Salad recipes benefit from the seasonal sweetness of vegetables like corn, the crispness of lettuces, and the sun-soaked greatness of ripe tomatoes, but the key to bringing them all together is finding the perfect salad dressing.
Making your own salad dressing from scratch takes only a few minutes and infinitely improves every salad. Nearly all salad dressing recipes starts with a simple formula, whether you’re building a vinaigrette, a creamy dressing, a mayo-based sauce, or an herb-forward dressing. Armed with a few basic ratios and styles of salad dressing, you’ll be ready to create your own dressings to match—and improve—any salad on the fly. Once you understand what goes into the various styles, it’s like a Swiss Army Knife of salad skills!
While bottled salad dressings often take their texture from additives designed to keep the dressing smooth and creamy, the different ways homemade salad dressing recipes get their textures mostly provides the distinctions between different types of dressings. But before we can launch into the difference between a vinaigrette and a creamy dressing, it’s important to understand emulsification.
Most salad dressing begins with the process of emulsification: getting oil and a liquid acid to come together in the holy matrimony of great salad dressing. To get olive (or any other) oil to come together with a liquid requires force—shaking, blending, whisking, what have you. To get it to stay together requires an emulsifying agent—egg yolks, mustard, honey, garlic paste, or even an already-emulsified mixture, like mayonnaise.
Emulsification can be difficult, so when making one, always keep in mind the twin terrors of emulsions: time and temperature. But, like needy toddlers, with a little attention you can overcome their dressing-sabotage tantrums. For the first, simply start extremely slowly, adding your oil one or two drips at a time. If you get overzealous and add too much at the beginning, the oil globules will find each other among the liquid and rejoin—separating or breaking the emulsion. For the latter, know that the closer all of your ingredients are to room temperature, the easier the emulsion will come together—think about mayonnaise mixing into a hot dish or adding cold yogurt to a sauce: they both end up gross and blobby. Letting your ingredients sit out on the counter for a bit before mixing will keep everyone a bit friendlier.
Most salad dressing begins with the process of emulsification: getting oil and a liquid acid to come together in the holy matrimony of great salad dressing. To get olive (or any other) oil to come together with a liquid requires force—shaking, blending, whisking, what have you.
The simplest salad dressing—and an easy recipe to riff on with your own favorite flavors—is the classic vinaigrette, using oil, vinegar, and mustard. The standard ratio is three parts oil to one part vinegar, and the most basic version uses olive oil, white wine vinegar, and a dollop of mustard, plus salt and pepper. But there’s no reason to hold off there: switching the vinegar for a balsamic or Champagne upgrades it instantly, while using a citrus juice like lemon, lime, or grapefruit brings a fun zing. You can get creative with other oils, like avocado, pumpkin seed, or hazelnut. And the mustard can be switched out for a little honey if that matches the other flavors better.
Once you have the ratio down, you simply add the emulsifier (mustard or honey) to the acid, and blend, whisk, or shake it. Then add the oil, just a tad at a time, blending, whisking, or shaking, until it is completely incorporated. If you’re using the vinaigrette right away, you don’t need to worry as much about completely emulsifying the dressing—even if you just throw it all together and shake it in a tightly-closed jar, it will last a few minutes, enough for you to dress the salad. If you want it to hold emulsified for a week, use a blender.
Once you have the ratio, the dressing world is your playground: you can add herbs, spices, nuts, whatever you want your salad dressing to taste like. For most ingredients, you can add them in before you make the emulsion, as they’ll help bring the dressing together.
Standard Vinaigrette: All you really need is oil, vinegar, and a bit of emulsifier—usually mustard—to pull this standard together.
Italian Dressing: This tabletop favorite is actually just a basic olive oil and red or white wine vinegar vinaigrette mixed with a few herbs—fresh parsley and dried basil, oregano, and red pepper—with lemon juice and garlic.
Balsamic Vinaigrette: Balsamic vinegar makes a tart and sweet base for salads, so it’s a common vinaigrette ingredient, usually with a splash of honey to bring it together.
