We eat a lot of salads around here in the spring and summer, and most of the time I like them lightly dressed with vinaigrette (though there is definitely a place for a good ranch or blue cheese dressing!). And rather than shell out 2-3 dollars for a bottle of salad dressing that likely contains preservatives and other additives, I like to make my own. It’s quick, incredibly simple, and delicious, and I always have the ingredients on hand: oil, vinegar or lemon juice, garlic (optional but delicious), salt, and mustard. This recipe is also infinitely variable, as you can use different types of oil, vinegar, and mustard, or add different herbs or spices to change the flavor profile.
The recipe I give below makes enough dressing for a salad that serves 3-4 as a side salad, but it’s easily adapted to large quantities. I’ll often make a big jar of the stuff (it keeps well in the fridge for at least a few weeks) when we’re eating a lot of salads. The important part is the ratio of oil to vinegar: generally, I use about a third to half as much vinegar as I do oil. The rest you can tweak based on your flavor preferences.
- oil (olive oil, walnut oil, etc. – basically any oil that tastes good on its own will make a good dressing. I don’t use bland vegetable oils or canola oil for dressings)
- vinegar (balsamic, red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, etc.; lemon juice or other acidic citrus juice also works well)
- mustard (any mustard will do – even dry mustard powder works! – but my favorite is dijon)
- coarse salt (sea salt or kosher salt work well)
- pepper/herbs/spices to taste
Coarsely chop 1/2 to 1 garlic clove (depending on how garlicky you like things; you could even leave the garlic out completely, if you have a hot date or something). Gather the chopped garlic into a pile and sprinkle a pinch of salt on the pile. Using a firm scraping/sweeping motion with the flat part of your knife, mash the pile into your cutting board; the rough texture of the salt will help to really pulverize the garlic. Gather it into a pile again, and mash again, repeating until your garlic/salt mixture has formed a sort of paste-like consistency.
Pour a big glug of oil into your salad bowl. Pour a smaller glug of vinegar in with the oil (about a third to half as much as the oil). Add a small amount of mustard (about 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon, depending on your flavor preference) to the oil and vinegar and use a fork or whisk to beat everything together into a nice homogeneous mixture. You can skip the mustard, if you like, but I definitely don’t recommend it! Normally, oil and vinegar wouldn’t mix, right? Well, the mustard acts as an emulsifier, binding the oil and vinegar together so they stay mixed and do not separate. This works because there are molecules in the mustard that have both hydrophilic, or “water-loving”, parts (and vinegar is mostly water), and hydrophobic, or “water fearing” parts (and oil itself is hydrophobic). The hydrophilic portions of these molecules bind to molecules in the vinegar, and the hydrophobic portions to molecules in the oil, and bam! Oil and vinegar are brought together.
Now that you have your oil and vinegar all mixed up, you can add your flavor components. Mix in your garlic paste, plus any other seasonings you might want. Your dressing is now done! Add your salad fixings to the bowl (this can be done up to maybe half an hour before serving, as long as you don’t toss right away); toss just prior to serving.