Salad dressing is easily a billion dollar industry in North America, and a typical bottle of dressing contains perhaps fifty cents worth of ingredients and three dollars worth of markup. Yet most of us have everything we need to make a good salad dressing from scratch at home, and the chances are that a homemade dressing will be both tastier and healthier than the ready-made kind.
As a child I lived for a time in Italy, and I remember how simple salad dressings were in restaurants there. A plate of salad greens was brought to the table, with perhaps two or three thin slices of tomato, and you used the oil and vinegar already on the table, along with a light sprinkling of salt, to dress your own salad to taste. You might think that would lead to overly oily or overly acidic salads, but the fact is that you quickly get used to the perfect balance between the two major ingredients of any self-respecting salad dressing. Even a ten-year-old can figure that out after a few tries.
If you start with oil and vinegar and then branch out with a few other ingredients to spice things up, you can soon create a million varieties of salad dressing, a completely new one each day. The key is to have a basic idea of proportions for the major ingredients, and then to try something new each time, with whatever you have on hand.
In my experience the best salad dressings are oil-and-acid based. If your acid is vinegar, the proportion should be roughly four parts oil to one part vinegar. If you use lemon or lime for the acid, start with the same proportion and add more oil or juice according to taste, as the acidity of lemon or lime can vary based on the variety of fruit and its freshness.
This may run contrary to what health advocates tell you. I remember getting a present one Christmas consisting of an empty salad dressing bottle with proportions for dressing ingredients, and the proportions were two parts vinegar to one part oil. The idea, presumably, was to help people cut down on fat intake, but I would guess that the main impact would be to make people cut down on salad intake, since the resulting dressings were so acidic and thin that no one wanted to eat the salads they were doused on. The fact is that the oils in salad dressings don’t fatten you up nearly as much as the starch in French fries, pasta or breads, or the sugars in soft drinks or juices. Fats help satiate hunger, while starches and sugars keep you coming back for more.
For the oils, I always start with extra virgin olive oil. It contains a higher proportion of healthy monounsaturated fatty acids than most other vegetable oils, and to qualify as extra virgin it has to be cold pressed, which preserves the nutritional value of the fatty acids. Supermarket-bought vegetable oils, on the other hand, have been extracted using heat or chemicals and are processed to extend the shelf life of oils that would normally spoil or degrade in light or heat. In other words, they have had the healthiness squeezed out of them so that you can keep a bottle of corn oil on your counter for months without it ever changing in the least.
Two other favorite oils of mine are hempseed and flax seed oils, which are also cold pressed. Because they contain omega fatty acids, which are particularly good for you but also particularly prone to breakdown in light or heat, you need to keep these oils refrigerated and in the dark. Hempseed oil has a deep green color and a grassy taste, while flax seed oil is more golden in color. If you want a little more exotic flavor you can buy small bottles of walnut or hazelnut oil (assuming no one in your household has tree nut allergies) and add a small amount of those to the oil proportion of your dressing.
My favorite vinegar is Balsamic, but I try not to use it to exclusion, partly because it is more expensive than wine or cider vinegars but also because it can be overpowering. A little goes a long way, and at most half your acid should come from Balsamic vinegar unless you want that flavor to completely dominate others in your dressing.
I stay away from distilled white vinegar simply because it has no taste of its own other than the acidity of the acetic acid. Flavored vinegars such as raspberry or cherry or tarragon vinegar are a nice addition, but don’t spend a fortune on fancy bottles of these – just dump a few raspberries or cherries or a sprig of fresh tarragon in an empty maple syrup jar, fill with white or white wine vinegar, and wait a few months. You’ll save a fortune and you won’t need a trip to the gourmet store next time you need to stock up on fancy vinegars.
Any salad dressing worth its salt has to be a little salty, but not too much. My favored salting method is to add soy sauce, usually the same proportion as the vinegar. If you do add dry salt, a little sea salt goes a long way. It’s best to blend the salt with the vinegar before you add that to the oil, as it dissolves better.
While we’re on the topic of dissolving, a hint of sugar also helps a salad dressing sizzle. To me the perfect salad dressing is a harmonious balance of sweet, sour, salt and oily, and the sweet usually means a teaspoon of raw sugar or maple syrup in a full, reused salad dressing bottle. If your dressing turns out too acidic because you added too much vinegar, adding a tiny bit extra sugar can tone the acidity down substantially.
Once you’ve mastered the blend of oil, vinegar, salt and sugar, it’s time to start experimenting with different enhancements. A little crushed dried oregano works well; minced green onions or garlic or shallots can be left in the dressing for weeks without risk of spoiling, and will give it that extra kick; and a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, or even plain old yellow mustard, will liven things up substantially. The key is to try something new every day.
My mother in law is constantly asking me for the recipe for my salad dressing, and I can’t really provide one to her, because every dressing is unique. Occasionally I overdo the acid or salt and people are disappointed, but mostly my salad dressings please because I can adjust the flavors as the dressing comes together, and there’s no way to write down exactly what proportions went into the dressing. Or perhaps there is a way to measure, but it takes the fun out of it.
Making a great salad dressing is really just about starting with the basics and practicing again and again until you’ve mastered it. And half the pleasure is in realizing you’ve got a new dressing, never before tried in those exact proportions, that just happens to work! So give it a try – using the basic proportion of four parts oil, one part vinegar, one part soy, a dash of sugar, and whatever else inspires you – and start the variations from there. With a crisper full of lettuce and a willingness to play around, you’ll have countless delicious salads and you’ll soon master the art of making a good salad dressing.