Mint Watermelon Salad

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Mint Watermelon Salad is one of the easiest recipes you can make in a pinch. All it takes is watermelon, feta cheese, mint and black pepper. After you’ve assembled the ingredients, place them in the refrigerator to let everything get to know each other. It’s likely that you are going to enjoy this recipe a lot more than you think you will.

Watermelon, Feta, and Mint Salad Recipe

Watermelon, feta, and mint salad in a bowl on a colorful tropical print napkin

WHY IT WORKS

  • Sweet watermelon, salty feta, and mint are a classic pairing.
  • Adding a good dose of chopped lemon zest enhances the aromatic flavors in the watermelon.
  • Crumbling the feta over the top instead of tossing it together with the rest of the salad provides a more interesting finished texture and flavor.

Iknow, I know. Yet another watermelon, feta, and mint salad recipe. Do we need one? Honestly, not really, but I’ve got a good reason for sharing one with you today. In many ways, the watermelon, feta, and mint salad resembles a classic Caprese—both juxtapose a sweet, watery fruit with a single herb and a creamy cheese (mild in one case, sharp in the other). The main difference is that, while it’s easy (and all too common) to get overzealous and f*&k up a Caprese salad, a watermelon, mint, and feta salad is much more forgiving when it comes to riffing and improvising.

But before you can do that, it’s important to lay the foundation.

Every long-lasting, well-liked dish (or TV show or song or actor, or anything, really) goes through a few distinct phases: its creation, its initial burst of popularity, the backlash, and finally its acceptance into the cultural lexicon. I have no idea when and where the watermelon, feta, and mint salad was created (Google Trends data seem to suggest the summer of 2004), but it was well into its initial phase of popularity when I first encountered it at a restaurant I worked at back in 2005.

There, we’d serve a carefully spaced array of a half dozen perfect cubes of watermelon in a simple lemony dressing, topped with crumbles of creamy feta cheese and a chiffonade of mint. Of course, we’d also over-gussy the plate (as was the style at the time) with lychees, brûléed muskmelon, and probably a half dozen other components that escape me at the moment.

Since then, watermelon and feta salads with mint have had their moment of backlash and have since progressed to become a staple summertime dish at my place (and, no doubt, at many of your places as well), and I’ve learned a few things when adapting that recipe for home use. One: You can get rid of pretty much all of the extraneous ingredients. Two: The quality of the watermelon and, more critically, the feta is of utmost importance. And three: A little zest goes a long way.

How to Choose the Most Flavorful Watermelon

Cubes of watermelon on a wooden cutting board.

Just as the first step to pouring a great glass of wine is finding a great wine, the first step to a great watermelon salad is finding a great watermelon. When my wife, Adri, and I lived in Harlem, I bought my watermelons from my watermelon guy, an older gentleman who’d park his pickup on a corner, its cargo bed overflowing with watermelons he’d shipped up from his family farm in Georgia. He’d set up a folding chair under a small tent and man a turkey fryer rigged to boil peanuts, looking up occasionally to inform his customers that, yes, all he was selling today was peanuts, watermelons, smoked turkey necks, and collard greens.

His watermelons were remarkable. Dense, richly colored, deeply aromatic, and sweet. A far cry from the average watery, bland supermarket watermelon. I’ve yet to find my watermelon guy in my current home in California, but there are still ways to locate decent specimens. The best method by far is to hit your local farmers market in the summer, and look for vendors with opened watermelons who will let you take a taste before you purchase.

Is the supermarket your only option? Here are a few tips to help make the best of it:

  • Look for watermelons that feel relatively heavy for their size. Watermelons that grow too fast or big can end up with hollow cracks and crevices, making them feel lighter. These watermelons typically also have a more watered-down flavor. Dense watermelons should taste sweeter and have a better aroma.
  • Look for melons that show signs of a clean break at the stem. Watermelons, like all fruit, are attached at one end to their parent plants. When they reach peak ripeness, the stem will often automatically detach, leaving a clean crater behind. When the melons are picked less ripe, the stem often refuses to break free cleanly, leaving behind part or all of itself at the attachment site. This doesn’t mean all watermelons with some stem attached won’t be good—many still are—but a clean stem crater is generally a very good sign.
  • Rap the watermelon with your knuckles. Watermelons that sound very hollow…probably are. Avoid ’em.
  • Look for smaller varieties. Smaller melon varieties often (but not always) have more concentrated flavor.

