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How to make a Caprese salad, one of summer’s greatest dishes

(Scott Suchman for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

I’m a firm believer in the theory that sometimes the dishes that taste the best are the ones that require the least amount of work. And that’s not only because these days, whether in the kitchen or not, I feel like I’m on the constant hamster wheel of life with no break in sight.

It’s also because when you have amazing ingredients, there’s not much you need to do to them to make them shine.

That’s especially true when it comes to Caprese salad, the signature Italian dish of tomatoes, mozzarella and basil that is just about everything I want to eat right now.

A successful Caprese rests largely on “the quality of ingredients,” says chef Amy Brandwein of Centrolina in Washington. A few years ago, I wrote about my overall tips on how to build the summer salad named after the Italian island of Capri, but now I’m offering a simple, flexible recipe to help get you started. Here’s a rundown of the main ingredients:

If you throw basil, tomato and mozzarella on a plate and call it Caprese, these tips are for you

Tomatoes. “You have to wait until it’s tomato season,” Brandwein says. Don’t bother with out-of-season fruit. Preferably the tomatoes are vine-ripened and bursting with flavors and juice. (Slightly warm from the field or market? Even better.) Brandwein likes using red slicing tomatoes, though I love the appearance and flavor of using some or all heirloom varieties. You can exclusively use smaller cherry or grape tomatoes, or mix them in with larger ones. If for some reason you’ve refrigerated ripe tomatoes (it’s okay, I promise), be sure to give them at least an hour on the counter to come to room temperature for ideal flavor and texture.

Mozzarella. Go for the good cheese. I’ve tested this recipe with buffalo mozzarella and fresh cow milk mozzarella, each packed in liquid. Both were divine. These types of cheese are delightfully stretchy and moist, which is why I recommend staying away from the shrink-wrapped products. (Vacuum-sealed fresh mozzarella is okay if that’s all you can find, but I still find its texture not as enjoyable as those packed in liquid.) As to the super-dry, rubbery mozzarella you’ll find near the block and shredded cheese in the grocery store? Avoid. For a real treat, consider making your own cheese. Whatever you use, make sure that, like the tomatoes, it’s at room temperature, Brandwein says.

Olive oil. The olive oil “doesn’t have to be terribly expensive,” says Brandwein, who favors a fruity Ligurian option. As long as it’s something you enjoy the taste of on its own and isn’t rancid, you’ll be good to go. California Olive Ranch is a high-quality grocery store pick. Brandwein says people tend to not put enough oil on their Caprese, which is why I’ve gone with a generous 1/4 cup here. You want to see it pool somewhat at the bottom of your serving dish, so that it mingles with the tomato juices and whey from the cheese to form an irresistible elixir great for dunking bread in. “That’s an awesome thing,” Brandwein says.

Basil. Homegrown herbs are your best bet for freshness and quality. I agree with Brandwein when she says she prefers to use young, smaller leaves, which are still packed with flavor but are tender and small enough to not make you feel like you’re eating a green salad. Another fun option I played around with in testing was micro basil, which is especially attractive and soft. In the Washington-area, I got mine from Roots ’n Shoots. Little Wild Things Farm is another great source. Microgreens are making their way into more stores, so be on the lookout. You can absolutely use more conventional larger basil, but for the best appearance, tear by hand rather than cutting with a knife. To keep it from wilting 0r turning black, don’t add the basil until the second you’re ready to serve the salad.

Seasoning. Sufficient seasoning is another important part of Caprese success, Brandwein says. Salt brings out all the sweet and acidic flavors of the tomato. I like using a flaky sea salt — the bigger flakes mean you have more control when sprinkling them, and applying them in two additions (on the tomatoes and then over the almost-finished salad) ensures everything is laced with flavor. Don’t be shy in adding more to taste, either. Similarly, Brandwein recommends coarsely ground or cracked black pepper instead of a fine powder. Here’s where to pull out your mortar and pestle, if you have a set.

Your guide to pepper: How to use black, white, green and pink peppercorns

Tempted to throw some balsamic vinegar on your Caprese? Resist the urge. And if you like pesto, save it for a sandwich riff, which I’ve included in the recipe below. “It’s just supposed to be a very simple thing,” Brandwein says of the salad.

Get the recipe: Caprese Salad