How to make salad dressings

Holly cooks how to make salad dressingsI have my standard salad dressings that are favourites. For instance, I often use this easy salad dressing recipe and then I’ll swop lemon juice for vinegar, reduce or leave out the honey, or use a different mustard depending on the salad I’m serving. But I wanted to understand more about what was going on when you make up dressings and so I did some research and want to share what I found.

The basic rule of thumb for a vinaigrette is:

1 part vinegar/lemon juice
3 – 4 parts oil
Holly cooks how to make salad dressings-in-potAdd the salt and pepper to the vinegar first, to enable the salt to dissolve. Then add in the oil, mix well and taste. You can mix well by just using a fork. But a good tip is to use a jam-jar – screw the top on firmly and then give the ingredients a thoroughly good shaking. Jar and vinaigrette can go straight into the fridge where the contents will last well for about a week. Also, don’t fill the jam jar with your initial mix as you may need space to add ingredients as you adjust the final taste. Just how much oil you need in order to balance the vinegar will depend on the strength and taste of both the vinegar and the oil. For instance, an extra-virgin olive oil will generally have more flavour than a standard olive oil; balsamic tends to be milder to taste than red-wine vinegar.
Holly cooks how to make salad dressing-on-salad 550As a rule of thumb, if your dressing is lacking in flavour, add salt and possibly more vinegar. To modify a taste that is too strong, add more oil. Use small amounts and keep checking the taste as you go.

Which oil, which vinegar?

Delicately flavoured leaves pair well with delicate oils and vinegars. Strongly flavoured leaves require oil and vinegar which are more robust. Here’s my table:

Salad leaves Oil Vinegar
Delicate flavours
Spinach Delicate extra virgin olive oil  Red wine vinegar
Pea shoots Groundnut oil
Lettuce Sunflower oil
Vegetable oil
Rapeseed oil
Strong flavours
Endive Strong flavoured extra virgin olive oil White wine vinegar
Cos lettuce Vegetable oil Cider vinegar
Richer flavours
Watercress Robust extra virgin olive oil  Balsamic vinegar
Rocket Walnut oil  Sherry vinegar
Robust leaves Hazelnut oil
Asian flavours
Sesame seed oil Rice wine vinegar

Other flavourings can then be added such as:

  • garlic – chop finely and let the dressing stand for an hour before serving to allow the garlic to soften a little
  • shallot – as above, chop finely let the dressing stand for an hour
  • fresh herbs – add these at the last minute because the acid in the vinegar will discolour the herbs
  • mustard
  • honey
  • anchovies
  • lemon, lime or orange zest
  • capers

Oil and vinegar will always tend to separate, despite your vigorous shaking if you use the jam-jar method, and you’ll need to shake them together again before dressing your salad. But here are some tips to reduce this separation process:

  • Keep your dressing in the fridge; the cooler the oil the more viscous it becomes and this helps it cling to the vinegar. (Take it out of the fridge ten minutes before serving to give it chance to come up to room temperature).
  • Adding a pinch of dry mustard powder to the dressing will help it stay mixed; the mustard increases the attraction between the oil and vinegar.
  • Or add 1 teaspoon of mustard to the vinegar – Dijon would be my preferred choice. This will do the same job as the mustard powder. But you’ll need to check and maybe adjust other ingredients for the final taste you want.
  • 2 tbsp soured cream or greek yoghurt will work similarly but give a creamy dressing. Add it after the oil.

Mayonnaise based dressings

Mayonnaise can be used instead of oil and vinegar to create a thicker, creamier salad dressing which is particularly good for coleslaw, potato salad or celeriac rémoulade.

A basic mayonnaise dressing recipe

3 tbsp mayonnaise
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
salt and pepper

This will give a very thick dressing which can be diluted using one of the following :
½ tbsp water, or
½ tbsp lemon juice, or
1 tbsp unsweetened yoghurt.

Serves 4

Mix the mayonnaise, mustard and salt and pepper together.
Add in either the water, lemon juice or yoghurt and mix again.


Other flavourings can then be added such as

  • garlic – chopped finely and let the dressing stand for an hour before serving to allow the garlic to soften a little.
  • finely chopped shallot – let the dressing stand for an hour as above
  • fresh herbs – if you have diluted the dressing with lemon juice add these at the last minute because the acid in the lemon juice will discolour the herbs
  • honey
  • anchovies
  • lemon, lime or orange zest
  • capers
  • pesto.

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