On a recent grocery store trip, I turned down the wrong aisle and found myself staring at seemingly endless shelves of salad dressings. If I could convince people to stop buying and start making one thing from scratch, salad dressing might top my list. Most varieties only take a handful of ingredients, come together quickly and cost a fraction of a premade bottle – all without a giant list of additives like modified cornstarch, xanthan gum and monosodium glutamate.
One of the other beauties of dressings is that you can find a ratio you like and tweak it to fit whatever flavors suit your salad. I prefer tangy vinaigrettes to sweet ones, so I typically use a 2-to-1 ratio of oil to vinegar. You can easily cut the tartness by changing that to three parts oil, one part vinegar. Adding other ingredients, like yogurt, fruit, avocado, herbs or spices, gives the basic ratio another layer of flavor and may even mellow the acid.
If you’ve tried to mix oil and vinegar to make a dressing and been disappointed with the result, it’s likely because the two don’t naturally want to meld together. A puddle of oil and vinegar might be delicious when dipping bread, but you need a third ingredient – an emulsifier – to form a thick, creamy dressing that pours smoothly onto greens. Fortunately, some of the most effective emulsifiers – mustard, honey, egg yolks, garlic and tomato paste – taste fabulous in a salad dressing.
Here’s a basic recipe to get you started, deliciously flavored by roasted garlic, mustard and balsamic vinegar. It’s a good starting point for making a variety of dressings. Changing to another type of vinegar, like red wine, champagne, sherry or cider, will alter the dressing’s flavor. You can even swap in lemon, lime or orange juice for some or all of the acid. Avocado oil will give a subtle flavor, whereas a more robust walnut oil is tasty on a potato salad. Fresh garlic will have a stronger bite but still help the oil and vinegar blend together. You can also add ingredients to the recipe, such as ginger and soy sauce with rice vinegar for an Asian spin, shallots and herbs for a Mediterranean one or sour cream and dill with lemon juice for a Russian-inspired blend.
Creamy Balsamic Salad Dressing
Makes about 1/4 cup
1 clove roasted garlic, minced
1 teaspoon prepared mustard
1-1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
In a small jar or measuring cup, mash together the garlic and mustard with a fork. Add the vinegar, salt and pepper. Screw on the jar lid and shake briskly or whisk until the salt dissolves. Add the oil; reseal and shake again or whisk until the ingredients combine. Drizzle immediately over your salad, or set the dressing aside and shake again just before serving. Store extra vinaigrette in the refrigerator, where it will keep for several weeks.
Julie Laing is a Bigfork-based cookbook author and food blogger at TwiceAsTasty.com.
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