Your salad gets dressed
Let’s talk about getting dressed…er…I mean dressing your salad. Yes, I know I normally write about baking (my tag line is “…Explorations in a glass and in the oven”), but long-time readers know that I like to avoid preservatives and additives whenever possible. Salad dressing is one of those easy-to-make-but I-don’t-know-how/want-to products where making it using ingredients you have on hand is wayyyy better than anything you buy in the store. From simple herb vinaigrettes to a (slightly) more energetic Caesar dressing, knowing a couple of simple tricks can lead to a wide variety of flavors with which to enhance your greens.
First, a test
Here’s your word-of-the-week: emulsion…meaning a mixture that doesn’t separate (oh boy, here we go). We all know that oil and water don’t stay mixed, and you shake a vinaigrette to temporarily combine them. For a more permanent solution (like in a classic Caesar dressing), well, look at that salad dressing bottle in your refrigerator – chances are there is some chemical ingredient listed as an emulsifier, i.e. something that keeps the oil and water in suspension. Lethicin, a substance found in egg yolks, acts as an emulsifier by attaching a water molecule to one end and a fat molecule at the other, thereby keeping them from separating…that’s why you’ll see it on a Caesar dressing label. Since good quality mayonnaise is made from egg yolks (usually pasteurized), you can safely use it as a substitute (and you don’t have to separate eggs…win!).
Classic Caesar dressing is made by combining the “wet” ingredients, then slowly drizzle in the oil so the lethicin has a chance to grab those fat molecules and keep them in suspension with the water molecules. If you add the oil too fast, the dressing will “break”, i.e. separate, and you’ll have a tasty, but messier, dressing. (Side note: If your dressing breaks, here’s a way to fix it from Serious Eats)
Cool tools to help along the way
Over time I’ve discovered some tips while making Caesar dressing: I use my Cuisinart Mini Prep Plus food processor because the holes in the lid help to slow the addition properly (and I don’t have to chop the garlic!). I like to use a combination of olive and canola oil to lighten up the mixture (in texture, not calories), and I add the olive oil first because, as a heavier oil than canola, the emulsion holds together better. I’ve also learned to pulse the machine rather than just let it run so the dressing doesn’t heat up and break. Learn from my experience, Grasshopper!
Another tool I use is this really cool KitchenAid citrus squeezer when I need juice. It strains out the seeds so all your pour out is juice…you know, so you’re not chasing seeds around the bowl trying to fish them out! I use it quite frequently, like when making lemon curd or, more recently, Mint Lemon Lime Bars.
Classic Caesar Dressing
Adapted from The Splendid Table
Total time: 9 minutes
Yield: 2 cups
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 2-inch lines anchovy paste (or 4 anchovy fillets, minced)
- 1 Tbsp organic mayonnaise (or 2 large pasteurized egg yolks)
- 3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice (or more to taste)
- 1 tsp balsamic vinegar
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup canola oil
- 1/4 cup (1 oz) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- 1/4 – 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
Using a Food Processor:
- Place salt and garlic cloves to food processor. Pulse until the garlic is minced.
- Add the anchovy paste, mayonnaise (or egg yolks), lemon juice, and balsamic vinegar, and pulse to combine. Taste for salt, garlic, and lemon juice balance.
- Starting with the olive oil, begin adding the oil through the lid at a slow stream, cycling the processor on/off to avoid heating and breaking the emulsion. Stream the canola oil after all the olive oil has been added.
- Add cheese and black pepper, pulse to combine. Adjust seasonings if needed.
- Place salt and garlic (and anchovy fillets, if using) on a cutting board. Using the flat side of a chef’s knife, carefully smash ingredients together until mixture becomes a thick paste and is thoroughly blended. Transfer paste to a small bowl.
- Add anchovy paste (if using), mayonnaise or egg yolks, lemon juice, and vinegar to the paste, and whisk until blended.
- Add oil (first olive oil, then canola oil) in a slow, steady stream, whisking constantly until smooth.
- Whisk in cheese, and season with black pepper to taste.
Both methods: Transfer to a glass jar and serve. Can refrigerate up to 1 week.
Let’s bring back ratios
What if you just want a simple herb vinaigrette? I’ve discussed the ratios for scones, pound cakes, and pie crusts before, so you won’t be surprised that there’s an easy ratio for those vinegar-and-oil dressings …1:3 (1-part vinegar to 3-parts oil). Simple to make, it comes together in a snap!
White Wine Herb Vinaigrette
- 1 tsp Kosher salt
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1-2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 Tbsp fresh herbs, minced (rosemary, parsley, oregano, basil…whatever you have on hand)
- 1 tsp dried herbs (sometimes I don’t have fresh herbs or I’m too lazy to mince)
- 1/4 cup white wine vinegar
- 2 Tbsp red wine vinegar (sometimes I add for a tangier flavor)
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil (or another flavored oil)
- 1/4 cup canola oil (if desired, or more of the oil used above)
Combine all ingredients in a glass jar, shake to mix. Let the mixture sit 20 minutes or so to let the flavors meld.
You can mix and match the type of vinegars and oils you use based on the flavor profile you want, and the amounts of everything else you add (salt, pepper, sugar, and flavorings like herbs and garlic or shallots) is to your own taste.
My older daughter tells me that I’ve spoiled her for Caesar salad in restaurants or from a jar, that’s how good this Caesar dressing is! And herb vinaigrettes are fast, flavorful, and versatile, and very easy to make. So don’t reach for the bottled salad dressing…invest in some good quality vinegars and oils, and let your imagination run free. You’ll be able to pronounce everything that goes into what dresses your salad, and your taste buds will definitely thank you!
Slainté! L’chaim! Cheers!