Commercial salad dressings may be convenient, but they come with a flavor trade-off. Since they're designed to last for months in your fridge, they're loaded with preservatives. Another negative, because they're mass produced in huge quantities, they can taste bland in comparison to a freshly made dressing. Whether you're a fan of Italian or Greek, or find yourself looking for something a little out of the ordinary, like a citrus or tahini-based dressing, there are tons of favor combinations to suit your tastes. If you're going to the trouble to assemble your own salad why not crown it with a homemade dressing? It will take you a few extra minutes, but translate into a big difference in flavor.
Things You'll Need
- For vinaigrette-based dressings:
- High-quality extra virgin olive oil
- (you may also enjoy experimenting with grapeseed, hazelnut, or walnut oil)
- Wine vinegar (red or white, as you choose) or a flavored vinegar such as balsamic
- For creamy dressings:
- Sour cream
- (mix and match your own combinations)
- Salt and pepper
- Dijon mustard
- Chopped fresh herbs (basil, thyme, and tarragon work particularly well)
- Spices (good choices include cumin, caraway seeds, and poppy seeds, but you will certainly think of others)
- Grated or crumbled cheese
- Chopped dill pickles
- Maple syrup
- Citrus juice and grated rind
- Measuring spoons and/or small measuring cups
- Small mixing bowl
- Whisk (you may substitute a fork and some extra wrist power if necessary)
Making Basic Vinaigrette
To allow you to adjust quantities of these basic dressings more easily, the proportion of ingredients is given in "units." Choose your measuring unit to be appropriate to the size of salad and number of guests. For a basic dinner salad to serve 4 people, your "unit" could be a tablespoon. For 2 people, use teaspoons, for more than 4 people you may want to move up to ¼ cup measures. So, your first step in making your own dressing is to decide on such a unit.
Now, measure your basic ingredients in proper proportion. For a vinaigrette dressing, the classic proportion is one unit of vinegar to three units of oil. Assemble salt, pepper, and any other seasoning ingredients you wish to experiment with. Mustard is an excellent flavoring to start with, and one I almost always use. . . but if you are using very high quality oil and vinegar, you may want to just start out with salt and pepper as your only seasonings.
Put the vinegar into the small mixing bowl. Add salt, pepper, and any other seasonings to the vinegar and begin stirring together with a fork or whisk. Then, as you stir, pour in the oil in a thin stream, whisking it into the vinegar at the same time. Continue stirring or whisking until the oil and vinegar are thoroughly emulsified.
To test the flavor of your concoction, dip a lettuce leaf into the bowl and eat it. Add more salt and pepper or other seasonings to taste if necessary.
If you will be serving the salad within an hour, leave the dressing to stand at room temperature. Stir again before combining with the salad or pouring into a serving boat.
After you have mastered the vinaigrette, experiment with additional flavorings to create your own versions of salad classics or devise your own unique combinations. Some ideas follow.Mustard vinaigrette: Use white wine or champagne vinegar. For each unit of vinegar, add one crushed or pressed garlic clove and one-half a unit of Dijon mustard.Poppy seed vinaigrette: For each unit of vinegar, add one-half unit of poppy seeds and one unit of honey or maple syrup. This is especially tasty when made with fruit-flavored vinegar or apple-cider vinegarBalsamic vinaigrette: Use the best balsamic vinegar you can afford. For each unit of vinegar, add one crushed or pressed garlic clove.
Making Mayonnaise-Based Dressings
As in Steps 1 and 2 of the previous section, determine your measuring unit and measure your ingredients in the proper proportion. For a mayonnaise-based dressing, I generally use two units of mayonnaise to one of sour cream. If you plan to add other liquid ingredients, you should stick with this ratio, but if you are adding cheese or other chopped or grated ingredients, you may want to use three units of mayonnaise to two of sour cream. Do consider adding SOME other flavorings, because basic mayonnaise-based dressing is not as flavorful as basic vinaigrette.
Put the sour cream into your mixing bowl, add the salt, pepper, and other seasonings of your choice, and stir together with a fork. Then spoon in the mayonnaise and stir or whisk until well combined.
As in Step 4 of the first section, test for seasoning by dipping a lettuce leaf or other salad ingredient into your mixture. Add more salt, pepper, or other seasonings to taste.
If you will be serving the salad within half an hour, leave the dressing to stand at room temperature. Stir again before combining with the salad or pouring into a serving boat. Do not leave mayonnaise-based dressings at room temperature for more than half an hour, as they can go bad very quickly.Your dressing should keep for up to three days in the refrigerator. It will taste best at room temperature, though, so remove from the fridge at least 30 minutes before combining with your salad.
If you want to get creative with your mayonnaise-based dressing, here are some ideas for you.Ranch dressing: Add one unit of buttermilk to the sour cream. Stir in 1/2 unit of onion powder or ¼ unit of garlic powder. Add a generous dash of Worcestershire sauce, a few drops of your favorite hot sauce, and a pinch or two of dried herbs (oregano, chives, dill)Russian dressing: Add ½ unit of ketchup and ½ unit of finely chopped dill pickles to the sour cream. Stir in a dash of Worcestershire sauce and two or three pinches of onion powder.Blue cheese dressing: Crumble ½ to 1 unit of blue cheese into the sour cream. After you have stirred in the mayonnaise, add ¼ to ½ unit of apple cider or herb-flavored vinegar
Tips & Warnings
- Try substituting lemon, lime or orange juice for vinegar and adding a bit of grated rind for extra flavor. A citrus "vinaigrette" is very good with fruit salad or fresh asparagus.
- Your dressing should keep for up to three days in the refrigerator. It will taste best at room temperature, though, so remove from the fridge at least 30 minutes before combining with your salad.
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