I am in love—Facebook might call it “Domestic Partnership”—with many condiments. Ketchup, barbecue sauce, honey mustard. Get me a spoon.
But with salad dressing, “It’s Complicated.”
When I eat out, 95% of the time, I ask for my dressing on the side. Yeah, I know the waiter will judge me. He’ll peg me as the kind of girl who owns a lot of expensive yoga pants, and that hurts. My boyfriend finds this special request dumb because he cannot comprehend why anyone would want to eat “just, like, plants.”
But I don’t ask for it on the side to save calories. The thing is, most salad dressing sucks. Unless you’re dining at a nice enough (read: expensive) place that the chef put some real thought into a homemade dressing that perfectly accents a salad’s flavors, you’re going to lose any freshness and crunchiness amid a sea of creamy blah.
So I take things into my own hands. I sample. And if it’s good, I drizzle, and if it’s bad, I give it to my companion to dunk his fries in.
When you’re cooking and eating at home, thankfully, there are better options.
It’s easy enough to always stock a bottle of your favorite dressing. But homemade salad dressings are so much better. They taste better, cost less, and have fewer weird additives and preservatives. As my mom, an excellent cook and trained nutritionist advises, “Bottled dressing is lame-o.”
A simple vinaigrette is one of the best kitchen hacks you can learn, so get comfy because I’m about to lay some math and science on you.
It all starts with a ratio: 3 parts oil and 1 part acid. To get the components to play nice, you need to whisk them vigorously or use a blender, since oil and acid (or water) will naturally repel each other. The blending process is called emulsification, and there are some emulsifying agents, like mustard, milk, or eggs that will help the blend stay together. Then you can add flavoring like herbs, cheese, rainbow confetti, whatever you want.
For a foolproof vinaigrette, blend 3/4 cups canola oil with 1/4 cups white wine vinegar. Add a teaspoon of mustard, Dijon if you have it (there’s your emulsifier), and season with salt and pepper.
Shuffle around the oils, acids, and flavors for endless permutations. For example, try another neutral oil, like vegetable oil, or something bold like walnut or avocado oil. For the vinegar, balsamic is a popular choice. I just got a fig-infused bottle.
Then for some easy variations, consider:
- Finely minced shallot or garlic
- Fresh lemon or lime juice in place of some (or all) of the vinegar
- A spoonful of raspberry or other fruit jam
- A spoonful of honey
- Chopped basil, tarragon, chives, or parsley
When your dressing is good to go:
- Sure, go ahead and coat your lettuce with it.
- Drizzle over cooked green beans, asparagus, or sliced tomatoes.
- Toss with corn, black beans, and a squirt of lime for a summer side dish.
- Add to any grain like rice, quinoa, or couscous for more flavor and texture.
- Pour over cubed potatoes, hot or cold.
- Use it as an instant sauce over a piece of grilled chicken or salmon.
Another essential recipe is for a basic ranch dressing. (Like Hidden Valley, but better.) Stir together a cup of sour cream, 1/2 cup mayo, and 1/2 cup buttermilk. If you like, add salt, pepper, garlic, or chives. To make it runnier, use more buttermilk; for a more dip-like ranch, use less. Since there’s no oil and vinegar dance going on here, you don’t need to worry about mixing so much.
The thicker version makes a great veggie dip and lets you justify eating such a dairylicious lard blob because celery erases that. Right? (Note: You can make a healthier version by swapping the sour cream for reduced fat Greek yogurt.)
- Use as a topping for chicken wings or buffalo pizza.
- Accent spicy burritos, nachos, or quesadillas.
- Spread a little underneath a hamburger or panini bun.
- Mix into mashed potatoes or pat a little onto the top of a baked potato, maybe along with some sprinkled cheese.
Food’s too expensive to throw away leftovers, so no matter what’s sitting in your fridge, chances are you can smother it with one of these and enjoy.
Illustration by Claire Jelly