I like to keep things simple for the diner by dicing the watermelon into bite-size cubes, rather than the cheffy-looking slabs, stacks, or rounds that seem to be popular and require the use of an extra utensil at the dinner table.

What’s the Best Feta for Salad?

After the watermelon, the quality of the feta is the most variable factor. I bought every type of feta available at my local Safeway and Whole Foods to see how much variation there really is. Turns out, there’s a lot.

Feta is a fresh cheese that’s made by soaking pressed curds in a salty brine. The bottom-shelf brands, made with cow’s milk, generally emphasize the brine flavor over anything else. They tend to have a very dry, crumbly texture, and saltiness without much tang. What you really want to look for is sheep’s-milk feta, whether domestic or imported from Greece or Bulgaria,* which should have a much creamier texture and a flavor that balances saltiness with the characteristic funk of sheep’s milk. That creaminess is important! It’s what gives you a texture that contrasts with the crisp watermelon, making it taste all the more refreshing.

*Technically, Bulgarian feta is called sirene; it can have a slightly creamier texture than Greek feta, but there’s a lot of variation among products, so it’s difficult to generalize.

The Secret Ingredient in a Great Watermelon Salad

Once you have a good watermelon and good feta, you’re almost done here! All you’ve got to do is toss that watermelon with some lemon juice, extra-virgin olive oil, and chopped mint, then sprinkle it with feta, and you’ll have yourself a great little salad. But if you want to really dress that salad up, just remember that you’re not fully dressed till you’re zestfully dressed.

Given that it seems so obvious, it took me an awfully long time to figure out that chopped lemon zest was just what my watermelon, feta, and mint salad was looking for.

Chopped lemon zest on the blade of a chef's knife, with watermelon, feta, and mint salad in the background.

At that same restaurant, back in 2005, one of my daily jobs for the first several months I worked there was to zest citrus fruit and chop it into a fine powder. I’d zest strips off the fruit with a peeler, carefully scrape off and discard the pith, then rock my knife back and forth for a good 30 minutes.** The resulting citrus dust was used as a condiment for numerous dishes.

** A few weeks into this task, I realized that I could speed it up by taping together three knives parallel to each other and rocking them all together.

For my salad, I’m not going to demand that anyone chop their zest that fine. In fact, I prefer the moister texture and small bursts of flavor that you get from zest that’s finely chopped, but not totally pulverized.

Close-up of cubed watermelon, mint, feta, and lemon zest.

A little bit tossed into the bowl and sprinkled on top of the finished salad not only adds a lemony flavor of its own, but also brings out the floral notes in the watermelon and the tanginess of the feta, making each of those ingredients almost taste more of themselves.

The only remaining question is how to incorporate the feta. Some recipes I’ve seen advise adding everything to a bowl and tossing it all together. I find that doing this—especially with a high-quality, soft-and-creamy feta—results in the feta dominating the entire dish, coating the watermelon with its saltiness. Instead, I prefer to sprinkle feta over the dressed watermelon just before serving, giving you more contrast within each bite.

Platter of watermelon, feta, and mint salad on a wooden board with mint leaves in the background.

Oh, right, back to the leading question. Do we really need another watermelon, feta, and mint salad recipe? Like I said, not really. I could just tell you, “Hey, follow your favorite existing watermelon, feta, and mint salad recipe, but you know what? Try springing for that nicer watermelon, look for the sheep’s-milk feta, and make sure you add a bunch of lemon zest!” and you’d probably do just fine.

Once you get that base perfected, that’s when you can start adding a few bits of this and that if you desire. Try some fresh arugula leaves or some cubed cucumbers, halved cherry tomatoes, thinly sliced red onion, and a few small slivers of black olive. Or how about some thinly sliced chile peppers for heat? I really like a version I’ve made a few times with grilled (and chilled) corn, along with some cilantro chopped together with the mint.

