HERE’S HOW is a series where we share the best useful tips from our cooking adventures. We’ll answer questions before you have them and illuminate food mysteries with a blend of science and legend. Today, we’re going into the delicious depths of salad dressings.
We like to include green salads in many of our meals because they’re healthful, crunchy, and fresh. Making a salad is simple–the ingredient list runs two items long: 1) greens and 2) salad dressing. But any chef will tell you that concocting the perfect salad is a lifetime challenge, a daily reimagination of lettuce, toppings, and dressing based on the season, what’s available, and what you crave.
The dressing is a crucial part, so that’s where we’ll start. It’s the special tangy or creamy or herby sauce that helps the greens go down. Salad dressing can consist of olive oil and vinegar, plus a sprinkle of coarse salt. But dressing can be much, much more–just survey at the array of pre-made bottles at any grocery store. Of course homemade is way better than anything you buy, which is why we’re showing you how to make nearly any dressing at home. All you need is a mixing bowl and a whisk (or two forks).
The first ingredient in salad dressing is always vinegar. On a daily basis, we use red wine or white wine vinegar in our dressings, both flavorful but relatively mellow choices. For special-occasion salads, champagne and sherry vinegar offer a bit more personality, as does balsamic. You can also use lime juice or lemon juice, or even the juice from a freshly squeezed orange. Depending on how much you like vinegar or lemon juice, you can cut the acidity in two ways: adding more oil or throwing in pinches of salt.
You really taste the oil in salad dressings, so opt for your most delicious, high-quality oil. We always use extra virgin olive oil in our dressings. If you’re looking to shake things up, you can look out for fun oils at your local specialty store. Walnut or sesame oil can change the flavor profile of your dressing. We always say to add oil to your taste, so really do try the dressing as you go, pouring slowly oil into the vinegar slowly, whisking all the while, until the balance of flavors suits your taste buds. The best way to sample your dressing while it’s in progress? On a lettuce leaf–exactly what you’ll eat it on later.
The simplest way to adjust the level of creaminess in your salad dressing is to add a spoonful of mayonnaise to your oil-vinegar mixture. Mayo already contains oil that’s been emulsified (thickened) with an egg yolk. That creaminess really adds heft to our potato and bean salad and becomes a Caesar like dressing when mixed with a handful of grated Parmesan. You can also whisk a creamy cheese, like blue cheese or goat cheese, into the the dressing at the end.
The simplest flavor addition are our favorite aliums: shallot and garlic. We like to mince shallot finely and cut garlic even more finely so that it turns into a paste. To mellow the taste a bit, we usually marinate the shallot in vinegar while we cook the rest of the meal. However, if you’re not a fan of eating either garlic or shallot raw, you can use less than we call for or skip them altogether. Chopped fresh herbs are another way to add flavor, as are pungent Mediterranean goodies like capers and olives.