Salad dressing is easily a billion dollar industry in North America, and a typical bottle of dressing contains perhaps fifty cents in ingredients and three dollars of margin. However, most of us have everything we need to make a good salad dressing from scratch at home, and a homemade dressing will most likely be tastier and healthier than the prepared one.
When I was a kid I lived in Italy for a time and I remember how simple salad dressings were in restaurants there. She brought a plate of green salad to the table, with maybe two or three thin slices of tomato, and used the oil and vinegar already on the table, along with a pinch of salt, to dress her own salad to taste. You may think that would lead to salads that are too oily or too acidic, but the fact is, you’ll quickly get used to the perfect balance between the two main ingredients in any worthy 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 will soon be able to create a million varieties of salad dressings, a whole new one every day. The key is to get a basic idea of the proportions of the main ingredients and then try something new each time, with what you have on hand.
In my experience, the best salad dressings are oil and acid based. If your acid is vinegar, the ratio should be about four parts oil to one part vinegar. If you use lemon or lime for acid, start with the same ratio and add more oil or juice based on taste, as the acidity of the lemon or lime can vary depending on the variety of fruit and its freshness.
This can go against what health advocates tell you. I remember getting a gift one Christmas that consisted of an empty salad dressing bottle with proportions for the dressing ingredients, and the proportions were two parts vinegar to one part oil. The idea, presumably, was to help people reduce their fat intake, but I suppose the main impact would be to make people reduce their intake of salads, since the resulting dressings were so acidic and thin that no one wanted to eat them. salads in which they were drizzled. The fact is, the oils in salad dressings aren’t as fattening as the starch in French fries, pasta, or bread, or the sugars in soda or juices. Fats help satisfy hunger, while starches and sugars keep you coming back for more.
For 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. Vegetable oils bought from supermarkets, 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, healthiness has been squeezed out of them so you can keep a bottle of corn oil on your counter for months without changing in the slightest.
Two of my other favorite oils are hemp and flaxseed, 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 should keep these oils refrigerated and in the dark. Hemp oil has a deep green color and a grassy flavor, while flax seed oil has a more golden color. If you want a slightly more exotic flavor, you can buy small bottles of walnut or hazelnut oil (assuming no one in your household has a tree nut allergy) and add a small amount to the oil ratio of your dressing.
My favorite vinegar is balsamic, but I try not to exclude it, partly because it is more expensive than wine or cider vinegars, but also because it can be overwhelming. A little goes a long way, and at most half of your acid should come from balsamic vinegar, unless you want that flavor to completely dominate the others in your dressing.
I stay away from white distilled vinegar simply because it has no flavor of its own other than the acidity of acetic acid. Flavored vinegars like raspberry or cherry or tarragon vinegar are a nice addition, but don’t spend a fortune on fancy bottles of these; just drop some raspberries or cherries or a sprig of fresh tarragon in an empty maple syrup jar, fill it with white or white wine vinegar, and wait a few months. You’ll save a fortune and won’t need a trip to the gourmet shop the next time you need to stock up on fancy vinegars.
Any self-respecting salad dressing has to be a little salty, but not too salty. My favorite salting method is adding soy sauce, usually in the same ratio as vinegar. If you add dry salt, a little sea salt goes a long way. It is best to mix the salt with the vinegar before adding it 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. For me, the perfect salad dressing is a harmonious balance of sweet, sour, salty, and fatty, and sweet usually means a teaspoon of raw sugar or maple syrup in a bottle filled with repurposed salad dressing. If your dressing is too acidic because you added too much vinegar, adding a little extra sugar can reduce the acidity substantially.
Once you’ve mastered the oil, vinegar, salt, and sugar mixture, it’s time to start experimenting with different enhancements. A little crushed dried oregano works well; Chopped chives, garlic or shallots can be left in the dressing for weeks without risk of spoiling and will add an extra touch; And a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, or even old yellow mustard, will liven things up substantially. The key is to try something new every day.
My mother-in-law constantly asks me for the recipe for my salad dressing, and I can’t really provide one for her, because each dressing is unique. Every now and then I go overboard on the acid or salt and people get disappointed, but especially 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 maybe there is a way to measure, but it takes the fun out of it.
Making a great salad dressing is all about starting with the basics and practicing over and over again until you get the hang of it. And half the pleasure is realizing you have a new dressing, never tested before in those exact proportions, that just works! So give it a try, using the basic ratio of four parts oil, one part vinegar, one part soy, a pinch of sugar, and whatever else inspires you, and start the variations from there. With a crisp full of lettuce and the willingness to play, you’ll have countless delicious salads and will soon master the art of making good salad dressing.