Monday, March 25, 2013

Dressing It Up

There are a few items that I believe, no matter what your comfort level is with cooking, you can and should master in the kitchen. This is because, given the balance between cost, time, difficulty, and flavor, some foods are best done from scratch.

One of these is salad dressing. I mean no disrespect to the hard working people in the bottled dressing industry, but making salad dressing is as easy as, well, making salad dressing (and so much easier than pie). There is no cooking process at all, and the only equipment you need is a bowl and a fork, or a whisk if you want to get fancy. An infrequent investment in a few key ingredients means you have vinaigrette for months, for a fraction of the price of store-bought dressing and inevitably a tastier product. 

Salad dressing is an emulsion, meaning it’s a balance of two liquids--oil and acid--forced into suspension with each other. But that balance is temporary, and homemade dressing tends to separate if it sits a few minutes. Vinaigrette is just not a food that’s meant last for months in the fridge, and the fact that bottled dressing can maintain an emulsion should make you wonder what kind of chemical stabilizers and preservatives are going into that bottle along with the vinaigrette.

By chucking the premade stuff, you get control over the ingredients. And to make it, all you have to remember is one simple ratio. 3 : 1. That’s the relationship of oil to acid. Add a little salt and pepper and presto, you’ve made dressing. Maybe you want less acid? The ratio is not a rule, it’s a guideline. So play with the ratio, a little at a time, tasting as you go, using a lettuce leaf to sample. 

I make dressings using either canola oil or olive oil. My three favorite acids these days are champagne vinegar, fig balsamic vinegar, and lemon juice. Once you’ve mixed the oil and vinegar, there are a number of simple add ins that can enhance taste and provide variety. You can add some dairy to smooth out the acid, like buttermilk, cream, or sour cream. You can add honey. You can add dry or prepared mustard. Penzey’s carries a number of terrific spice blends to mix into a dressing (my family loves the Buttermilk blend). If you want to get crazy, pull out a knife and mince up a shallot, garlic or chives.

A little dressing goes a long way. Start with 6 tablespoons of oil and 2 tablespoons of acid. That gives you about a 1/2 cup of dressing, plenty for a single salad. And you can use it on other foods beyond salad. Mustard dressings are great on green beans, and a balsamic dressing can be a glaze for a simple chicken breast. If you want a starting point, here’s a creamy mustard number that I make around here at least once a week. 

Creamy Mustard Vinaigrette

3 T. champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
2 t. Dijon mustard
2 T. sour cream or heavy cream
1/2 cup olive oil (not extra virgin)
salt and pepper to taste

Put vinegar, mustard, and cream in a bowl and stir together. Add olive oil and whisk until combined. 

Taste, using a piece of lettuce, and add salt and pepper. Adjust seasonings, oil or vinegar.

This recipe makes enough for two salads, so you can keep some in the fridge for a few days. Just let it come to room temperature, and whisk again, before using. 

1 comment:

  1. you were the first one who taught me to make salad dressing.
    will add this one to my repertoire.