Enough with the store-bought, okay?
Photographer Greg Dupree, Food Styling Catherine Steele, Prop Styling Kay Clar
Greg DuPree
| Credit: Greg DuPree

For whatever reason, homemade dressings can come across somewhat intimidating to the average home cook, and I will never understand why. Of all things to be fearful of in the kitchen, why choose to sweat over an uncomplicated vinaigrette?! Pie dough, gnocchi, risotto, or a whole fish—I get it! These things are slightly more involved and might require an ounce of patience and practice. But, salad dressing?! I mean, come on. This is something you can make with your hands tied and your eyes shut (not really, but you know what I mean).

So, please—let’s try to steer clear of the store-bought ranch and take that leap of faith into the wonderful world of homemade dressing. It’s easy, healthy, inexpensive, and quite frankly, a great way to get creative with your home-cooked dishes. And no, you don’t need a precisely written-out recipe to conquer this culinary adventure. With these tips, you’ll be on your way to flavorful sauces and dressings that you can drizzle on just about anything. In fact, I might just have to start calling you Paul Newman.

What You Should Make It In

Depending on what ingredients you’re planning on incorporating into your dressing, you can either go the motorized or by-hand route. If fresh herbs, thick sauces, nuts, or small produce items are involved, go ahead and break out the ol’ blender or food processor. Trust me—as much of a pain as it is to take out said machine and then clean it afterwards (sigh), you’ll definitely save yourself some time and energy from all the chopping that you won’t have to do. If your dressing is simply going to be an emulsion of oils, vinegar, and spices, you can opt to whisk everything together in a bowl. But make sure to put some elbow grease into it—you want all your ingredients to emulsify into one coherent sauce.

The Golden Ratio

If there is one thing that you should take away from this article, it’s this: 3 parts oil, 1 part vinegar. Say it aloud—do what you need to do to engrain this into your memory. If you can remember this, congratulations. You know how to make a vinaigrette. If you want to measure out each part for optimal accuracy on your first couple go-arounds, that’s fine, but as you get more comfortable, using your eyeballs as measuring implements works, too. As you get accustomed to making your own dressing, you may find that you like it a little heavier on the vinegar for a punchier, tangier salad. That’s legit. Be the person that you want to be friends with, and more importantly, make the salad dressing that you want to eat.

Which Oils to Use

Now that we’ve covered the mathematics portion of Salad Dressings 101, let’s talk ingredients. As far as which oils to use, that’s largely up to your preference. Extra-virgin olive oil is a great base for most concoctions, but if you like something more neutral like avocado or vegetable oil, go for it. Additionally, if you want to swap out a portion of the oil component of your dressing for a different fatty ingredient, that’s an easy adjustment to make. Ripe avocado, tahini, honey/maple syrup, silken tofu (this is an instance where you should not whisk by hand), or nut butters are all delicious options. If you do experiment with these, try adding some honey, maple syrup or mustard, as these ingredients will help emulsify and stabilize a dressing while balancing the flavor. Go wild. Be unexpected. Let your creative juices run rampant.

Watch Now: How to Make a Festive Fall Salad

What Vinegar to Use

If making salad dressing was like styling an outfit, think of oil as your top and bottom, and vinegar as all the accessories. This is what’s going to make the dressing POP (despite what you might be thinking right now, I am not Tyra Banks). Red wine, rice, or balsamic vinegar are all fantastic starting points, but if you’re feeling fancy, go ahead and drizzle in a fruity vinegar, like grape or pomegranate. If you like, you can play around with the vinegar component and sub in different acids, like fresh citrus juice (and while we’re on the topic of citrus, a little zest could never hurt, either).

Onion and Garlic

This part isn’t a necessity, but it’s an easy way to add a heavy touch of flavor. If you were unaware, shallots were put on this planet solely for the purpose of salad dressing (seriously, their mild flavor lends itself beautifully to a dressing that won’t overwhelm your taste buds). And while we’re here, go ahead and throw in a fresh garlic clove or two. This is one of those instances where having a machine out is ideal, but if you’re gonna do it by hand, make sure to mince up your ingredients as finely as you can.

Fresh Herbs?!?!

Now that you’re a mean, green, salad dressing-making machine, you’re ready to toss fresh herbs into the mix. Save yourself the trouble of chopping (but still wash them) and get out the blender/food processor, and toss parsley, cilantro, basil, or mint into your next dressing. You won’t regret this (unless you eat said dressing and don’t check your smile when you’re done eating and then talk to a cute person and realize that you had cilantro in your teeth the whole time).

Let’s Get Salty

Ok, you’re almost there! But don’t you dare start tossing this in your next salad without salting it, you big weirdo. You can keep it simple and toss in a pinch of kosher salt (give it a taste, how’s it shaping up?), or you can add a salty punch from anchovies, capers, miso, soy sauce, or a flavorful cheese, like Parmesan, feta, or ricotta salata.

Nuts and Seeds

Okay, seriously. Now you’re just showing off. But if you want to add a nutty, roasty essence to your next dressing, I’m not going to stop you. Sunflower, hemp, and flax seeds will give your mixture a slightly bolder, seedier (surprising, huh?) taste, and any toasted nut will without a doubt take this dressing and have it dangerously flirt with the world of pestos (and nobody’s going to be mad about that). But please, get out the blender or food processor, unless you’re aiming for more of a gremolata consistency.