Still buying Vidalia onion dressing by the bottle? Forget about it. If you have a few common pantry staples, your own dressing is about two minutes away.
My mother is a great cook and has excellent taste in all things except salad dressing, apparently. When I go to my folks’ place, lurking in the fridge door, shoulder-to-shoulder are an odd black sesame seed concoction that cost $6 at a specialty store, a Balsamic vinaigrette that has completely separated and has been there for months, and a bitter Vidalia onion dressing.
Now I’ll admit that I don’t eat a lot of salad (unless we’ve all recently agreed that the tomato and wisp of lettuce on a cheeseburger comprise “salad.”) But I’ll be darned if I’m going to douse good-looking vegetables and summer tomatoes with anything sub-par. So I hunted around on the internet and figured out that all you need for the base of a decent dressing are the following:
1. Good olive oil. Let’s be real, here; if you are making a super-basic dressing, you’re gonna taste the olive oil. So use extra-virgin, and not the stuff that’s gone rancid in the back of your pantry. Only make as much as you’ll use over the course of the week.
2. Acid. I like red wine vinegar, Champagne vinegar, or Sherry vinegar. I’m not a fan of balsamic vinegar, which I find to be a bully, flavor-wise, but to each her own. If you have a salad with fish such as smoked salmon or tuna, look for citrus; you may find that fresh-squeezed lemon juice makes more sense and is daintier than vinegar.
3. Salt and fresh pepper. It doesn’t matter if you use sea salt or Kosher here; just be sure to also salt your salad greens beforehand (if health issues aren’t a concern).
4. An emulsifier. Something has to bring the oil and acid together. In my house, that’s always a grainy Dijon mustard—about a teaspoon-ful—which helps the two marry.
5. Shallot. Sure, you could live in a world without shallots, but I think the texture and delicate flavor are a welcome accompaniment to most any salad—greens sidled up alongside white beans, olives, and soft-cooked eggs; fresh tomatoes with sautéed zucchini and herbs; really most anything.
When making a dressing, I find a clean jam jar with a tight-fitting top, but a cocktail shaker or Tupperware container with a really good seal would work in a pinch. (Wrap it in a plastic bag, just in case.) You could use a whisk or a fork, but a jar with a lid will shorten your work, make for a cute serving vessel, and is easily stashed back in the fridge for tomorrow.
Play around with the balance of acid and oil that makes the most sense for your palate; for me, it’s usually a 1:3 of vinegar to oil, plus a teaspoon of mustard, ½ a minced shallot, Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, and a good shake. You might be more of a 1:1 acid to oil person, which works, too. If you have fresh soft herbs around, you could chop up their leaves and throw them in, too; sage, thyme, tarragon and basil all work.
Not a vinaigrette person? No problem. Leftover cilantro, basil, yogurt, chives, and olive oil can be blitzed into a gorgeous green goddess dressing. (I like this one.) You could also go in a minty chermoula or chimichurri direction, because the best dressings can be drizzled over almost anything you put on the plate.
It may seem obvious, but before you commit yourself to a jar of dressing, dip a leaf in it! You don’t want to be the first to declare it way too tart in the middle of supper. And hey, enjoy deleting one more bottle from your grocery store list.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.