We get it. There are plenty of things easier to buy than to make, like fresh pasta, jams and yogurt.
Salad dressing, however, doesn't have to be one of them.
Leave the bottled stuff on the shelf and get to whisking your own dressing. It's a simple but nuanced art, one you can master by the time you finish reading this article and use at moment's notice (printable version here), considering the building blocks are kitchen staples. May we also add that knowing how to craft a dressing is a killer houseguest move? If you want a repeat invite, read on.
Proportions: Conventional wisdom calls for three parts oil to one part acid, plus a pinch of salt and aromatics to taste. But like every rule, this one is made to be broken. With sweeter vinegars like balsamic, aged sherry, infused white wine and chardonnay, go easy on the oil, and vice versa for more acidic mixers, like citrus juice and apple cider vinegar. Otherwise, it's a free-for-all. You are the boss of your dressing.
Gear: Peruse enough vinaigrette recipes, and you'll see a fair amount calling for emulsification in a food processor. But we're purists: A bowl, whisk, knife and cutting board are all you really need for a basic vinaigrette. If you start adding more complicated ingredients, though, grab a mortar and pestle to grind things like seeds and nuts, or a blender for heartier items like a charred poblano (see below).
Timing: Don't throw it all into a bowl and hope for the best. Macerate your alliums (shallots, garlic and the like) with the acid for five to 15 minutes to take the bite off. Then add any additional ingredients. Save the oil and chopped fresh herbs for last. Be sure to taste and salt as you go.
Vinaigrettes evolve, so always let them sit for a bit. When you're ready to eat, season the greens (yes, the greens) with salt before you dress the salad. If you're making it ahead of time, put the salad dressing in the bottom of the bowl with the greens resting on top and put it in the fridge. Toss just before serving. And remember: Vinaigrette should carry the flavor of the greens, not smother or drown them, so be judicious with your dressing.
Upgrades: Now that you've got the technique down, play with it. Don't stick to just one acid: Try mixing sherry vinegar with red wine vinegar, or combining rice wine and lime juice, like we do below. Spice things up with a dollop of kicky mustard or a dash of red pepper flakes. Add floral notes and extra acidity with citrus zest to perfume the vinaigrette. And lastly, experiment with consistency: Yogurt and crème fraîche lend themselves to a silky finish, while toasted seeds and nuts add texture.
To get you started, here are five of our favorite vinaigrette variations:
4 tbsp olive oil + 3 tsp red wine vinegar + thinly sliced shallots + 1 tsp Dijon mustard + ¼ tsp freshly ground pepper
Consider this your basic dressing for pretty much any sort of green. Adjust the Dijon mustard to your level of spice preference, but be sure to use coarsely—never finely—ground pepper. If you have chives in the fridge, chop them up and add them in at the last minute for extra oniony flavor.
3 tbsp olive oil + 4 tbsp sherry vinegar + 1 garlic clove, smashed + 2 tbsp honey + ½ tsp orange zest + 2 tsp poppy seeds
Dice the garlic as finely as you can, or mash it in a mortar and pestle if you feel so inclined, so that it doesn't overpower. As for the orange zest, one swipe of the grater does the trick. The sweetness of the sherry works as a great balance to smokier flavors, so use this dressing on a chicory salad, grilled greens or bitter vegetables.
4 tbsp olive oil + 2 tbsp lemon juice + 2 tbsp tahini + 2 tsp water + 2 tbsp fresh dill + ¼ tsp cumin seeds, toasted and crushed
Tahini errs on the thicker side, so put a little muscle into mixing it before you add the rest of the ingredients. Try this version atop watercress or toss it with still-warm roasted vegetables, such as carrots and eggplant.
½ tsp sesame oil + 2 tbsp lime juice + 2 tbsp rice wine vinegar + 2 tbsp fish sauce + ¼ c cashews, toasted and chopped + 1 Thai chile, thinly sliced
Chopped cashews lend texture to this Southeast Asian-flavored dressing, while the chile adds a kick at the end. We like to cut up a papaya or mango and toss it with this recipe before setting it atop an herb salad of mint and cilantro. It also works well as a dipping sauce for fried fish. TT tip: You can usually find cashews already toasted. If not, toast them at 350° for eight to 10 minutes.
2 tbsp olive oil + 1 tbsp white wine vinegar + ½ c Greek yogurt + 1 charred poblano
The most nuanced of them all involves just a little bit of heat and a blender. Char your poblano on all sides atop a gas stove or pop it into the broiler until it browns on all sides. Peel it, remove the stem and seeds, then blend it all together. A little more yogurt turns this dressing into the perfect dip for crudités.