Salad dressings are a key component of any salad. They add flavor, moisture, and bring all the ingredients together into a cohesive dish. There are countless varieties and flavors of salad dressing, but they generally fall into three basic types: creamy dressings, vinaigrettes, and citrus or herb infused dressings.
Creamy dressings are emulsified dressings made with dairy, egg yolks, or a combination of both. This gives them a thick, luxurious texture and a smooth mouthfeel when coating salad greens. Some of the most popular creamy dressings include:
- Blue cheese
- Thousand island
- Green goddess
Ranch dressing is a classic American salad dressing made from buttermilk, mayonnaise, herbs like dill, and seasoning. It has a cool, tangy flavor and pairs well with hearty lettuces like romaine as well as vegetables and proteins. Blue cheese dressing contains crumbled blue cheese to give it a robust, pungent flavor profile. It pairs well with assertive greens like radicchio or endive. Thousand island dressing has a sweet and tangy flavor from mayonnaise, ketchup or chili sauce, pickles, and herbs. It goes well with lighter lettuces like iceberg or spinach.
Caesar dressing contains Parmesan, lemon juice, olive oil, egg, anchovies, and garlic for a rich umami flavor. It helps bring all the flavors of a Caesar salad together and pairs best with sturdy romaine lettuce. Green goddess dressing has a bright herbal flavor from ingredients like tarragon, chives, parsley, anchovies, and lemon juice. It pairs well with peppery greens like arugula or watercress.
Making Creamy Dressings
The creamy texture of these dressings comes from using an emulsifier – an ingredient that helps bind oil and water together to form a thick emulsion. Common emulsifiers used include:
- Eggs – The lecithin in egg yolks acts as an emulsifier
- Dairy – Milk, buttermilk, yogurt, sour cream
- Mayonnaise – Already an emulsion itself
- Mustard – Contains emulsifiers like lecithin
- Tahini or other nut/seed butters
In addition to an emulsifier, creamy dressings also contain an acid (lemon juice, vinegar, buttermilk, yogurt, etc.) and oil, usually vegetable oil, olive oil, or a combination. Herbs, spices, seasoning, diced vegetables, cheese, or other mix-ins are then added to give each dressing its unique flavor profile.
To make a creamy dressing, the basic steps are:
- In a blender or food processor, combine the emulsifier (egg yolk, dairy product, mayonnaise, mustard, etc.) with the acid.
- Blend to combine, then slowly drizzle in the oil while continuing to blend. This helps “build” the emulsion.
- Once the emulsion has thickened, season with salt, pepper, herbs, and any other flavorings.
- Taste and adjust consistency as needed by blending in a little more liquid or oil.
- Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes for flavors to meld.
Vinaigrettes take a different approach to emulsification – instead of using dairy or eggs, they rely on rapid whisking or shaking of oil and vinegar to suspend small droplets of oil in the vinegar. This creates a temporary emulsion that quickly separates unless constantly re-whisked or shaken before dressing a salad.
The classic vinaigrette ratio is 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar, but the proportions can be adjusted based on taste preferences. Common additions to vinaigrettes include:
- Mustard – Helps stabilize the emulsion
- Shallots, garlic, or onion – Provides flavor
- Herbs – Such as thyme, oregano, basil, dill
- Spices – Black pepper, paprika, cayenne
- Citrus juice
- Honey, maple syrup, or other sweeteners
Vinaigrettes pair especially well with sturdy salad greens that can stand up to the strong acidity. Some popular vinaigrette flavors include:
- Balsamic vinaigrette
- Red wine vinaigrette
- Sherry vinegar or champagne vinegar vinaigrette
- Raspberry vinaigrette
- Lemon vinaigrette
To make vinaigrette, you simply whisk or shake together the ingredients until well combined. The basic steps are:
- In a bowl or jar, combine the vinegar, mustard, herbs/aromatics, and any other wet ingredients.
- Slowly drizzle in the oil while whisking constantly to emulsify.
- Alternatively, combine all ingredients in a jar, seal tightly, and shake vigorously until emulsified.
- Taste and adjust acidity or oiliness as desired.
- Add salt, pepper, and other seasonings to taste.
