The most important of all salad dressing secrets is take care and make an effort. The rest comest down to taste.
With the last of the tomatoes coming off the vine and the first of the fresh fall greens, like kale and spinach just starting to come into their own it’s a good time to start to reimagine the possibilities of having something fresh every night. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to put together a fresh dressing to go with it. It also provides an opportunity to get creative in the kitchen quickly.
Salad is the one thing almost everyone has time to make, even when you’re just stopping off for a pizza or burgers on the way home. Some cheats and general principles can set you loose in the kitchen before dinner in a kind of meditative state. The 10-minute investment can be satisfying all on its own and set the pace for the evening back to “leisurely” from “frenetic.”
Meeting the Chefs
It’s a sentiment Chef Gary Papp, who owns the Palate Bistro and Catering in Rehoboth Beach fully endorses. “I wouldn’t dare buy a bottled dressing,” he said. “Processed foods are all about convenience and shelf life.”
Chef Matthew Kern of Heirloom in Lewes was equally horrified at the proposition of using bottled dressing and mostly for the same reasons. “It’s all about the ratios,” he said. “If you get the ratios down you can add whatever you want.”
In the big picture there are two types of dressings, creamy and vinaigrette. Neither takes long to make at all and both will reward you with the knowledge that you made something from scratch for your dinner table. Either can be prepared minutes before serving.
Vinaigrettes are an acid, an emulsifier (something to hold it together) and oil. In one of Papp’s favorites, the acid is orange juice rather than vinegar. It’s made with one part orange juice and three parts regular olive oil. He adds orange zest for flavor and a little bit of local honey to keep it together and that’s that.
“If you want to add a little white balsamic vinegar, you can,” he said.
Kern’s apple cider vinaigrette leans a little harder on the vinegar. He’ll use a cup of it and balance it out with canola or another oil. Neither chef was nuts about the idea of using the popular extra virgin olive oil unless there was a specific flavor profile you are going for. Sometimes Kern uses a tablespoon of maple syrup instead of honey and two-thirds of a tablespoon of dijon mustard.
Although you can whisk it especially if you have kids you want to keep involved and busy, your best bet is to blend it. The better you blend the vinaigrette the longer it will hold together.
Whether you use juice or vinegar, honey, maple syrup or even sugar, the point of making a vinaigrette is to experiment to taste. Papp said that, in broad strokes, you probably want to get the best regular olive oil you can and not to use “lite” olive oil at all. One of Kern’s salad dressing secrets is to try leaning a little more heavily on the acids. He said it’s an easy way of finding the flavor you like.
Creamy Salad-Dressing Seacrets
Creamy salad dressings really are as wide open as are their vinegary cousins. Although the preferred base is buttermilk and sour cream, buttermilk isn’t super common in a lot of households. But as Kern put it, once you decide to make the effort you might find it worth it.
Greek yogurt and mayonnaise are acceptable substitutes that already are in a lot of kitchens. Here the ration is two cups of buttermilk to two tablespoons of sour cream. Add two ounces of lemon juice to give the base a sufficient bite. Also, it’s rare that you’re not going to want at least a little cracked black pepper to start.
Once you have this base it’s all about mixing in the spice, but it is critical not to overblend the ingredients and turning it into a thin sauce (unless you want to turn your favorite dressing into a dip, then that’s precisely what you do).
Kern said making tzatziki-style dressings, with dill and cucumbers, is a great addition to the base and give you a more substantial dressing, but he didn’t want to undersell the humble ranch dressing which can be made with spices most people already have in their homes.
Papp said the best thing to do is to have a plan going in, not to just start grabbing spices off the shelf.
“Add a little at a time,” he said. “Taste your way to your vision. You’re less likely to make mistakes can’t undo.”
A version of this story originally appeared on DelmarvaNow.com.