Tips from the test kitchen:

We love the saltiness and crumbliness of feta, but if you’re not a fan, fresh mozzarella balls or goat cheese would work, too. If you choose to go with OG feta, be sure to taste the salad before adding more finish salt, just in case it’s already perfectly seasoned.

To take some of the harsh bite out of red onions, slice and soak ’em in water for about 15 minutes, then drain and pat dry before using. 

Mint will oxidize once cut and blacken even faster once dressed in vinaigrette. It’s best to serve quickly after all ingredients are mixed. If your mint does start to oxidize, add some more fresh mint on top right before serving for eye-popping colors.

Save Recipe

YIELDS:4 SERVINGS

PREP TIME:0 HOURS 5 MINS

TOTAL TIME:0 HOURS 10 MINS

INGREDIENTS

1/4 c. 

extra-virgin olive oil

2 tbsp. 

red wine vinegar

1/2 tsp. 

kosher salt

3 c. 

cubed seedless watermelon

1 c. 

medium cucumber, chopped

1 c. 

crumbled feta

1/2 c. 

red onion, thinly sliced

1/2 c. 

coarsely chopped mint, plus more for garish

Flaky sea salt, for garnish (optional)

DIRECTIONS

  1. In a small bowl, whisk together oil, vinegar, and salt. 
  2. In a large serving bowl, combine watermelon, cucumber, feta, red onion, and mint. Add dressing and toss to coat.
  3. Garnish with more mint and flaky sea salt if desired.

Ingredients in the best watermelon salad

Move over, Watermelon Feta Salad. This watermelon salad has got you beat! Don’t get us wrong: we love the pairing of salty, savory cheese with sweet melon. But honestly, we prefer this recipe. It’s even simpler and more refreshing. Here are the three ingredients you need:

  • Ripe watermelon
  • Lime juice
  • Fresh mint

All you’ve got to do? Chop up the melon, chop up the mint, and add the lime juice. Simple as that!

Best way to cut a watermelon

When you’re faced with a massive watermelon and a huge Chef’s knife, what to do? We’ve been there, and we know it’s daunting. What’s the best way to cut this massive fruit? There are lots of methods, but here’s the best way we’ve found to cut a watermelon:

  • Slice the watermelon in half around the middle. Don’t do it lengthwise!
  • Lay it on the flat side, and cut slices.
  • Use a pairing knife to cut off the rind. A smaller knife helps you have more control.
  • Make a grid pattern to cut it into cubes. That’s it!

Variations on watermelon salad

A summery watermelon salad has many variations and adders! We’ve made a few different variations that we love. Here are a few adders:

  • Sea salt: Top with flaky sea salt.
  • Feta cheese: The classic Watermelon Feta Salad is a revelation
  • Cucumber: Pair this cooling veggie in Watermelon Cucumber Salad
  • Red onion or shallot: Top with onion for a spicy kick
  • Basil: Use basil instead of mint
  • Lemon or lime zest: Add another citrus twist

Find a ripe watermelon!

The best advice for any watermelon recipe? Grab a ripe watermelon! It’s essential to getting the beautifully sweet flavor: no amount of added sugar can save it. Here’s how to get the best ripe watermelon:

  • Shop in watermelon season. If it’s out of season, it’s much more likely to be unripe.
  • Look for a yellow field spot. Most watermelons should have a patch on the bottom, which is where they were resting on the ground before being picked. If the patch is yellow, the watermelon is ripe (if it’s white, it’s unripe).

Storage and make ahead info for watermelon salad

A whole watermelon lasts for up to 10 days at room temperature. But chopping up the watermelon decreases its shelf life. Once you’ve cut it into cubes, a watermelon lasts about 2 to 3 days in the refrigerator. It also gives off a lot of liquid, so we recommend eating it as close to the time you cut it as possible.

You can store this watermelon salad for up to 2 days refrigerated, but it’s best when it’s fresh! It gives off quite a bit of liquid as it chills, so try to eat it as soon as possible.

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