The salad dressing aisle at a grocery store baffles me: so long, so heavily preserved, so expensive—and so easy to make at home. Every dressing starts with oil and an acid, like vinegar, or something to make it creamy. From there, spices and other flavorings are added to make the desired blend. Even the most dedicated bachelor likely has the basic ingredients in his kitchen.
Imagine this: You’re invited over for a first dinner date, and the guy pulls out a squeeze jug of store-brand ranch. Impressed? Perhaps he splurged for a bottle with a fancy label. It’s probably still not memorable. Now imagine he combines oil, vinegar, and a few spices in a bottle, shakes it, and sprinkles the result over greens. Suddenly, you’re paying attention. In less than 5 minutes, he has a lip-smacking salad dressing—and you might be considering a second date before you even taste the main dish.
Vinegary Salad Dressing Base
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Combine the vinegar, salt, and pepper in a small bottle or jar; screw on the lid and shake briskly until the salt dissolves. Add the oil, reseal, and shake again until the ingredients combine. Drizzle immediately over your salad, or set the dressing aside and shake again just before serving. Makes about 1/4 cup.
Tips & Tricks
- This base recipe uses a 2-to-1 ratio of oil to vinegar, but you can boost the bite by adding an extra teaspoon or two of vinegar.
- Acid–oil combinations abound. Wine, champagne, sherry and even cider vinegar work well, as do lemon and lime juices. Sunflower oil or even part oil and part vegetable stock is a lighter option, or go heavier with a walnut oil for a potato salad. For an Asian salad, choose rice vinegar and replace some of the oil with sesame. Some acids give a sharper flavor, so be sure to taste the dressing before you add it to the salad and adjust as needed.
- Sea salt or kosher salt helps to balance the acid and oil flavors, so be sure to add a little. I always grind pepper as I need it; if your bottle has a small neck, crease a scrap of paper, grind the pepper onto it, and pour it in.
- From here, the variations are endless. Like sweet dressings? Add a teaspoon or two of ultrafine sugar, honey, maple syrup, or orange juice. Want an herb dressing? Throw in up to 2 tablespoons of the fresh herb or herbs of your choosing or up to 2 teaspoons dried—even Italian Seasoning Blend. Just about any dried spice in your cupboard can be added instead; start with 1/4 teaspoon of dry mustard, cumin, nutmeg, paprika, ginger, etc., to ensure you don’t go overboard. A single minced clove of garlic or shallot adds plenty of punch, or splash in a couple of drops of hot sauce for a real kick. Other variations can make the dressing creamy (see below).
- No matter how hard you shake, oil and vinegar never truly mix. Whisking can be more effective than shaking, because the whisk distributes the molecules in the ingredients more efficiently. An emulsifier is even more helpful and can keep your dressing from separating while guests serve themselves. Homemade mustard is my favorite; add at least 1 teaspoon for the desired effect. Honey and garlic also help to thicken a dressing.
- Store leftover dressing in the refrigerator. Vinaigrettes taste best the first few days but will keep several weeks. If you used olive oil, it will likely separate into a layer that coats the top of the dressing; bring the bottle to room temperature and shake to restore the mixture.
Twice as Tasty
According to the website Statistica, 76% of Americans buy salad dressings. And what are most of those people buying? As NPR puts it, “It’s official: Americans are floating in a pool of ranch dressing.” Store-bought ranch may be creamy, but it also contains a ton of sugar, and the original buttermilk dressing recipe is drowning in phosphoric acid, xanthan gum, and MSG.
Fortunately, creamy dressings are just as easy to make as vinaigrettes. “Cream” can be a bit of a misnomer. Whisk together lemon juice and olive oil, and you’ll see what I mean: the result looks creamy before you add any dairy—a bonus for vegans. From there, you could play with the flavors until you come up with an approximation of your favorite ranch brand, or you could branch out into other blends. Chances are, you won’t even miss the sugar—or the MSG.
Creamy Salad Dressing Base
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/3 cup Fresh Yogurt (optional)
Combine the lemon juice, salt, and pepper in a small bottle or jar; screw on the lid and shake briskly until the salt dissolves. Add the oil, reseal, and shake for about 30 seconds, until the result is creamy. Add the yogurt and shake another 30 seconds, until the ingredients combine. Add other flavorings as desired. Drizzle immediately over your salad, or set the dressing aside and shake again just before serving. Makes about 1/4–1/2 cup.
Tips & Tricks
- I love the tang of yogurt, but sour cream, buttermilk, and cream are among the many other creamy options. Vegans can skip the dairy and double the recipe for a very lemony dressing. If using thinner ingredients, add a bit at a time to ensure the desired consistency.
- Although this dressing can be served as is, it really wants other flavors. All of those mentioned as options for the Vinegary Salad Dressing Base work well, as do cheeses, capers, and anchovies. For that ranch flavor, replace the yogurt with buttermilk and add garlic and chives; other flavors such as parsley, dill, onion, and mustard may bring you closer to your favorite brand.
- Be sure to keep creamy dressing in the refrigerator and use it within about a week. Don’t be surprised if it thickens. A few minutes at room temperature will thin out the dressing; shake it well and add a dash of water if it refuses to loosen on its own.
Want to play with more variations? Twice as Tasty is teaching these techniques in a workshop held in your own kitchen, among friends—and with my personal help. Click here to learn more.