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Another Reason to Make Your Own Salad Dressings

My husband came home this weekend loaded down with leftovers from a brunch he’d helped set up. Among the cartons of pasta salad and regular salad and dubious mass-market hummus and two–two? really?–homemade onion pies was a jug of something reddish. It turned out to be more than a quart of prepared raspberry vinaigrette, the kind of thing a caterer would pick up at a bulk commodities store. More than we would ever use in a year, but let it pass. He meant well.

So we found space for most of the stuff in the fridge, threw out the hummus because we didn’t know if it had been dipped into or not, and then there was this jug of vinaigrette hanging out on the counter. I took a look at the ingredients. Canola oil (boring but expected), sugar (enhhh–not a fan of sweet salad dressings, personally), salt, distilled vinegar, raspberry extract was somewhere down in the lower middle, more for color than flavor no doubt, paprika extractives (so much easier than actual paprika?)…yada yada yada…some kind of starch and emulsifiers to keep the oil and vinegar more or less together…polyethylene glycol…

Bleagggh. PEG? As my college lab partner once remarked, in a toney City Line (Philadelphia) accent, “It smells so….bio-laahhhgical.” And it does.

Not to mention the “nutrition” counts–and here I mean the sodium count per serving, which alone, minus any actual salad fixings, comes to 240 mg. It’s not so hard to see why chain restaurant salads typically hover above 500 mg sodium and frequently up to 900 mg.

So a couple of suggestions:

1. Make your own salad dressings–it’s quick and they’ll be fresher. You don’t need exact recipes, do you? Try a few of these.

2. Don’t automatically add salt–get the majority of your dressing flavors from the real ingredients. The satisfaction of a salad dressing comes from a combination of tart and savory ingredients to startle and intrigue the palate and make the freshness of the salad itself more apparent, so start with that. Flavor your dressing with garlic or shallots, lemon juice or vinegar, mustard or sharp cheese, olive or walnut oil, maybe yogurt or buttermilk, herbs, etc., but flavor it, don’t salt it. Real ingredients are also less likely to suffer flavor fatigue–salt’s a moving target that most people stop being able to taste when they eat a lot of it habitually (see the Salt Rant).

2b. If you’re following a recent cookbook or food magazine recipe, there’s sure to be a routine, unthinkingly added teaspoon of salt called for in just about every recipe. That’s much more than you really need to enhance a salad or make the dressing piquant. But those recipes are based on restaurant think, where salt is the cheap substitute for the expensive ingredients that need to be stretched. You don’t have that problem–you’re not making vats of bleu cheese dressing on a shoestring budget, you’re making dinner.

So leave out the salt, mix everything else together, and taste.

3. Time is your friend. You can make a basic vinaigrette right at the table–a dollop of mustard, a few spoonfuls of red wine vinegar or lemon juice, a pinch of salt if you must, and a couple or so spoonfuls of olive oil whisked in. Maybe a few herbs or a clove of garlic to boost it, and cracked black peppercorns over the top. Or nasturtiums.

But if the dressing–a yogurt or buttermilk-based one, say– is mostly about herbs, garlic, onion, shallot, scallions, bleu cheese or the like, let the dressing sit awhile to develop. If you make a yogurt/buttermilk/herb and garlic ranch-style dressing a day ahead, it’ll be much stronger and also more integrated after a night in the fridge. Right before serving, taste a bit of lettuce in the dressing and see what you think. If you still feel like salt is genuinely missing after you taste it in action, add a pinch or two. Not more. You can always add more to your own serving at the table if you’re craving salt for its own sake, and you’ll have the advantage of being able to taste it because the crystals will be on the surface of the food, where your tastebuds can get to them easily.

4. Unless it’s just olive oil and red wine vinegar, don’t toss the dressing in before serving, let people dress their own. Not everybody likes or can tolerate every dressing, and everyone’s got their own right amount. If you have to dress the salad ahead for a banquet setup, do it lightly. Less is more.

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