August 30, 2010

All Dressed Up, Many Places to Go

Herb and Shallot Vinaigrette

Just as the right accessory can add panache your outfit, the right salad dressing can do the same for a salad, or even an entire meal. Just as with shoes or jewelry, salad dressing is an opportunity to show your flare, to infuse a meal with your personal sense of style.

I haven't purchased salad dressing in years. A custom designed-to-the-meal salad dressing can be whipped up in a matter of seconds, even faster than it takes to get through the checkout line at the grocery. When I make my own, I know the ingredients it contains... no multi-syllabic chemical preservatives, extenders or thickeners. And at pennies to the dollar, the homemade version leaves more discretionary capitol for other things I really care about. Like nice wine.
Roasted Chicken and Spring Vegetable Salad with Homemade Buttermilk Dressing

I can almost bet that you already have what it takes to get started creating your own salad dressings. Do you have a jar? Any old empty jam jar or salad dressing bottle will do. That and a few basic pantry items, and you are set to go. But just as in the fashion world, there are a few simple rules of thumb in regard to making salad dressing.
In general, begin with this proportion:
  • One part acid to three parts oil. If you are working to reduce fat in your diet, you can move toward equalizing the percentages here. Be warned: You will end up with a twangy, puckery dressing. My preference is to keep to the original proportions and just use it in moderation.
Even with these two foundational components, the sky's the limit. Imagine all the varieties of liquid acids:
  • Vinegar- there are zillions of kinds (balsamic, sherry, cider, rice wine, pomegranate, fruit flavored, white wine and red wine, etc.)
  • Lemon juice
  • Orange juice
  • Lime juice
  • Verjus
  • Buttermilk (you may think of this as creamy, and it is, but with a fairly high level of acidity)
As an aside, when My Baby and I combined households our "blended pantry" contained 17 various vinegars. I'm happy to report that we've edited our vinegar wardrobe down to a mere 14 kinds.

Now imagine all the kinds of oils:
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Vegetable oil
  • Nut and seed oils (walnut, flax, hazelnut, peanut, sesame, etc.)
  • Clarified butter (don't snicker... it can be delicious on the right salad)
Go ahead and eyeball it in your jar. Do you have about 1/4 part acid to 3/4 parts oil? No measuring is necessary... you'll easily be able to tell by looking. Leave enough room for a good, vigorous shake, and simplify cleanup by eliminating a mixing bowl and whisk. With those building blocks in place, now you get to be an artist. As you think about the rest of your meal, add as many or as few of these other ingredients as inspiration calls for:

An emulsifier is nice to create a homogenous blend, add a lush mouthfeel and to add flavor:
  • Mustard (grainy, dijon, honey mustard, yellow, brown, etc.), a teaspoonful per jar
  • Egg (read this for current food safety information regarding raw egg)
  • Cheeses, ground or grated
  • Nut butters (peanut, almond, etc.), a well-stirred spoonful... stir first or it will take forever to combine with the oil and vinegar
Other herbs and flavorings round things out and add zip and personality. Add up to a tablespoon of any of these, alone or in combination:
  • Any fresh herb, chopped finely
  • Any dried herb or spice, crushed or ground
  • Shallot, finely minced
  • Garlic, pressed or minced
  • Soy sauce, a teaspoon or less
  • Anchovies, chopped fine or large
  • Worcestershire sauce, a few drops
  • Finely minced or crushed fruit (cherries, raspberries, strawberries, etc.)
  • Citrus zest (lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit, etc.)
Perhaps a little sweetening may be called for. This can sometimes be the difficult to define but magic secret balancing ingredient. Depending on your aim, between 1/2 - 2 teaspoonfuls may be nice:
  • Sugar
  • Honey
  • Agave syrup
  • Maple syrup
  • Molasses
  • Barley malt syrup
  • Brown rice syrup
  • Apple or white grape juice concentrate
Because vegetables tend to need a little zip to maximize their potential, I never, almost ever, make a salad dressing without a good dose of these two things:
  • Salt (kosher or sea), a healthy heaping teaspoonful or so to 10 oz. of dressing, depending on saltiness of other ingredients
  • Freshly ground pepper (black or mixed peppercorns)
Homemade Caesar Salad with Romaine Lettuce from our Garden
Another couple of exciting flashes: Most terrific salad dressings also make terrific marinades for meat or grilled or roasted vegetables. You'll find them to be versatile sauces as well. And just like you, salads warm or cold, with an added protein component or not, all come alive and exhibit great verve when properly dressed.

True to our Name, We at Sticks Forks Fingers Serve Caesar Salad in its Whole Leaves and Eat it with Our Fingers!

13 comments:

  1. What an original way to describe salad dressing as accessory to your salad! I have a friend that makes flavored vinegars and makes them as gifts. I have received Blueberry vinegar, and Garlic Dill, which are wonderful on salads.

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  2. What a great post! I always make my dressings, never buy them! Your right, it is very easy and much better for you, I just wish they lasted longer! Thanks for all the info!! :)

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  3. Great post. And great timing with the summer heat + produce!

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  4. I have fond memories of grandma making her homemade dressing for some yummy salads. It seemed like she would put the entire garden into her salads. I do have some old mason jars and this is a great idea. Thumbs up!

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  5. What a wonderful crash/refresher course. I'm re-inspired!

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  6. Great post. Salad dressing is one of the things my 'non cook' husband can and does make.

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  7. I really do need to make more of my own dressings! I know it's easy, I have all the stuff, but I often just grab a bottle of pre-packaged out of sheer laziness!

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  8. Thanks for juicing us up with more salad dressing ideas. At our house, the tricks to dressing are; finding that moment early in the meal prep to throw the dressing ingredient together (often when garlic is being prepared for some other part of the meal), putting the green onions, avocado or whatever will be a part of the salad directly into the dressing as a vehicle to spread the dressing around while tossing.

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  9. Melody, my first exposure to homemade salad dressing also came from my Grandma, whose salads I can still taste. Hers always was composed right atop the salad itself, and always had a touch of sugar.

    Becky, how nice to have handmade unique vinegars to work with. They sound terrific.

    Larry, I love your method of adding the other salad components right to the dressing. That sounds perfect... One of my pet peeves is an overdressed, soggy salad, and your way would definitely cure that problem.

    I just made a vinaigrette for a warm summer veggie succotash tonight. It was my whole meal, and I think it was pretty good!

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  10. Great post, Pam. I've made my own salad dressings for years and have an equally large selection of vinegars. Someday I'll get all the bottles dusted then take a photo of my oil and vinegar corner - with cheat sheet to know which bottle the champagne vinegar is in vs the malt vinegar... I'm going to print your post and post it in the kitchen so I'll get a bit out of my rut on oil and vinegar (olive oil, red wine vinegar, tarragon, sugar and dijon) Thanks!! Kate@kateiscooking

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  11. I love the title of this post!! I started making my own dressing a few years ago too, but I actually learned a thing or two from your post. Thanks for all the information! It will be good for me to "shake up" my regulars!

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  12. oh my god! how did I miss this? I love your run down of ingredients for when I get in a salad dressing rut. We rarely eat bottled dressing around here anymore. fresh made is the way to go! it's so funny, because i was just daydreaming about ceasar salad in little leaf boats like that. hmmm...it must be a sign to come visit your garden. I'm jealous. I'm going to send you a pic of my stupid garden. you will laugh you butt off. It's been ravaged by the sun and ignored by us. poor little garden. such a great post, pam...as usual.

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