Caesar Salad Dressing
Like a vinaigrette, Caesar salad dressing is an emulsion: the egg yolk works as the emulsifying agent and the lemon juice as the acid. The extra ingredients—pepper, anchovies, and Parmesan—just help to emulsify it. This is useful knowledge for anyone trying to make a riff on the dish: don’t like using raw eggs? Just use some mayonnaise or even yogurt in place of the egg yolk. Feeling like tweaking it? Try it with lime, or go with yuzu juice. Just like the standard vinaigrette, once you master the ratio, playing with flavors becomes easier.
Caesar Dressing: Perhaps one of the most iconic single dressings in American cuisine, this dressing gets its body from a raw egg yolk mixed with oil, and its flavor from a trio of big guns: anchovies, parmesan, and garlic.
Mayo-based Caesar Dressing: For the squeamish, the immunity-compromised, or the lazy, the ready-made emulsion of mayonnaise makes it easy to simply stir in the flavor components of Caesar dressing and then it with a little extra lemon juice.
Creamy dressings—like green goddess or ranch dressing—tend to do well with heartier salads and chunkier vegetables, as they may weigh down fragile greens. While cream itself is an emulsion, the truth is most of the creamy salad dressings you’re familiar with come from a mayonnaise base, which makes them even easier to make than a vinaigrette. And, in most cases, you can swap out the mayo for yogurt or Greek yogurt for a lighter or tangier version. For most of these, you can just toss all the ingredients into a blender and whiz together your favorite dressing.
Blue Cheese: The funky flavor of blue cheese gets tangy with mayonnaise and sour cream or buttermilk in this big-flavor American classic that’s simple to stir together.
Green Goddess: Practically synonymous with fresh flavors, this California specialty packs in a truckload of herbs, brought together with a little mayonnaise and sour cream (and sometimes avocado, in a modern version)
Ranch: America’s favorite buttermilk-herb dressing went from a niche restaurant product to mainstream quickly, and has now taken on an iconic spot on grocery shelves. While it can be tempting to pick up a packet of the herb mix at stores, this is an easy one to shake up in a jar and serve—and will bring a bold, fresh tanginess no envelope can offer.
Mayonnaise on its own makes for an easy base (and, again, easily substituted for yogurt) and has become the base of at least two favorites: Russian and Thousand Island. Both begin with a mayo base and take much of their flavor from ketchup without any additional creaminess coming in later, Russian veers toward horseradish for sharpness and thousand island uses sweet pickle relish.
Russian Dressing: From a base of mayonnaise and ketchup, the horseradish and hot sauce lift this into a creamy, sharp dressing.
Thousand Island: Like an overturned condiment cart, thousand island mixes mayonnaise, ketchup, and relish, with vinegar and garlic, for a unique and tangy dressing.
Who says your salad dressing needs to use any of these classic methods? Nobody! While the texture of emulsification tends to do well, there are other ways to get the same texture or others that work well for salads: tahini as a base, using chia seeds in a citrus-based liquid, and even just blending up large amounts herbs like mint and parsley with a light oil until they just come together.
Tahini Dressing: The sesame seed paste known as tahini comes already thick and creamy, so turning it into a salad dressing simple requires thinning it out with a bit of lemon juice and olive oil and then adding flavors—from basic chopped garlic to spicy pickled peppers.
Herb Dressing: There’s no rules on this one, just clean up whatever herbs are floating in your fridge or garden, and drizzle with a touch of oil before blending. Play around by adding garlic, capers, pickled shallots, or anything else you have on hand.
Chia Dressing: Chia seeds will thicken any liquid, so letting them work their magic on whatever your favorite flavors are turns them into a salad dressing. Mix ingredients, like blueberry and lemon juice, or orange juice and chopped chipotle peppers in adobo, and then let sit for an hour with the seeds before stirring and serving.
Award-winning food and travel writer Naomi Tomky uses her unrelenting enthusiasm for eating everything to propel herself around the world. Her work appears in publications such as Saveur, Food & Wine, and Vogue, as well as the anthology Best Food Writing 2017. Find more of her delicious adventures at www.naomitomky.com, on Twitter (@gastrognome), and on Instagram (@the_gastrognome).
Illustrations by Lindsay Moore.
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