Salad Dressing Simplified

I dressed this salad of leaf lettuce, arugula, baby tomatoes, fennel, endive, celery, fresh corn, and chopped boiled egg with a simple vinaigrette of cider vinegar, whole grain dijon mustard, and minced cilantro.

Of all the requests I get for advice or recipes the most frequent seems to be for a simple, all-purpose salad dressing. It strikes me as strange because making a basic vinaigrette is something I figured out years ago and now I make vinaigrettes several times a week, almost without thinking. I never measure, I never really plan it out, I just do. Into a bowl I throw in some acidic liquid, a few seasonings according to whim, and whisk in some oil. My vinaigrettes change according to the day, to the salad I’m making, to the season, to whatever ingredients I have on hand, and to whatever creative forces swirl through my head in the moment. And I’ve gotten so adept at making salad dressings that they almost always come out perfectly delicious. I’ve gotten almost instinctive about dressing.

So when my stepmom Joan was in town this past week to help out with Regina and my newborn baby Vivian (yes, I’m plugging my child yet again, like a happy pappy) and she asked to look over my shoulder as I made salad dressing, it forced me to actually remove learned instinct from the process and think, yes think, about the hows and whys of basic dressings. And to measure, yes measure, the damn thing.

Below is a recipe for basic vinaigrette. It’s a variation of an everyday, go-to salad dressing that I make at least four times a week; between my work and home I probably make ten different salads every week. Now I’m not going to get into the vast world of dressings beyond vinaigrettes. I could spend days discussing creamy dressings like blue cheese, ranch, green goddess, and Caesar. And I’m going to completely ignore for the moment dressings that use no fats at all and are thickened by starches. And forget too about bacon dressing for spinach salad (although the moment I thought of it, my stomach let out a big “oh, yeah!”) or other warm dressings.

Because the real place to start is here, with dressings made from an acid (citrus juices, all manner of vinegars) and an oil (olive oil, canola, avocado, walnut). The simplest dressing of all is an un-emulsified dressing that might be put into a jar. The vinegar and oil are noticeably separate in the jar and you have to give the container a vigorous shake to get the two liquids to combine, even very temporarily, to be able to pour it over your salad. It’s not a good system, in my opinion, since it’s too easy to over-dress your salad. Also, any seasonings or herbs you might have floating the in dressing don’t get well-distributed in the dressing or, ultimately, in the salad. If you follow my advice, I say skip it and learn to make a simple emulsified vinaigrette. “Emulsified?”, I hear you ask. “What the…?”

Well, basically, an emulsion is a mixture of two liquid elements that don’t naturally combine. Oil and water (or in this case, some kind of acidic liquid) don’t mix, as we all learned in childhood. Emulsifying the two kinds of liquids into a coherent, balanced, and uniform mixture is what I’m talking about here. With a couple of simple tricks you can force droplets of the acidic liquid into suspension within the oil until it stays together as an “emulsified” dressing. You can make an emulsion with force (shaking the jar) only, but you’ll see it quickly separates. But if you add in an additional ingredient (an “emulsifier” as they’re called) you can bind the oil and acids together so that they remain in suspension, if not indefinitely, than for a while, perhaps several days. Certainly long enough to lightly dress your perfect salad greens.

The most common emulsifiers are dijon mustard and egg yolks and whisking either into your vinaigrette base will help create a thickened, emulsified dressing that will cling nicely and uniformly onto your salad. I frequently add honey to my dressing because it adds both body and a little sweetness to help mitigate some of the tartness of the acid.

Besides an emulsifier you need to apply some force to the two liquids. You can make the dressing in a blender or a food processor and the rapidly spinning blades will force the two liquids into an emulsified mixture. However, this is too much work for me (I don’t want to clean the machine); really all you need is a decent-sized balloon whisk and a large stainless steel bowl. So, if you have a whisk and a bowl, let’s make dressing.

My stepmom Joan vigorously whisks olive oil into a dressing base of vinegar, mustard, honey, garlic, salt, and pepper.

