I admit it–I am a salad dressing snob.
When I moved into my first apartment after college (if you’ve been here for a while, you’ve heard me talk about the one UNDERNEATH the El train brown line stop, where I could hear the automated “DOORS CLOSING” from my bed 😂) I read an article in Bon Appetit that broke down the elements of a vinaigrette. It had a little chart that I cut out and taped to the inside door of the cupboard. Ever since, I’ve been hooked on the magic of a homemade salad dressing.
If you’ve never made your own, I feel special that I am the one to introduce you to such a joy! I think you’ll be shocked at how easy it is, plus, it’s much healthier, too! (No additives!) I don’t know about you, but I’m always trying to eat more salads, and I might be biased, but I think the thing that takes a salad from good to great is the dressing. 😉
How to make your own homemade salad dressing:
First, memorize the ratio of oil to vinegar:
A good rule of thumb when you’re making a vinaigrette is to start with 2 parts oil, one part vinegar. Then whatever add-in’s you want to include, based on the flavor profile you’re going for! You can always add more vinegar if you like it tangier, or add more oil if it’s too acidic for you–but this is a good starting point!
As you probably know by now, I don’t often measure things while cooking–I always eyeball them! I’m a big advocate of learning to cook without recipes–cooking is way more fun that way, and it’s an amazing life skill to have. (I promise, you are WAY more capable than you think you are!)
When you’re forced to follow a recipe, you often end up with an overage of something you will never eat. (Which often happens when cooking for one or two!) It also allows you to customize things according to your personal tastes. You’ll also always know how to make anything out of anything you have on hand, and make it taste great! (Which comes in very handy in a pandemic when you want to minimize your grocery store visits as much as possible).
Anyway, today, you will learn how to make a delicious salad dressing in just a few minutes, no recipe needed! It’s all about playing with ratios, learning how different flavor components go together and adjusting to your preferences!
Now, these thought-starters are just a starting point–feel free to get as creative as you want! Of course, I am not a professional, I’m just a home cook who loves cooking and I love to share the tips and tricks I’ve acquired over the years, so I hope you find them helpful!
First, pick an oil
99% of the time I use a good quality olive oil. (You want the good stuff here, not the cheap kind you use for cooking! You always want to use your best quality oils for finishing elements–like drizzles or dressings. I use this olive oil anytime I want a classic olive oil, but Brightland has delicious flavored olive oils!) An exception would be when I’m making an Asian dressing and in that case, I may want to use sesame oil, for example. If you want a more neutral flavor, you could also use something like avocado oil!
Then, pick an acid
Equally as important is the acid that will go into your vinaigrette. The ones I use most often are red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, champagne vinegar, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, and lime juice. (I recommend building a pantry with all of these on-hand, but the first three are going to be your most versatile!)
How to know which to choose? You want to choose your acid based on the kind of dish you’re making–for an Italian salad you may want to go with a Balsamic or Red Wine Vinegar, for a French Vinaigrette I often do Champagne, White Wine, or Red Wine. For an Asian dressing, fresh lime juice–and so on. I really like Brightland’s vinegars, but you also don’t need anything fancy–whatever you can pick up at your local store is great!
Finally, pick your add-ins:
I always add in fresh garlic (use a garlic press! So easy!) and/or a minced shallot. I LOVE shallots and think that everything is better with them–they are like a cross between an onion and garlic, and they are mild (not that harsh taste of many onions) and they add tons of flavor. Ginger is another aromatic you may want to use if making a dressing for a salad with an Asian flavor profile.
Herbs & spices:
Ask yourself, “what herbs and spices fall under the flavor profile I’m going for?” Add those!
For example, I usually love to add some herbs–typically a few shakes of dried Italian herbs, or Herbs de Provence, for a classic dressing. But if you are making a dressing for, say, a Mexican slaw, you may want to add cumin and/or some fresh cilantro. (If you have to google what spices and herbs are commonly used in a specific type of cuisine–there’s no shame in that! I google stuff like that all the time!)
Also, ALWAYS sea salt and freshly ground black pepper!
