7 Salad Dressing Tips From the Pros
The stuff that goes on your salad is even more important than what goes in it. So pour over these steps for easily making your own salad dressing at home.
First, Consider Your Salad
When you’re thinking about dressing, let your salad ingredients lead the way, says Lindsay Autry, a James Beard Award–nominated chef and co-owner of the Regional, a restaurant in West Palm Beach, Florida. “If it’s made up of bitter greens, such as endive or escarole, then a more acid-forward dressing will offset the bitterness,” she says. “For a salad made from delicate greens, like Bibb lettuce, a less acidic dressing is better.” Texture is key too, says Jeanine Donofrio, founder of the website Love & Lemons (where salad recipes rack up the clicks) and author of Love & Lemons: Simple Feel Good Food. “I like to use creamy dressings when a salad has lots of crunch, but I prefer a lighter vinaigrette with more tender ingredients.”
Learn the Vinaigrette Formula
A vinaigrette is simple, with just two essential components: a fat (often olive oil) and an acid (typically vinegar or citrus). How much you use of each determines how acid-forward the dressing will be. “When making a classic vinaigrette, the ratio is usually three parts oil to one part vinegar,” Autry explains. “But for salads that are all vegetables or based on bitter greens, I like to use a ratio of two parts oil to one part vinegar.”
Choose the Right Oil
Heart-healthy olive oil is the obvious choice, but that strong flavor can be overwhelming if you’re trying to high-light other ingredients, Autry warns. Jess Damuck, author of the cookbook Salad Freak, reaches for avocado or peanut oil when she wants a more neutral base. And when she’s going for an even more flavorful dressing, she’ll use walnut or toasted sesame oil in place of olive.
Add an Acid
Opt for the vinegar that best complements the flavors in your salad, like sweet white balsamic on bitter greens or extra-tangy red wine vinegar on beans or lentils. If you aren’t sure, mix up a tiny portion and do a taste test with some of your salad ingredients. And don’t forget about lemons, limes, and oranges. “Sometimes these aren’t acidic enough on their own,” Damuck says, “but they’re bright and really sing with a bit of vinegar.” Autry is also a fan of tomato juice in salad dressing. “You can use the leftover juice from cutting tomatoes, or even the liquid from a can of diced or whole tomatoes.”
Zhuzh Up Your Dressing
Once the oil and acid are whisked together, you can add some salt and stop there. Or you can keep adding. Mix in finely chopped shallots, grated garlic, herbs, or spices. “You could give your go-to lemon dressing a Mediterranean flavor profile by whisking in a little ground cumin and coriander. Or try mixing some chopped fresh parsley or thyme leaves into a balsamic vinaigrette,” Donofrio suggests.
Give It Some Heft
For a thicker vinaigrette, emulsify it! That’s chef speak for whisking in an ingredient like honey, mustard, or mayo (a.k.a. an emulsifier) to completely unite the acid and oil. Combine the emulsifier with the acid, then whisk in the oil in a slow stream. Prefer ranch to vinaigrette? Damuck combines equal parts mayonnaise and buttermilk (then throws in an extra dollop of mayo) and adds a splash of vinegar and a pinch each of garlic powder, salt, and pepper. “Yogurt is a good alternative to mayo, but know that it doesn’t have quite the same consistency and flavor.” To go creamy without the dairy or mayo, Autry says to replace the oil in your vinaigrette with tahini. And Donofrio suggests pulling out the blender: “Raw cashews blend into super-creamy sauces. They’re a great starting point for ranch and Caesar-style dressings. Blended roasted veggies, like carrots, also create a creamy texture.”
Tweak the Dressing
Before serving, Donofrio recommends tasting a bit of the dressing on a spoon, then on some of the salad. “A dressing that tastes good on its own might be bland when it’s tossed with a salad.” If you aren’t satisfied, make some adjustments. “More oil or a little sweetener, like honey or maple syrup, will counteract acidity. More vinegar or lemon juice will cut a too-oily dressing. Adjust and taste until you find a balance you love.”
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