How to Mess around with Salad Dressings, and accidentally achieve superhero status

Today, I’m here to tell you that getting comfortable playfully creating your own salad dressings is worth it in terms of flavor, health, and superhero status. I love to improvise in lots of areas of my life, and kitchen improvisations can be especially empowering. Plus, there are ways to do it that only add 30 seconds to your prep time. If cooking or going “off-recipe” has always made you nervous, or you’re just in a cooking rut, let me recommend salad dressing as a gateway to finding your creative kitchen mojo.

A simple salad with dressing made from olive oil, red wine vinegar, blackberry jam, fresh basil, salt, and pepper. Photo by author.

First, let’s talk health. The amount of sugar, oil, salt, and preservatives used in store-bought dressings really varies. You may be eating salads more frequently in a conscious effort to stay away from carbs, only to add servings of dressing that contain as much sugar as a dessert. Or maybe, like me, you prefer to try to minimize sugary things during dinner in favor of a few spoonfuls of ice cream a few hours later. You also might casually pay attention to your intake of preservatives. All of these things are hard to control in store-bought dressings. For sure, there’s a convenience factor to consider, but any dressing you make yourself is likely to be healthier than one you buy. Besides, it’s easy!

With that out of the way, on to the more important topics of flavor and creativity. It turns out that there’s a basic salad dressing equation. It is infinitely flexible.

THE BASIC EQUATION:

That’s it. I’ll elaborate.

Most dressings start with about three parts oil to one part acid, depending on how puckery you want it. At this point, you already have creative options. For the first ingredient, you can use olive oil, grape seed oil, tahini plus a little olive oil, or any flavored oil your aunt gave you for Christmas last year. For the acid, the obvious answers are (some kind of) wine vinegar, any other vinegar, or lemon juice. However, you can mess with this component as well … try orange juice, yogurt plus a little lemon juice, or brine from your favorite pickled thing. Then, just add generous salt and a little pepper, and boom! Delicious dressing already achieved.

A quick word on how to combine your ingredients. Again, you have options. You may have heard people mention “emulsification” when talking about making dressings. Emulsification is the process by which you help unmixable things (like oil and water) … well … mix. By shaking or whisking the two liquids together, the oil breaks down into tiny droplets that suspend in the other liquid somewhat evenly. If you like the sound of that, would like to keep your dressing for a few days, or want to let people control their own dressing use, clean out a small jar and use it to shake your dressing together. However, I rarely take this step. I usually pour my dressing ingredients directly over just a few of my salad ingredients — usually the onions — and toss them together in the bottom of the salad bowl. That way, the onions get tamed by sitting in the dressing for a few minutes. Then I add the rest of my salad stuff on top of that onion and dressing mixture, but don’t toss the whole thing together until right before I’m going to eat. I don’t really notice that I haven’t achieved full emulsification. I’m also left with at least one less dish to wash! Like so much of this process, it’s really up to you.

Now, back to the recipe. Once you have your oil and acid, you can really go to town with other flavors. For nervous beginners, I recommend dried herbs. You can use basil, thyme, oregano, dill, or whatever you like. Fresh herbs are great too, but the dried ones are right there on my spice rack. I don’t have to chop them, and they have a delightful, concentrated flavor. My “everyday” side salad dressing is just olive oil, red wine vinegar, dried basil, salt, and pepper. It’s not fancy, but it’s lovely on a simple salad of red onions (super thinly sliced!), tomatoes, cucumbers, and mixed lettuce.

The last of some good dressing in a jar. Photo by author.

There are so many options! Dijon mustard, crushed garlic, cumin, soy sauce, and honey are all things that can be added to dressings in different combinations. Go a little further afield if you like. Think about that leftover mint chutney from Indian takeout and how it would be with rice vinegar. Consider some BBQ sauce. Experiment with that jar of store-bought pesto that’s been half-used in your fridge for six months. You already have lots of options. Don’t worry about whether your creation already exists or has a name. As long as it tastes good, you’re done.

Trust your instincts and get in touch with you flavor preferences as well. Do you love the cilantro and lime combo on tacos? Put those two things in a dressing together, and add a little honey to balance the sourness. Do you prefer blue cheese sauces with your Buffalo wings? Combine it with BBQ sauce for your next dressing. Do you tend to like mayonnaise-y coleslaws? Add a spoonful to your dressing. Do you always put oregano, pepper flakes, and garlic on your pizza? Dress your salad with them!

If you’re not feeling giddy about salad dressing at this point, let’s end with a fist bump. I don’t know about you, but fixing things around my house makes me feel like a superhero. Experimenting with cooking gives me similar feelings, and it may do the same for you. I think we could all use more everyday chances to look at something we’ve accomplished, with a hint of surprise and a little wonder, and say “Wow!” at ourselves. Cooking provides a delicious opportunity for that kind of self-love, and salad dressing is a great place to start.

Recipes are guides. Sure, some are more open to improvisation than others, but the kitchen is the ultimate place to reap the benefits of your own creativity. You’re not going mess up — you can always adjust with a little more vinegar, salt, or strawberry jam. You’re going to be proud of yourself. So I say go forth, scan your fridge, and give it a stir. Happy cooking!

(Then, let us know what you come up with in the comments!)

I write about food, women’s soccer, gender, nostalgia, and music. I also play a lot of music and some soccer, and can often be found playing in my kitchen.

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