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How to make the best dressings for every type of salad

With ingredient lists, tips and recipes for creamy dressings and vinaigrettes, you may never go store bought again.
The best ratio when making a vinaigrette is going to be 1 part mustard, 2 parts vinegar and 3 parts extra virgin olive oil.
The best ratio when making a vinaigrette is going to be 1 part mustard, 2 parts vinegar and 3 parts extra virgin olive oil. Kara Birnbaum / TODAY
/ Source: TODAY

Buying dressings from the store can be easy but oftentimes your go-to ranch or vinaigrette has a longer list of ingredients and preservatives. Luckily, making your own is just as simple!

Learning the fundamentals of a great dressing will ensure you have a way to dress a nice salad quickly and easily. It can be made to order for a big green salad or batched up in a larger jar to use for marinades, pasta salads or on-the-go healthy lunches.

Christine Lau, the executive chef of Kimika, a Japanese-Italian restaurant in New York City, is a master of making a range of dressings with bright, creamy or zesty depths of flavor. To prepare home cooks for making their own homemade dressings, Lau showed TODAY Food her shopping list, instructions, tips and common mistakes to avoid.

Shopping list

When you’re ditching the store-bought stuff to master an array of simple, delicious homemade dressings, the first thing you'll need to do is take stock of your kitchen. While most of these items are likely in your cabinet or fridge already, making sure you have them on hand will make life easy when you're ready to whip up a jar or single serving of DIY dressing.

Lau's shopping list will come in handy for all your salad needs, from summery vinaigrettes to rich and creamy dressings.

Non-perishables:

  • Dijon mustard
  • Mayonnaise
  • A few types of vinegars (Lau's personal favorites for dressing include sherry vinegar and rice wine vinegar)
  • Soy sauce
  • Honey
  • Sesame oil
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Black pepper

Perishables:

  • Fresh garlic
  • Lemon
  • Lime
  • Grated cheese like Parmigiano-Regianno
  • Eggs

How to make a great creamy dressing

Just a few ingredients and you're on your way to a delicious, creamy dressing.Kara Birnbaum / TODAY
  1. Start with mayonnaise: This will give the dressing body and creaminess.
  2. Add some tanginess: If you have buttermilk or sour cream, add some to the mayonnaise to add some more depth to flavor profile.
  3. Mix in the seasonings: Chopped garlic and black pepper (for a little kick), any herbs you might have, finely chopped anchovies or anchovy paste (for brininess) and finely grated parmesan cheese (for saltiness) all work very well in bringing out flavors.
  4. Add a touch of acid: This is the most important step some may not realize is necessary to complete a creamy dressing. You can try a splash of vinegar, lemon, pickling juice (save those leftover pickle containers!) to round out your salad.
  5. Make the dressing to taste: As you whisk it all up into a creamy mixture, be sure to taste it and add a little salt if you need it.

How to make a good vinaigrette

The best ratio when making a vinaigrette is going to be 1 part mustard, 2 parts vinegar and 3 parts extra virgin olive oil. To enhance flavor, add 1/2 part chopped allium (onion, garlic and shallot all work well) and 1/2 part chopped fresh herbs. Once you have the ratio down, follow Lau's directions:

  1. Measure out 2 parts vinegar/acid and 1 part mustard and add salt and pepper.
  2. Place ingredients in a metal mixing bowl, glass jar or blender.
  3. Add some seasonings: Add ½ part chopped garlic, shallots or onion and ½ part chopped fresh herbs.
  4. If using a mixing bowl, slowly whisk in 3 parts extra virgin olive oil. If using a glass jar or blender, add everything together and shake until everything is smooth and emulsified (which means the vinegars and oils have mixed together and aren’t separated or grainy).

3 common mistakes to avoid when making dressings

Once you've mastered the steps to create your new favorite creamy dressing or vinaigrette, Lau offered a few reminders of simple mistakes that can ruin a good thing.

  1. Skipping the taste test: "The biggest no-nos always in all types of cooking will be not tasting," Lau told TODAY. "It's always important to taste every step of the way."
  2. Oversalting: Adding too much salt can ruin a good dressing, or any meal for that matter. "Rule of thumb: You can always add more, but if you add too much you can't take it back," Lau said.
  3. Thinking more ingredients mean more flavor: "Less is more — salad dressings are simply a mixture of acid and fat, it's finding that balance of flavors that's the nuanced part," Lau told TODAY. "Just because you have four different types of herbs in the fridge means, doesn't mean you have to put all four (in)."
Valerie Bertinelli's Lemon Vinaigrette

Experiment or try going vegan

"At Kimika, we discovered using a sweet fruit jam/compote as a base of a vinaigrette makes quite a lovely quick salad dressing," Lau told TODAY. "For our winter chicory salad, we used a citron jam/marmalade, added yuzu juice, a little bit of soy sauce, extra virgin olive oil and it makes the most balanced sweet and sour vinaigrette."

Lau loved the vinaigrette so much, she kept it for the following season's spring salad with a more green, lettuce base, uses it on a noodle salad and tosses a more classic Greek salad in it to elevate the flavor.

"If you're looking to make a fast Caesar style dressing, use mayonnaise as a base, but if you don't have anchovies or don't want to deal with chopping up the flavor packed little salted fish, add a dash of fish sauce instead," Lau said.

For folks who don't want to use (or don't have) any mayo, Lau's hack for a quick, creamy Caesar dressing that's vegan involves swapping the mayo for some soy sauce and/or a pinch of nutritional yeast as a replacement. A simple combo of fresh garlic, pepper, olive oil, Worcestershire sauce and dried mustard also works beautifully.

Bon appetit!

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