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Dressing of the Greens

Just the mention of certain ingredients can make your mouth water–think chocolate, pizza or potato chips.  It is your brain anticipating that food or flavor.  Take for example the following ingredients: xanthan gum, disodium inosinate, polysorbate 60, maltodextrin, monosodium glutamate­–anything happening?  Probably not, because your brain doesn’t recognize them as flavors and you have no idea what they are.

These ingredients, along with hundreds of others we can’t pronounce or identify are in many foods we eat everyday.  This particular list came from several labels on bottled salad dressings.  Missing in quantity were the real, natural, simple ingredients you would associate with a salad dressing.

I know these ingredients all have very specific functions in packaged foods–to thicken, to emulsify, to gel, to bind the ingredients together, and for stability to survive the months after being produced.  But speaking for myself, I’m not sure I want that much chemistry in my salad dressing.  I like to follow the idea that if I can’t pronounce it, I probably shouldn’t eat it!

Salad, generally defined as mixed greens with dressing, has been enjoyed since ancient Rome and Greece.  The word origin for salad comes from the Latin sal, meaning salt and salata meaning salted things.  This is due in part to the main ingredient in salad–the dressing.  Most salad dressings contained the key ingredient of salt, along with oil, vinegar and other herbs and flavors.

Since the early 20th century, commercial salad dressings have been part of the American menu­–Richard Hellman introduced mayonnaise in jars in 1913, Joe Marzetti began selling bottled dressings in 1919 due to its’ popularity in his restaurant, and the Kraft Cheese company entered the dressing business in 1925 with the ever popular French dressing.  In 1954 at the Hidden Valley Family Dude Ranch, the guests so loved the “ranch dressing” that a new business was born. 

Arugula, also known Salad or Garden Rocket is a peppery, leafy salad green. It can withstand dressings without wilting. While many may think of it as only a part of mixed salad greens, it makes a strong statement as the only green in the bowl.

Ranch dressing has been the most popular in this country since 1992, elevating beyond just dressing to a condiment of major proportion! In the United States, the dressings favored after Ranch are: Italian, blue cheese, thousand island and Caesar.

Today the variety of dressings available in the grocery store will please just about any taste, are convenient, and able to live in your refrigerator for a long time.  However, consider for just a moment the idea of not buying them, but rather making them at home.   In addition to the benefit of knowing what the real ingredients are, making them is quick and easy, cost effective and even green (consuming less packaging).    

For the most part, I stopped buying bottled dressings some time ago.  However, I must admit there is usually a bottle of thousand island in my pantry for a “salad emergency” (for my husband). But I’m proud to say even my ranch–loving daughter is a convert and now prefers my homemade buttermilk ranch.

No worries, it’s easy–you don’t need to be a chemist or have a lab to create delicious, homemade salad dressings.  And a recipe isn’t essential; just a few pantry staples and guiding principles will get you started.


*Oils:  extra virgin olive oil and salad oil (canola or vegetable) are the basics.  Specialty oils can also be used, but are often more expensive and have short shelf life–flax seed oil, walnut oil, sesame oil, grape seed oil, etc…

*Vinegars and Acids:  white wine, red wine, cider, balsamic, champagne, herb and fruit flavors, citrus fruit juices

*Salt:  sea salt or kosher salt is best

*Mustard: Dijon or other flavored mustard (avoid the yellow “hot dog” mustard), dry mustard powder

*Spices:  fresh ground black pepper, dried chili powder, cumin, cayenne, paprika

*Garlic, shallots and onions

*Herbs: fresh herbs impart the most flavor–parsley, chive, basil, oregano, cilantro, tarragon (dried can also be used)

*Citrus:  fresh lemon, lime and orange juice or zest add zing

*Sweeteners:  honey, sugar

*Dairy products: buttermilk, milk, cream and mayonnaise (used in creamy salad dressings)


*Oil and vinegar will not mix without a binder.  Common binders are dry mustard powder, mustard, citrus juice, soy sauce.

*Use glass jars to mix, shake, and store.  Never store vinegar based products in metal (it can react causing toxic chemicals and impart a metallic taste).

*Homemade dressings are preservative free, meaning they won’t keep as long.  Keep refrigerated; generally, creamy dressings will keep for 7-10 days; while oil and vinegar bases will keep a bit longer. 

*Combine the ingredients and then adjust the flavor to please your palate. Taste each step of the way to ensure a balanced flavor.

*Experiment with different combinations of flavors–have fun!

*Start with equal parts oil and vinegar and make adjustments from there (I don’t exactly follow this rule. I happen to like my dressing less oily and more vinegary…but I measure by eye, and then by taste. )

Basic formula to assemble a dressing

Suggested vinaigrette combinations: 

*Basic:  olive oil + white wine vinegar + Dijon mustard + salt/pepper + minced shallot

*Italian:  olive oil + balsamic vinegar + lemon juice + salt/pepper + fresh basil + minced sun dried tomatoes

*Asian:  vegetable oil + rice wine vinegar + soy sauce + minced fresh garlic & ginger, diced scallions, honey or sugar (to taste) + a few drops of sesame oil

*Southwest:  olive oil + red wine vinegar + lime juice + salt/pepper + cumin + fresh cilantro + some heat, if desired (fresh diced Serrano or jalapeno peppers or chipotle chili powder)

I hope you’ll get in the kitchen and whip up your own special salad dressing blend. Be adventurous, have fun, and take part in your own dressing of the greens.

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