This summer, do your farm-fresh greens a favor: Ditch the bottled dressing. Making your own salad dressing is easy and cheap—and you can create endless variations if you follow some simple rules and the foolproof recipe below.
First, it helps to know the basics. If you're making a vinaigrette—just an emulsification of acid and oil, with optional flavorings like mustard or herbs—a good rule of thumb is one part acid to three parts oil, plus salt and pepper. "From that simple base, endless possibilities," says Michael Stebner, a member of the culinary team at Sweetgreen, a rapidly growing chain of fast-casual restaurants specializing in—yes—salads. Here are his tips for making perfect salad dressings at home.
Choose the right oil: "We use neutral-flavored grapeseed oil as the base for most vinaigrettes," says Stebner. For a Mediterranean-style dressing, he might turn to extra-virgin olive oil; for a dressing with an Asian profile, he uses sesame oil in combination with the grapeseed. Nut oils, such as walnut and hazelnut, can also replace a portion (or all) of the neutral oil.
Add an acid: Vinegars of all types are the obvious place to start. Try experimenting with balsamic vinegar, rice vinegar or Champagne vinegar, or incorporate acid in the form of fresh citrus juice (lemon, lime, orange—even grapefruit).
Customize your dressing: Stebner's favorite addition is garlic. "I like to use a garlic press to crush the cloves," he says, "which really allows the flavor to bloom." Mustard aids emulsification and contributes flavor. Try a grainy-style Dijon mustard or, for something sweeter, honey mustard. For a Mediterranean-style dressing, Stebner might add minced olives and capers, or, for an Asian spin, miso and minced ginger. Finely chopped fresh herbs—like parsley, basil, chives and tarragon, or even thyme or rosemary leaves—add freshness and brightness. If using mustard, Stebner whisks it in with the acid, since it's also acidic. But he combines all other mix-ins with the oil first, then blends the infused oil with the acid. "The oil carries the flavors better," he explains, "and herbs will stay green if you add them to the oil, rather than the acid."
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Make it creamy if you like: "For a creamy dressing, use yogurt and buttermilk in place of some of the acid, or blend in some soft, mild goat cheese or mascarpone," says Stebner. Want a creamy dressing that's dairy-free? Stebner suggests finely ground nuts, nut butter, or tahini paste, which is made from sesame seeds. Puréed avocado also makes a great base for a creamy dressing.
Memorize this recipe: To make one cup of basic vinaigrette, whisk together ¼ cup acid (vinegar or citrus juice) with ½ teaspoon kosher salt and 2 teaspoons mustard in a small bowl. Crush a clove of garlic (preferably with a garlic press); in a separate bowl, stir the garlic into ¾ cup of oil (try a mixture of grapeseed oil and extra-virgin olive oil) and add in any desired flavorings, such as minced fresh herbs. Combine the oil and the acid by gradually whisking the oil into the acid mixture. Since the dressing will separate if it sits too long, whisk again to combine before using. The vinaigrette will keep, refrigerated, up to three days; let it come to room temperature before using it.
Up your game with these tips: Stebner encourages playing with the standard oil-to-acid ratio, for instance by mixing one part acid with two (instead of three) parts oil: "Adding flavorful ingredients to a dressing allows you to reduce the amount of oil," he notes. And instead of a whisk, Stebner uses an immersion blender to create a strong emulsion and ensure the dressing doesn't separate. When it comes time to make the salad, Stebner drizzles on the dressing and uses his favorite tool—his hands—to gently toss.