Homemade Salad Dressing–You can do it!

There is one item you will almost never find in my refrigerator–bottled salad dressing. Okay, some bottled dressings are fine, but most of what I’ve tasted are over the top. Too salty, too much seasoning, too heavy, too thick, too sweet…just too much. But I refuse to dwell on the negative. I will rather focus on the positive and the multitude of ways we can think beyond the bottle.

(NOTE: The Indiana Home Cooks Podcast is taking a short hiatus. I’ll be back with a new episode in July. In the meantime, catch up on your listening! There are over 20 episodes available. Listen on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. In the spirit of stretching your cooking boundaries, here are a few suggestions. Thanks for listening!)

A good salad dressing will delight your taste buds, not overpower them. It shouldn’t be too vinegary or oily, and with seasonings that complement rather than mask the ingredients of the salad. So my approach is to keep it simple. On any given night when I’m assembling a salad of ordinary garden vegetables and greens, I’ll whisk up a simple oil and vinegar dressing, a “vinaigrette,” before serving. A pinch of salt and pepper and a small dollop of dijon mustard are whisked together with the vinegar. Then the oil is drizzled slowly in while continuing to whisk until everything is blended. It takes about two minutes.

That is the basis for any vinaigrette. It is complete in and of itself, or it can be augmented with herbs and seasonings of your choice.  The vinegar can be white, red, rice, balsamic, or any other flavor you have in the cupboard. Instead of vinegar, use the juice of a lemon, lime, or orange, or the last of that bottle of wine you did not finish the night before. Any of these acids will do. The oil can be olive, canola, vegetable, sunflower, grape seed, or flavor-infused. And seasonings can include fresh or dried herbs, soy sauce, garlic, chili sauce, you name it. I also add a bit of sweetener–honey or sugar–to balance the acid a bit.

The type of salad you are making often determines the type of dressing needed. For a Greek-style salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, olives, feta cheese, and lettuce (or no lettuce), the basic vinaigrette gets a boost from oregano–either fresh or dried. A simple salad of tomatoes, onion, and fresh mozzarella needs a simple treatment of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt, pepper, and fresh basil. To make it even easier, just drizzle and sprinkle each ingredient over the vegetables, and gently toss together. Voilà! You just made fresh dressing. (Another option is Asian-style dressing. See recipe below.)

Most basic cookbooks include vinaigrettes to make from scratch, and a quick read of them will give you the ratio of vinegar to oil. In several cookbooks I’ve checked, the “standard” is one part vinegar to three parts oil (1:3).  But that is not set in stone. Some recipes are 1:2, others, 1:1. Depending on what’s in your salad, the flavor profile you are going for, and your own tastes, the proportion can be adjusted accordingly. Experiment and taste as you go. That’s the way to find what YOU like and what works best for you.

(Online sources for vinaigrette basics: thekitchn, allrecipes, Food Network’s Ina Garten.)

A great idea is to mix up a large batch of the basic vinaigrette, say two cups worth, and keep it in the refrigerator in a jar with a screw-top lid. To make a dressing for tonight’s meal, shake up the vinaigrette, pour off what you need, add herbs or seasonings as desired and mix. You can also pour off a portion to use as a marinade, adding whatever herbs and seasonings you want.

This is what I love about making my own salad dressings. There are so many options with ingredients and flavor combinations, using what we have on hand right now in the cupboard or fridge! It doesn’t take much time at all, and it is a basic skill that helps the home cook learn about flavors and how they work together to make a dish something special.

Still, there are times when nothing but ranch dressing will do. Hot wings, anyone? And as a parent it’s hard to dispute the value of Hidden Valley–the gateway to your kids eating their veggies.

Susan’s Asian-Style Salad Dressing

  • 1/4 C rice vinegar
  • A pinch of kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 1/2 tsp minced fresh ginger
  • 1/2 tsp soy sauce
  • 1/2 tsp sesame oil
  • 1/4 C canola oil

In a small mixing bowl or a 2-cup glass measuring cup, whisk together all ingredients except the canola oil. When thoroughly combined, slowly pour in the canola oil while whisking. 

Alternatively, place all ingredients in a glass jar, tightly screw on the lid and shake to thoroughly combine. Refrigerate until ready to use. Will keep up to 2 weeks in the refrigerator. Shake or whisk again just before adding to salad. Makes enough dressing for 3-4 servings, or a dinner-sized salad for two.

This dressing goes well with a salad that combines romaine lettuce, savoy cabbage (very thinly sliced), sliced scallions, peeled and sliced oranges or mandarin orange segments, toasted sliced almonds, sesame seeds, in any combination. Toss the lettuce and cabbage with the dressing, then top with the other ingredients.

You can add sliced grilled chicken to the party and make this salad a complete meal. Enjoy!

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My Asian-Styled Salad with (leftover) grilled chicken
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Some of my favorite sources for “the basics”