Cider Vinaigrette with Cilantro

You will need:

  • 1/2 cup cider vinegar
  • 1 medium garlic clove, very finely minced
  • 2 tablespoons whole grain dijon mustard
  • 1 and 1/2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper
  • 1 and 1/3 cups extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon finely minced fresh cilantro

Now do this:

Into a large stainless steel bowl with a flattish bottom add the vinegar, garlic, mustard, honey, salt, and pepper. I like to put the bowl on a moistened (but not sopping wet) kitchen towel; this will help prevent the bowl from sliding all over the place.

Whisk the acid mixture together until well-combined. Now pour in a steady stream the oil into the vinaigrette base. Pour slowly in batches, off to one side of the bowl, whisking vigorously the entire time. I like to pause in the oil-pouring occasionally and focus the whisk at the edges of the vinaigrette near the upturn of the bowl. I find the oil separates there more readily than in the center and you have to give it a little extra attention at times. Continue pouring the oil in a steady stream until it’s all used up. Beat the dressing a little more until it appears uniform. Now taste it. Please check for seasoning. Add a little salt or pepper if necessary. If it seems too tart for your palate add a bit more honey or whisk in some more oil.

Now you have a simple, basic vinaigrette that will work for all kinds of leafy salads.

Naturally I have a bunch of tips for making a great salad:

  • In dressing your salad, make sure the greens are fresh and very dry. A salad spinner is absolutely essential.
  • Dress your salad very lightly. Nothing sucks more than a soggy salad.
  • Season your dressing very well. Perhaps over-season it. You don’t need much dressing on your greens, so make sure the dressing is super-tasty.
  • Toss the salad in a mixing bowl with the dressing and then plate it individually or put it into a serving bowl. I think that serving dressing on the side at the table invites dressing overload. Don’t do it! Your guests will know you are a gauche fool.
  • Make the salad interesting! Butter lettuce or iceberg lettuce alone do not a good salad make (did I just sound like Yoda?). Add celery root, celery stalk, julienned carrots, watercress, mizuna, arugula, baby beet greens, shaved fennel, endive, radicchio, thinly shaved sunchokes, apples, toasted nut, cauliflower, fresh corn, dried fruit, cheeses, etc. etc. Look for textural balance and differences in flavor.

Naturally I have a few tips on vinaigrette variations:

  • Cider vinegar is just what I had on hand that day. I frequently use good white wine vinegar, rice vinegar, red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, and orange blossom vinegar. But try lemon juice or other citrus juices alone or in combination with light vinegars.
  • Keep in mind that each vinegar or juice has a different level of acidity (tartness) which will determine how much oil or honey you may need. Vinegars or juices with a higher acidity will require more oil to balance the flavor. Honey, sugar, and salt help to mitigate tartness in dressing.
  • I used whole grain dijon mustard, because, like the cider vinegar, it was on hand. But I prefer regular dijon mustard. Deli mustard works as well. Do not under any conditions ever use French’s yellow mustard except on a hot dog. Also, mayonnaise helps as an emulsifier but you’ll need lots of it, so it’ll change the character of your dressing quite a bit. Mayonnaise is in itself an emulsion of lemon juice, oil, and egg yolk.
  • Instead of garlic, try minced shallots or green onions or chives.
  • Instead of cilantro, try basil, tarragon, marjoram, chives or whatever. Finely minced is best.
  • In addition to just salt and pepper, try other dried seasonings like ground coriander (my fave), celery salt, dried herbs, ground cardamom, white pepper, a pinch of ground sumac, etc. Experiment!
  • Try different oils. I love extra virgin olive oil, but sometimes I mix it with canola or grapeseed or sunflower or just plain ole vegetable oil. A bit of avocado oil, nut oils, or toasted sesame oil can be very nice as well.

Now that you’re armed with all this information, keep in mind that basic vinaigrettes are very easy to make, mostly very cheap, and will keep in the fridge for at least a couple of weeks.

I hope you try this recipe and try out some variations! Now go make a killer salad!

8 thoughts on “Salad Dressing Simplified

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