Other considerations: Dijon mustard is a must if you’re going for a classic vinaigrette. Are you making an Italian salad? Consider adding a scoop of pesto. What about an Asian salad? Adding in some miso, or even a dash of soy sauce would be wonderful! Do you want a hint of sweetness (I find that a little sweetness is often the key to a delicious dressing) then consider a drizzle of honey or maple syrup.
Tip: Google is always your friend! If I know what flavor profile I’m going for, but I’m not sure what to add, I will google, for example, “Thai vinaigrette, or “Mexican vinaigrette” and get ideas of what different recipes use, and riff off of that.
Mixing Your Dressing & Making adjustments:
How to mix:
I always find it easiest to make my dressings in a mason jar, but you can use a bowl too! There are a couple ways you can mix your dressing–I find it very easy to just pop the lid on and shake it together until emulsified. You can also use a small handheld milk frother (it’s surprisingly versatile!) or an immersion blender.
A note on emulsification:
Tip: I would go through the above and add all the ingredients together first, then do your mixing to emulsify. (Emulsifying is what changes the oil and vinegar from two separate ingredients into a dressing that is thicker and looks creamy without the addition of anything that is actually creamy!)
After you’ve emulsified, taste, then add more as necessary, but you want to ensure your ingredients are emulsified first before you do any adjusting, because if your dressing isn’t properly mixed, it won’t taste right! But after it’s emulsified, I find I can add a little bit more of this or that, simply beat it with a fork to mix, and that works great. No need to put the lid on and re-shake after every add-in.
What happens if you get TOO much of one ingredient?
Simply add more of the others to dilute! Too much vinegar? Add more oil. Too much sweetness? Too much garlic? Add more vinegar to counter-balance, and perhaps more oil. Too much mustard? Add more oil. (Just like the juxtaposition rule applies to style, it also applies to food–what is the opposing flavor profile of the ingredient you have too much of? Add that to balance it out!) I know it sounds like a lot of work on paper, but tasting and adjusting as you go takes no time at all, and you’ll start to memorize how much of each thing you like! Get ready for all your friends and family to start asking you to make “the dressing” for years to come. 😉
My go-to vinaigrette:
My #1 go-to dressing is super simple–it’s great on chopped salads, green salads, drizzled on freshly sliced tomatoes, virtually anything. It takes less than three minutes to whip up from start to finish!
Good olive oil, apple cider vinegar (3 to 1 ratio):
I use this Italian olive oil my friend Luca imports from Italy (he sells it in his Amazon shop, it comes in a pack of 2!) You’ll probably want to use a plain, not flavored olive oil here. If you don’t have apple cider vinegar, that’s okay! I have made this with red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, and champagne vinegar and they’re all delicious, but apple cider is my personal favorite. I’d encourage you to experiment and try many versions!
REAL maple syrup:
The best secret ingredient–not the artificial kind in a plastic bottle, the real kind, from Canada or Vermont. I drizzle in a little bit at a time, tasting and adjusting until I get it to my liking. (Say you’re making dressing for a full-sized salad for more than one person, I would start with a teaspoon and go from there).
Same here, add a small amount at a time, taste as you go until you get it to your liking. Some people like a subtle mustard flavor, some like it very mustardy. It’s just a matter of preference! (Same as above, I would probably say to start with a 1/2 teaspoon to a teaspoon based on how much you’re making, and go from there).
Fresh is great, but TBH I always use dried for this. I have an Italian herb mix that I give a couple shakes of and call it a day!
Minced shallot and/or minced garlic:
I use either, whatever I have on hand. Both are delicious. Experiment and figure out what you like best! (Maybe start with 1/2 TBS or TBS of minced shallot depending on how much you’re making, or 1 clove of fresh garlic. I love garlic.) Again, this is YOUR dressing–make it based on what you like!
Salt and fresh ground pepper:
That’s it! I hope this brings lots of joy to all your future salads!
If you end up making your own salad dressing, I’d love for you to share it on Instagram and tag me @jesskeys_ so I can see! You might also like these “cooking without recipes” posts: How to make fried rice out of anything and the easiest white bean salad.