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Whether you’re whisking together a basic vinaigrette or blending a creamy topper for your greens, the key to salad dressing is balance. In general, putting together a dressing is a balance between sweet, salt and acid, and includes one or more types of fat (such as oil, bacon fat, mayonnaise or yogurt). Once you master this balance, you can whip up a dressing any time, with whatever’s in your kitchen.
Essential elements to balance
Acid gives dressing its brightness and tang. Salad dressings include vinegar such as apple cider, red or white wine, sherry or champagne, or a citrus juice like lemon or lime. You can also add pickle or sauerkraut brine.
Salt also adds brightness, softens the acid and makes the flavors in the dressing pop. You can use sea salt, as well as other salty ingredients like miso, anchovy paste or soy sauce.
Every salad dressing needs a little sweetness for balance, even if it isn’t a sweet dressing. Honey, maple syrup and coconut sugar all work in dressings, and a little goes a long way. Shallots also can add sweetness, but be sure to lightly cook them or let them sit in the acid for at least 30 minutes to ease their oniony bite.
Another element that most dressings need is umami. Known as the fifth taste, umami is best described as savory or meaty. Umami adds a bottom note to your dressing; it ties all the flavors together. Ingredients that add umami include mustard, coconut aminos, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, fish sauce and Parmesan cheese.
Keep in mind that some ingredients can lend more than one element to dressing. For example, fish sauce adds saltiness and umami. Coconut aminos add sweetness and umami. Orange juice adds acid and sweetness.
Pro Tips for Making Dressing
Now that you have an understanding of ingredients and flavor balance, here are a few techniques to apply to make your dressings sing.
1. Add spices and herbs
Mint, basil, tarragon, cilantro, parsley – any fresh herb, or a combination, elevates salad dressings. Dressings are also a good way to use up herbs in the fridge. Spices such as coriander, smoked paprika, or blends like curry or za’atar also brighten simple dressings.
2. Take citrus to the next level
Citrus juice is classic in salad dressing. If you really want to emphasize that flavor, add the zest, too. Be sure to scrub and dry the fruit before zesting, and remove the zest before juicing.
3. Add extra tang
Briny elements like capers, olives and cornichons bump up the acidity and add zing to dressings.
4. Blend well
You can mix salad dressings in a blender or mini food processor, or whisk by hand. If you’re making a vinaigrette, whisk or pulse all of the ingredients together except for the fat, salt and pepper. Drizzle the fat in slowly as you whisk well (or blend) to allow it to emulsify. Including an emulsifying ingredient, like mustard, miso or egg yolks, will help keep the dressing together, as oil and vinegar typically separate. After all of the other elements are incorporated, season with salt and pepper.
5. Taste while seasoning
Speaking of seasoning, be sure to taste your dressing on a vegetable when you add the salt and pepper. Salad dressing has to hold its own against the vegetables and other elements in your salad, so it has to be seasoned well. By tasting the dressing on a piece of lettuce or celery, or another vegetable, you’ll be able to tell if it’s got what it needs.
6. Don’t stress about the rules
There is some debate about the exact ratio of acid to oil in a salad dressing. Some chefs argue that salad dressings should be composed of one part vinegar to three parts oil, while others claim it’s closer to one to one. But the truth is, some dressings are better with more acid, and some less. Don’t worry about following ratios and let your palate guide you.
Check out the secrets to building a better salad in The Salad That Made This CE Editor A Convert. For some winning pantry staples including an umami seasoning, read 7 Pantry Items That’ll Turn Your Healthy Cooking Up to Eleven.