Salad Dressing 101

Matthew Card is a food writer and contributing Editor for "Cook's Illustrated" who thinks it's a shame to buy salad dressing when it's so easy to make yourself!  Matthew stopped by to share his helpful tips and an easy recipe for Do-Everything Vinaigrette.

You'll find Matthew's recipe for Do-Everything Vinaigrette on our recipes page

Salad Dressing 101
Why buy prepared dressing when its so easy to make and keep at the ready at home? Make a big batch and keep it in the fridge for the week ahead. It’ll taste far better than anything bottled and will be far cheaper too.

The Basics:

Alliums: Most any dressing I make starts with a pungent allium—usually minced shallot, garlic, or red onion. Chop it fine so that it dissolves into the dressing (Really helps to have a well-sharpened knife—can touch on knife maintenance if there’s time). I always add the allium to the dressing’s acid at least 10 minutes before the remaining ingredients so that it “cooks” and mellows in the acid; otherwise it can come on too sharp. If using garlic, i like to grate it on a Microplane grater to avoid any “hot” bits of underminced garlic.

Acid: I lean towards milder vinegars like white wine, champagne, rice wine, lemon or lime juice, or my favorite, white balsamic vinegar. Its mild, sweet, and well-rounded flavor suits most any dish. And it doesn’t cost a fortune like good-quality balsamic vinegar.

In most instances the ratio of vinegar to oil or fat is 1:3, but that varies according to personal acid threshold—I like things very sharp and tangy—and the food being dressed. Light, tender greens typically require less acid. Always consider what the dressing is flavoring.

Emulsifying agent: Oil and water don’t want to stay blended for long, so it helps to add an emulsifying agent that will bind the two together. Mustard is the classic choice. I usually use a spoonful of DIjon, unless I want the really gutsy, rustic flavor of whole-grain mustard.

Sweetener: A little honey or sugar helps tone down the vinegar and pump up the dressing’s other flavors. Most store-bought dressings go WAY overboard here. A little goes a long way.

Herbs: I almost always add a fresh herb or two to my dressings. Not dried—they need to be cooked hot to release any flavor. Thyme or savory suits most anything and last well in the dressing (softer herbs, like basil, marjoram, or oregano, tend to break down within 24 hours).

Oil: This goes in last. I usually use a moderately priced extra-virgin olive oil or nut oil—like walnut oil, which I love and I find suits any number of salads. Super high-grade olive oils aren’t really necessary here and can get lost in the mix.

Salt and pepper: Kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper. Treat yourself to a decent pepper milll and fresh high-quality peppercorns, like those from Penzey’s. They make a world of difference in a dish’s flavor.

Mixing the Dressing: Assemble everything in a wide-mouthed mason jar for convenient storage and shake the bejeezus out of it to emulsify.  Taste to make sure the balance is right and seasonings are on the mark. During storage, these flavors will soften, so you may need to adjust them as time passes.

This basic dressing can then be altered to suit different salads and vegetables. Dress everything from raw sugar snap peas, blanched green beans, shredded carrots, shaved summer squash, grated corn, cucumber, radish, cabbage, tomatoes, etc. for quick summer side dishes.

You can also substitute different fats for part of or all of the oil. For example, swap out creme fraiche for the oil and you’ve got a creamy French-style dressing or equal parts mayonnaise and sour cream for a terrific slaw dressing. You can also add blue cheese or Parmesan, or anchovies or capers for a bit more pungency. Consider this basic dressing a baseline for experimentation.

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