Getting close to a replacement for baby spinach in salads is going to be a stretch. No other green quite has its distinct, rich flavor, although you can approximate the sturdy texture. It also makes a difference what kind of salad you’re making. Wilted salads might not come immediately to mind, but this unique category is delicious and worthy of consideration. (Give this recipe for Wilted Spinach a try.)
In a wilted salad, you make a hot dressing and pour it over the salad, cooking it lightly and blending all the flavors. Hot spinach salad, which contains some variation of mushrooms, onion, hard-cooked egg, and bacon, is dressed with a vinaigrette based on the bacon fat. If this is the kind of salad you’re looking to emulate, try using mâche, also known as lamb’s lettuce (not lamb’s ears.) Oddly enough, in the UK, it’s called corn salad. There’s one that will trip you up if you’re not familiar with it! It’s a funny looking lettuce with small leaves which grow in rosettes. If buying them whole, simply trim off the roots and proceed.
For the more common salads served cold, since nothing really duplicates spinach, I recommend using a blend. Arugula is the closest in appearance and texture to baby spinach, but it can be quite peppery if mature. Use baby arugula. I love it by itself; but it you want to mute it, mix with a blend of baby lettuces called a spring mix or mesclun.
Other choices to accent a baby lettuce mix with could be watercress (dark green leaves and a sharp, hot taste) or dandelion (use only small, young leaves; they’re also sharp-tasting.) If you want to harvest dandelion leaves, be sure not to collect them from lawns unless you know no pesticides have been applied, and look for ones growing in the shade – strong sunshine makes them bitter. And if I’ve given the impression that mâche is only for warm salads, not so. It’s also good cold.