinegar from Modena anyway.
However, if you like the taste of caprese salad with balsamic vinegar, then drizzle some on anyway. It’s just not a part of the traditional caprese salad recipe.
Why isn’t Balsamic vinegar used on a Caprese salad?
Italian food tends to be regional and Italian cooks tend to source their ingredients locally. They also tend to be very proud about the food of their region and while you can get dishes outside a region, it’s not common, unless it’s a tourist spot.
So Balsamic vinegar comes from Modena in the north of Italy, in the province of Emilia-Romagna, while the beautiful fresh Mozzarella di bufala campana PDO comes from the southern regions of Italy s a type, made from the milk of Italian buffalo raised in designated areas of Campania, Lazio, Apulia and Molise.
As far as the tomatoes go, the best tomatoes grow in the south. Read more about San Marzano tomatoes here. While a Caprese salad only uses fresh tomatoes, you can understand why those grown in the south are best. Lastly, the Caprese salad was first created on the island of Capri just off the coast from Naples.
Assembling The Caprese Salad
You’ll want to prepare the caprese just before serving for the best flavor. The tomato and mozzarella will taste best when served fresh.
Don’t cut the mozzarella or tomatoes too thin. If you are making individual salads, you can stack the ingredients.
If serving 4 or more, arrange the salad on a platter. Scatter or tuck the basil leaves under the mozzarella and tomato slices. The idea is to get a bite that has tomato, mozzarella, and basil all in one bite. Simply delicious!
The ingredients used in a Caprese recipe can provide a great “twist” in other recipes too, like Summer Pasta Salad with tomatoes and mozzarella.
For a more substantial meal, what about this Grilled Caprese Panino with Pesto?
There are lots of ways to present and arrange a Caprese salad. The version below was served as part of our antipasto course in Lugano Switzerland.
- Wash, core and slice the tomatoes about 1/4″ thick.
- Slice mozzarella about 1/4″ thick. Layer tomatoes, basil and mozzarella on a plate. Drizzle each “stack” with olive oil. Season with kosher or sea salt, (coarse, not fine) and fresh cracked black pepper to taste.
- Use the freshest tomatoes and basil you can find.
- Avoid using low moisture mozzarella. Brine packed mozzarella is best.
- Use sea salt or coarse kosher salt.