When it comes to salads, if I’m brutally honest, I could just eat the dressing and not bother with the salad. I can, and indeed I have, drink the leftover dressing at the end of the salad, made even more delicious by having bathed in raw vegetables, straight from the bowl.
I also get a mini-burst of pleasurable serotonin from repeatedly using the bread, fare la scarpetta as the Italians say, to mop up the sauce at the end.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the actual salad too. But a good dressing turns a salad experience from a duty to something you want to eat again and again.
Making a good dressing is a skill that not that many people have. Especially British people, who, for the most part, make, and I apologise, really shit salad dressings. The British literally have no idea. I’ve met pro chefs, lots of them, who have no idea either. They might have Michelin stars but they can’t make a decent vinaigrette.
The most rudimentary and brilliant of salad dressings is olive oil, fresh lemon juice and salt. You can dress the salad at the table with a bottle of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and a few raspy fingers rubbing crackling salt crystals. Done.
I always have lemons in my kitchen for this very reason. I like vinegar, but it’s never really as good as a lemon. Never used bottled lemon juice for this purpose. Please.
Tips for making a dressing:
- Don’t ever buy dressing in a bottle. Ever. You aren’t an animal. The only exception is Caesar salad dressing, which is quite complicated to get right. ALL shop-bought dressings are absolutely disgusting and overly sweet and made with poor ingredients. If you don’t agree you may as well stop reading now. We can never be friends.
2. Make it in a jar. Designate a large clear glass jar with lid that fits as your ‘dressing jar’. You can have more than one for different dressings. Keep it in the fridge. When it runs low, top it up again. This rollover situation can carry on ad nauseam for basic dressings.
A jar means you can shake it up. Virtually all of my clothes have oil stains on the bust. Partly because I’m a messy eater but also because while whisking a vinaigrette in a bowl or glass or cup I will inevitably flick some onto my clothes. Using a jar avoids all that mess – put the lid on and shake. So much easier.
3. Ideally use your hands to toss a green or leafy salad. Yes, get your (clean) hands into the bowl and lift up the leaves which will ensure that the dressing is well spread. (I cook a lot with my hands. In that way I’m just like my Italian great grandmother… a handful of this, a handful of that.) Touching your food is important. You feel the volume, the texture, how much you need in terms of ratio.
4. Don’t use too small a bowl for the salad. You can’t get your hands in properly or use servers to toss the dressing into the salad. Big bowls are great, the only problem is they are too heavy to pass down the table. Always be on the look out for a large light bowl.
5. Treat leaves well. On holiday I saw my sister crushing the leaves with her bare hands. Poor little things. They had dark wrinkles all over. She’s also one of the people that use the dirty ragged outer leaves. Aie. I take at least the outer layer off. Some people are dark leaf people, like my daughter, but even she wouldn’t want the filthy damaged exterior leaves. (I’m a light leaf person. Ideally my daughter and I will always eat a salad together).
6. When to add the dressing? As a general rule put the dressing on just before serving. Dressing a salad too early means it becomes ‘brûlée’ or ‘burnt’. Particularly with a delicate salad, the dressing will make the leaves go soggy if applied too early. If using sturdier ingredients such as chicory, carrots or tomatoes, you can put the dressing on in advance.
My daughter’s French grandmother used to make the dressing first, an inch of oily amber, at the bottom of the bowl, . The leaves would be added on top and tossed just before serving. I wouldn’t recommend this technique to beginners.
7. Have a good pantry of basic ingredients: a variety of oils, vinegar, salt, and mustard.
A selection of cold pressed oils:
Extra virgin olive oil, a good one. How to tell if it’s good: it’ll be sold in a tin or a dark bottle. If it’s in a light glass bottle, it probably isn’t top notch.
Vegetable oils: rapeseed is British olive oil. You can use a bland vegetable oil as a carrier, with a few drops of nut or seed oil to flavour it.
A nut oil: such as hazelnut or walnut.
Seed oils: pumpkin, poppyseed, sunflower seed, sesame seed.
Smoked oils: most of the above can be bought in a smoked flavour (as can salt).
A selection of vinegars or acidifiers:
Balsamic. I don’t use it often in salad dressing. It’s a whole thing in itself and deserves more than to be mixed in with a load of inferior ingredients. I don’t like the colour either. If you aren’t using the real stuff because guess what, real balsamic doesn’t cost just a couple of quid, then don’t bother. The real stuff is very very expensive and is so good you just want it on its own.
I will sometimes use white balsamic, it’s a sweet vinegar and an inoffensive colour which won’t stain the leaves.
Wine vinegar: white and red. For a basic vinaigrette, you need a good wine vinegar.
Apple cider vinegar: good for your health, as well as tasting great. Other fruit vinegars can work very well – I’ve tried gooseberry vinegar for instance.
Malt vinegar: is really for chips. You can buy good ones such as the Aged Malt Vinegar of Modena by Belazu. This can be used like balsamic.
Sherry vinegar: fantastic for adding to soups and vegetable dishes.
Verjus: the best known is by Maggie Beer. It’s a milder version of vinegar, subtle if you don’t like too much acid.
The best mustard for salad dressings is a mild Dijon mustard. I always stock up on this at discount supermarkets such as Lidl, Ed l’Epicier or Leader Price. when I visit France.
Buy good sea salt. It can be flavoured but it must be good quality, not chemically treated table salt.
I love Maldon’s because of the texture. If you add some at the end, it gives a salad a lovely light crunch.
Or indulge in a ‘fleur de sel’, the cream or flower or the salt. Expensive, and only to be used scarcely.
Mustard vinaigrette salad dressing
- 1 or 2 tbsp heaped dijon mustard
- 1 lemon, juice of, or a few drops wine vinegar or verjus
- 1 or 2 tsps good sea salt
- 1 clove garlic, finely crushed, optional
- 100 ml extra virgin olive oil
- Mix the mustard and the lemon juice or vinegar. Do this at the beginning, it's easier to make the dressing come together before adding the oil.
- Add the salt
- Add the garlic, if adding
- Gradually add the oil, shake in the jar or whisk with a fork until it is a thick emulsified liquid.
Blue cheese dressing recipe
- 60 g blue cheese, doesn't have to be an expensive one
- 150 ml buttermilk, creme fraiche, yoghurt, sour cream, add more or less depending if you want a runny dressing or a thick dip.
- 3 tbsps mayonnaise
- 1 or 2 tsp sea salt
- 1/2 lemon, juice of
- 1 clove minced garlic, optional
- Blend all the ingredients together
- Put in jar. Serve separately from salad or swirl some on top. Can be used as a dip too, depending on thickness.
Poppy seed ranch dressing
- 4 tbsp Greek yoghurt/buttermilk
- 1/2 lemon, juice of
- 1 or 2 tsp sea salt
- 100 ml olive oil
- 1 or 2 tbsp poppy seeds
- Add all the ingredients in order, step by step, mixing as you go. This will keep for a couple of weeks in the fridge. Also good as a side with vegetable stews, for lentil salads.
Green Goddess dressing
- One large ripe avocado
- A small bunch of fresh chives
- A bunch of fresh basil leaves
- A small bunch of tarragon, optional
- A small bunch of dill, optional
- A small bunch of parsley, optional
- 50 ml natural thick yoghurt or kefir
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1 tsp sea salt, or more to taste
- 50 ml olive oil
- Put all the ingredients into a blender except for the olive oil. Once blended, add the olive oil gradually while the blender is running. Store in the glass jar.
Other salad recipes: