Homemade dressings have great fresh flavors! This is why many four-star restaurants have begun mixing salad dressings right at the table. They're also healthier: You can choose quality ingredients like herbal vinegars, quality cold-pressed oils, raw garlic and fresh nutritive herbs. Best of all, you don't need to make a lot - keep it fresh by making just enough for your salad. They have few ingredients, so they're simple to put together!
An Italian chef explained to me once that the reason it's called a tossed salad is because you toss the greens into the dressing - not the other way around. When done that way, you don't need as much dressing to coat the greens. So mix the dressing in the bottom of the bowl, then add the greens, tossing as you add. Stir in heavier ingredients like tomatoes or cheese, and serve.
Sure, you can buy a bottle of dressing. But commercial dressings contain chemicals: Preservatives, flavor enhancers, stabilizers and thickeners like modified food starch are mixed with the oil and acid. The most common oil in commercial dressings is soybean, rather than the more expensive and flavorful olive oil or a locally cold-pressed sunflower oil. Xanthan gum makes the dressing thick so it is pourable but sticks to the leaves and veggies, while remaining homogeneous when still in the bottle.
Salad dressing ingredients
(Photo — Yvona Fast)
Bottled dressings have been known for less than a century. Before that, cooks made their own dressings. Ancient Romans dressed their greens simply with salt; it was Babylonians who combined vinegar and oil to dress greens. Egyptians added spices to the oil and vinegar blend.
Early in the 20th century, American restaurants began bottling and selling their salad dressings. Kraft entered the market in 1925 with French dressing, a combination of oil, vinegar, tomatoes and paprika. Thousand Island was developed in Clayton, New York, by Sophia LaLonde, who shared her recipe with the Herald Hotel. From there, it spread to the Astoria in New York. Ranch dressing was developed by Steve Henson at Hidden Valley Guest Ranch in Santa Barbara in the 1950s as a dry herb mix to blend with mayonnaise and buttermilk. The Clorox Company paid $8 million for the formula in 1972. Caesar dressing is credited to Caesar Cardini (1924 in Tijuana, Mexico), although some believe an Italian chef in Chicago, Giancomo Junia, invented this dressing in 1903. Green Goddess dressing originated at San Francisco's Palace Hotel, where George Arliss stayed while performing the play "The Green Goddess."
Today, salad dressing is a big business; 60 million gallons are sold each year in the U.S., with the biggest manufacturer being Kraft Co. The most popular flavor is ranch, followed by Italian.
Salad dressings have four components: fat, acid, salt and spice. These are the building blocks for great dressings. It may be tempting to go no-fat, but fat is important. It helps your body absorb nutrient-rich compounds found in the vegetables, like carotenoids and lycopene. Healthy oils are also good sources of vitamin E and alpha-linoleic acid.
You can easily make a flavorful vinaigrette dressing in minutes by combining oil, vinegar, salt and seasonings. It's important to use quality ingredients; plain old white vinegar and vegetable oil won't do. Try a balsamic or cider vinegar, lemon or lime for the acid in your salad. The fat can come from extra-virgin olive oil or other delicious oil like sunflower or walnut. For seasonings, try garlic, mustard, basil or other herbs. You may want to add fruit (like raspberries for a raspberry vinaigrette) or sweetener (like honey for a honey-mustard vinaigrette).
You can make other types of dressings, too. Honey Dijon, poppy seed and Asian dressings are just variations on the vinaigrette. For example, honey Dijon is made with four ingredients: olive oil, balsamic vinegar, honey and Dijon mustard. Poppy seed dressing is olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and poppy seeds; you can sweeten it with honey or add a little mustard to spice it up if you wish. An Asian dressing combines the oil and vinegar with Asian ingredients like soy sauce, ginger and/or tahini paste. You might choose Asian vinegar like rice vinegar.
Want a creamy dressing? A simple ranch-type dressing can be made with sour cream or yogurt, salt, garlic and fresh herbs. You can add a little mayo or Worcestershire sauce. To make it a blue cheese dressing, add some blue cheese and a dash of vinegar. A simple Greek-style dressing can be made with whole milk yogurt, garlic, salt and mint or dill. A basic dressing of Middle Eastern flavors combines tahini with fresh squeezed lemon juice and water. You can add more flavor with crushed garlic and fresh herbs like parsley or cilantro.
Consider your dressing an opportunity to innovate. Don't be afraid to experiment! Keep it fresh, and don't make extra. Store-bought dressings will be history once you get the hang of making your own!
Basic Italian dressing
1 small clove garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon basil
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Crush garlic with salt. (I use a mortar and pestle for this.) In bottom of salad bowl, whisk together oil, vinegar, basil and the crushed garlic. Add greens and other salad ingredients, toss, and serve.
Basic ranch-style dressing
1 Tablespoon mayonnaise
1 Tablespoon sour cream
1 teaspoon minced fresh dill
1 teaspoon minced fresh parsley
1 small clove garlic
In bottom of salad bowl, whisk together mayonnaise and sour cream. Whisk in herbs. Grate garlic with microplane or crush in a garlic press, and stir in.
Author of the award-winning cookbook "Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers' Market," Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com.