By Jessica – September 9th, 2007
I reckon it’s been over 10 years since I’ve bought a bottle of salad dressing—and Jeremy and I eat salad almost every single night. I stopped purchasing salad dressing while I was living in Germany, basically because the typical prepared German salad dressing consists of a mysterious combination of dried herbs—often including tarragon, which I dislike—suspended in a foggy, too-sweet emulsion. It was never to my liking, so I started making my own dressing, and I haven’t looked back since.
There’s no mystery to a good salad dressing. A vinaigrette, for example—the type of dressing I generally make—is simply a combination of a fat and an acid, generally an oil and a vinegar. The only trick is in the proportions, but those can be adjusted to taste (the classic proportion is one part vinegar to three parts oil, though I usually make a more acidic dressing than that). By varying your oil and your vinegar and adjusting the proportions to fit your salad ingredients and your tastebuds, you can quickly whip up a homemade salad dressing to suit any type of meal.
The dressing I probably make the most is a basic balsamic vinaigrette which works well on any type of green or tomato salad and goes perfectly with Italian food or steaks (incidentally, I also use it to dress my salad Niçoise, which is probably heretical, but hey…). Chop one small clove of garlic and whisk in 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, 5 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, freshly ground black pepper and a pinch of sugar if you like. Voilà¡: instant vinaigrette. This and all following recipes makes enough dressing for one large salad, though the dressing will also keep for a few days if you don’t wind up using it all at once.
With just a slight adjustment, you can create an entirely different beast: instead of extra-virgin olive oil, use 2 tablespoons of walnut oil and 3 tablespoons of regular olive oil, and you have a lovely balsamic-walnut vinaigrette. I make this dressing all through the winter to put on spinach and watercress salad with roasted beets, walnuts and blue cheese. Apple balsamic vinegar works beautifully in this dressing as well.
One dressing that would give the balsamic vinaigrette a run for its money in my house is a classic oil and vinegar dressing I found on Epicurious which calls for sherry vinegar. This is the perfect dressing for tender baby greens, but it can be easily beefed up with extra mustard for use on a spinach or watercress salad, maybe with mushrooms. This is my generic “French food” dressing, but the use of sherry vinegar means that it goes equally well with Spanish food. It’s also a nice dressing for green vegetables like asparagus.
Epicurious was the source of another mustard vinaigrette that I’ve had good success with. It’s a grainy mustard vinaigrette that’s ideal for bitter greens like endive or chicory. A tangy salad like this can be a nice counterpoint to a rich carbonnade—or with the addition of some artichokes and mushrooms, it can almost be a meal in itself. This type of vinaigrette also works well on a potato salad with boiled eggs and crunchy green beans, or a mixed bean salad, or a dinner salad topped with a seared salmon filet
It doesn’t take much tweaking to make a really simple vinaigrette that tastes quite exotic. One of my favorite things to eat growing up (and even now, I might add) was avocado with a curry vinaigrette made by my grandparents in Florida. I make this curry vinaigrette with about 2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar, 4 tablespoons of olive oil (it doesn’t have to be extra virgin), a chopped clove of garlic, a pinch of paprika, a hefty pinch of mild curry powder, a dash of salt, a dash of sugar and some ground black pepper. Cut an avocado in half, remove the pit, pour the dressing into the cavity and eat the avocado straight out of its skin—sometimes messy, but always delicious. This dressing is also good on a salad made with avocado, red onion, cucumber and radish, or just on a simple green salad.
By expanding your range of oils and vinegars just a bit more, you can make extremely flavorful vinaigrettes that go wonderfully with Chinese or Japanese food. I make an Asian vinaigrette using about 2 tablespoons of rice wine vinegar, 1/2 tablespoon soy sauce, 1/2 tablespoon sesame oil, 1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil, a small chopped clove of garlic and an equal amount of fresh grated ginger, a pinch of sugar and some black pepper. This makes a great dressing for a leafy green salad with baby spinach and coriander (cilantro), or it can be used on an Asian-style slaw with chopped Chinese cabbage and grated carrot.
Of course, a vinaigrette-style dressing doesn’t have to be made with vinegar. Citrus juice, particularly lemon or lime, does the trick as well. You can make an easy Mexican citrus vinaigrette by taking the basic balsamic vinaigrette recipe and using lime or lemon juice instead of vinegar and adding a pinch of cumin. Leave out the cumin and throw in a generous portion of chopped fresh herbs (things like mint, parsley and basil work particularly nicely), and you have a great, fresh-tasting dressing that’s wonderful on a mixed salad with avocados, cucumbers, radishes and maybe some feta cheese. Or skip the herbs and add a splash of Worcestershire sauce and some grated parmesan for a simplified Caesar vinaigrette that’s perfect on robust leaves like romaine lettuce.
In fact, a lemony dressing is delicious on just about any salad or green vegetables, hot or cold: fresh pea salad with radishes and feta, warm green beans, broad beans, runner beans, asparagus… And the more I think about it, the more I realize that vinaigrettes in all their forms are a fundamental aspect of my cooking. They’re so versatile, and they’re an easy way of adding a real kick of flavor. So if you’ve been buying oil-and-vinegar dressings, I would encourage you to try your hand at making a vinaigrette or two yourself. They’re easy-peasy, and once you’ve discovered the acid-to-oil ratio you like, the flavor possibilities are endless.