Nobody has to know. 

By Stacey Ballis
October 17, 2019

Well before Sandra Lee hit the airwaves with her Semi-Homemade “cooking” show concept, my grandmother engaged in the ancient are of doctoring store-bought foods. Balancing a convenience item with some fresh ingredients or techniques to improve it in such a way that it would hold a place of pride on the table was the hallmark of a great cook and savvy hostess. 

It started by simplifying the most egregious of recipes, which for my grandmother, was gefilte fish.These traditional Jewish fish quenelles that are ubiquitous at the holidays, had been, in her upbringing, a two-day process that started with live carp and pike swimming in the bathtub, and included not just dispatching them, but also scaling, skinning, fileting, pulling pin bones, hand chopping to perfect smoothness before seasoning and poaching by which time, she was exhausted, and the house smelled of fish for a week. When gefilte fish started being available in jars, it was a revelation. Just one problem: They didn’t taste particularly great. Commercially made fish balls taste like just that. But that didn’t mean they were off the table. They just needed doctoring. My grandmother, as do many hostesses, would create a fresh bouillon stock and re-poach the balls, tempering their jarred flavor and making them taste and feel a bit more homemade.

Whether it is adding extra spice to a bottled BBQ sauce, stirring some freshly grated cheese or buttermilk into boxed mac, or fresh cilantro into jarred salsa, the art of the supermarket doctor is a skill worth having. And it isn’t as tricky as you would think. If you follow the basic principles of balancing salt, sweet and acid in your dishes, often store-bought items reveal to you upon first taste exactly what they need to be a better version of themselves.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with bottled salad dressing. The ultimate convenience food, and often the condiment that polarizes more than any other. We all know the “I make all our salad dressing fresh” folks, whose Ina Garten Meme-worthy pronouncement of the fact seems to imply that those who do not are somehow morally bankrupt. Then you have the people for whom the very idea of making salad dressing when there are literally hundreds available commercially seems like madness.

I am in the third camp. I make a lot of our salad dressings from scratch, especially quick shake-together vinaigrettes and a killer buttermilk ranch.  But I also have some store-bought dressings that I enjoy and keep on hand with no shame.  However, I don’t always leave them untouched. I have found that there are some simple doctoring tricks you can use with bottled salad dressings that can make them a bit better, a bit more special, and certainly more delicious. 

Basics

While most bottled dressings are plenty salty, sometimes they need a bit more spice.  Adding freshly ground black pepper can often be an easy way to up your dressing game, but also freshening up any ingredient listed on the bottle can be useful.  An extra dollop of mustard in your Dijon vinaigrette, or pinch of oregano in your Italian dressing can make a world of difference. A fresh version of an herb listed as dried is often a good idea. 

Vinaigrettes

Bottled vinaigrettes suffer primarily from the quality of the oil used commercially.  Even when touted as “extra-virgin” olive oil, it is never of the quality that you would use when making your own. The good news is that most of these dressings separate upon standing, leaving most of the oil floating on top. I dump the whole bottle into the fat separator that I use for making gravy, and let it sit until the oil is on top, and then pour off the other part, leaving the oil behind.  Then I measure the oil that came off and replace the same volume with the oil of my choice. A really high-quality olive oil, or even a nut oil like walnut or hazelnut, takes everything to a fresh fabulous place.

The second thing I sometimes do to bottled vinaigrettes is add some freshness. This might be some chopped fresh herbs, a minced fresh shallot or clove of garlic, or some grated citrus zest.  It will just punch things up a bit.

Creamy Dressings

Ranch and its pals Green Goddess, Thousand Island, and the like are all wonderful decadent toppings for your salads. But the bottling process can make the flavors get a bit wan. Your hero?  Something that is both tart and creamy, like sour cream, crème fraiche or Greek yogurt.  Most bottled salad dressings are highly seasoned to compensate for freshness, so adding between 2-4 ounces of any bonus creamy goodness won’t require re-seasoning. It will just add some fresh flavor and the tartness will help balance any extra salt. 

Cheese Dressings

Whether it is a creamy Parmesan, chunky blue cheese, Greek feta or classic Caesar, bottled cheese-based dressings NEVER have enough cheese, and the cheese they have is never as good as what you would buy for yourself. Stirring in half a cup of freshly grated or crumbled cheese to boost flavor and texture is the easiest way to up your dressing game. Buy the highest quality cheese you can afford, and stir it in. Most cheeses are salty, so you should not need more salt in the dressing.

Sweet Dressings

Western, French, Poppyseed, there is something about a sweet dressing on a savory salad that is all kinds of right. But often, they are just a bit too sweet. A squeeze of citrus juice, lemon in a poppyseed or orange in French, can brighten things up. Heat is a good balance for sweet, so a dash of hot sauce, a pinch of red pepper flakes or a squirt of sriracha can also be a welcome addition to make these dressings a bit more balanced.

 

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