Making your own salad dressings is easy, fun, money-saving and, most important, often healthier than simply dousing greens with bottled toppers.
If you look at the labels on most store-bought dressings, you’ll see a merry mix-up of questionably healthy fats and oils, thickeners, binders, sodium and sugars (high fructose corn syrup) and preservatives that offer a shelf-life of months or even years.
Homemade dressings are often lower in calories than their store-bought counterparts, and they’re so easy to do, kids can make them for dinner.
Making your own dressings allows you to start from scratch, choosing natural ingredients to whip up a topper as fresh as the salad it’s dressing. Use dressings to enhance the flavor of fresh greens, add moisture to dry ingredients (think egg salad) or unify ingredients that you might not customarily put together.
Simple formula: oil and acid
There are basically two types of salad dressings: vinaigrette and creamy. The proportion of ingredients and the addition of other flavorings determine the category of the finished blend.
There are three ingredient categories to homemade salad dressings: oil, acid and flavorings. The only other things you need are a jar with a lid and perhaps a glass bowl and whisk for mixing some dressings. Other dressings may work better with a food processor or blender for mixing ingredients.
Most vinaigrette-type dressings have a ratio of about 3-to-1 for the oil/acid components, but some people prefer a 2-1 ratio. Dressings can be made using a variety of oils, though olive oil is perhaps the most popular. Other oil options include vegetable oils, such as sunflower, safflower or canola, and flavorful nut oils.
All oils should be purchased in dark glass containers and stored in a cool, dark cupboard.
The acidic component of salad dressings is most commonly one or more vinegars. Common vinegar additions are wine (red and/or white), balsamic or rice vinegar. The acidic content of vinegars differs, affecting the “bite” of the finished dressing. Rice vinegar is less acidic than most other types of vinegar, producing a milder flavor. Another option for the acid component of dressing is citrus juice, such as freshly squeezed orange or lemon juices.
Creamy dressings involve not only the oil and acid components but also the addition of other thickeners or dairy products, such as mayonnaise, yogurt, sour cream, buttermilk, cheese or their nondairy counterparts.
The world is your oyster in terms of adding other ingredients to dressings. Most dressings are accented with the basics of salt and pepper (preferably freshly ground). When selecting a salt, opt for kosher or sea salt as opposed to the standard iodized version.
For a touch of sweetness, look to honey, sugar, molasses or a small spoonful of maple syrup.
Other flavoring options include any variety of mustard, which also can act as a thickener. Raw eggs or cooked eggs can help to thicken a dressing as well as provide flavor. Roasted or fresh garlic also adds tang.
Any variety of spices and herbs can be added to dressings, as can freshly chopped tomatoes, onions, anchovies, ginger or avocado. Crumbled cooked bacon makes a flavorful addition as well.
The merry mix-up
You’ll likely remember from high school chemistry class that oil and vinegar simply do not mix well. They can be blended by shaking or whisking but will quickly separate. So with these simple dressings, it’s important to make and shake them just before use so you don’t end up with a pool of vinegar at the bottom of your salad greens.
To help blend, or emulsify, the components, the addition of some of the previously listed ingredients can hold the two components together, especially if they’re mixed using a food processor or blender. Drizzling oil slowly into the other components while mixing helps as well.
Once you’ve whipped up a fresh, flavorful dressing, put it on your salad immediately before serving. Be sure the salad greens are dry, as dressing will slide off damp leaves. Dressings may be served at room temperature or chilled, though creamier dressings tend to thicken when chilled, so use right after mixing or take out of the refrigerator a half-hour before serving.
Store your homemade creations in a sealed jar in the refrigerator — they’ll keep a week and some even longer. Some separation will occur, but a brisk shaking will remix the flavors.
Note that some ingredients, like garlic, tend to become stronger over time, so taste the leftover dressing and see if it might need a little thinning before use. If so, simply add a little more oil or other liquid to the mix and shake again. Basic oil and vinegar vinaigrettes can be stored at room temperature if desired.
Beyond the greens
Don’t forget that homemade dressings can also be used on fresh or cooked vegetables, meat, fish and poultry to add flavor and interest. Thicker dressings can be served as dips as well.
And who wouldn’t love a jar of homemade salad dressing as a housewarming gift?
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