Store vinaigrette in the fridge but take it out about 30 minutes before using to let the oil and vinegar re-separate. Then shake or whisk again to remix right before dressing the salad.
Citrus or Herb Infused Dressings
The third main category of salad dressings are those infused with citrus juice, herbs, and other aromatic ingredients. These dressings don’t rely on heavy emulsification. Instead, the sharp, bright flavors of the citrus and herbs are released directly into the oil and vinegar.
Common ingredients in citrus/herb infused dressings include:
- Lemon, lime, grapefruit, or orange juice
- Zest from citrus fruits
- Chopped fresh herbs like basil, mint, cilantro, parsley, oregano, dill
- Minced garlic, shallots, green onion
- Spices like crushed red pepper flakes, paprika, cumin
These light, tangy dressings pair well with delicate salad greens like butter lettuce, spinach, field greens, and baby greens. Popular infused dressings include:
- Lemon vinaigrette
- Lime cilantro vinaigrette
- Basil vinaigrette
- Orange shallot vinaigrette
Making Infused Dressings
Citrus and herb infused dressings come together quickly by steeping the aromatics in the vinegar, oil, and seasonings:
- In a bowl or jar, combine vinegar, citrus juice, herbs, garlic, shallots, or any other aromatics.
- Let stand for 10-30 minutes to infuse the liquid with the flavors.
- Add olive oil, vegetable oil, or a combination and whisk lightly to combine.
- Season with salt and pepper.
- You can also add a bit of mustard or egg yolk to help emulsify and thicken the dressing slightly.
For the strongest flavor, use freshly squeezed citrus juice and freshly chopped herbs. Infused dressings without emulsifiers will separate quickly, so remix or shake before drizzling onto salad.
Choosing a Salad Dressing
With so many options, it can be tough deciding which salad dressing pairs best with different dishes. Here are some tips:
- Creamy dressings work well with hardy greens and bitter leaves like romaine, kale, radicchio, and spinach. They also pair nicely with crunchy vegetables and fruits.
- Vinaigrettes complement assertive greens like arugula, endive, frisée. They also work well on tomato, cucumber, and bean salads.
- Citrus or herb infused dressings pair best with tender greens like butter lettuce, Boston, oak leaf, and field greens.
Consider the other salad ingredients – their textures and flavors – and choose an appropriate dressing that will complement, not overpower. For example, a salad with grilled chicken, avocado, corn, and crisp romaine would pair well with a creamy ranch dressing. A salad with pear, walnuts, and delicate baby spinach would match better with a light lemon vinaigrette.
When in doubt, balance richer, heavier ingredients with a bright vinaigrette, and lighter ingredients with a creamy dressing for contrast. And don’t be afraid to experiment until you find your perfect match!
Healthy Salad Dressing Options
While dressings add lots of flavor to salads, some store-bought varieties can be high in fat, calories, and preservatives. Here are some tips for making healthier dressing options at home:
- Use olive, avocado, walnut, or grapeseed oil instead of vegetable or canola oil.
- Opt for reduced-fat or low-fat dairy products like yogurt, milk, and sour cream.
- Limit high-fat ingredients like cheese, cream, bacon, etc.
- Use less oil by adding more vinegar or citrus juice.
- Substitute mayo with plain Greek yogurt or avocado.
- Use Dijon mustard instead of yellow mustard.
- Skip the added sugar or honey.
- Play with different herbs, spices, vinegars, citrus juice for flavor instead of salt.
Making your own dressing allows you to control exactly what goes into it. You can also modify recipes to lighten them up:
- Substitute half the oil with yogurt or silken tofu.
- Use a milder oil like grapeseed instead of heavy olive oil.
- Add extra vinegar, lemon juice, or water to thin out.
- Use one egg yolk instead of two in creamy dressings.
- Cut back on high-fat dairy.
With wholesome ingredients and a good oil-to-acid ratio, it’s easy to make flavorful salad dressings at home that are also healthy!
Salad dressings are an integral part of any salad. The three basic categories – creamy, vinaigrette, and citrus/herb infused – provide endless options to complement any combination of greens and ingredients. Making your own dressing allows you to control the quality of ingredients and customize it to match the particular flavors of your salad. A homemade dressing pulls all the components together into a balanced, nutritious dish.