Now that spring is well and truly here, I can’t wait for local produce to appear in the farmers’ markets. In New England, that moment is still many weeks away, sadly, but at least now it seems possible — unlike in the winter, when the farmers’ markets I frequent show off piles of dirty snow, not heirloom tomatoes. I love to make and eat salad, so while I while away the weeks waiting for local tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce, I am inventing new salad dressings.
I wasn’t always so adept. For many, many years, I was a salad loser. Every time I made salad it tasted like a bunch of unrelated vegetables that all happened to be in the same place at the same time, with no particular relationship — sort of like the opening scene of a disaster movie featuring a random gathering of passengers aboard the doomed airplane/ship/elevator, etc.
Furthermore, my dressings always came out either too oily or too vinegary. Intolerably to palate and ego alike, I was buying perfectly good produce and yet not ending up with something delicious to eat. Worse, several people I knew who were decidedly awful cooks were nonetheless capable of making perfectly good salads and dressings. I was profoundly and repeatedly humbled, and that made me profoundly and repeatedly annoyed. So I decided to seek help — professional help.
I consulted Shirley Corriher’s CookWise, a book that demystifies kitchen science for the home cook. I discovered that what my dressings had been missing was a good emulsifier — a substance that helps bind liquids that don’t like to mix, such as oil and vinegar. Then I realized what my salads had been missing all along: a good dressing.
I had been skipping the mustard because I find the classic vinaigrette emulsifier, Dijon mustard, too sharp for my palate. But the world of mustards is expansive, and after experimenting, I decided I liked dressings with gentler Pommery and even plain old American “golden brown” mustard like Gulden’s. Raw egg yolk works well too, but raw eggs carry the risk of salmonella. I’ve also had success binding a dressing with a touch of honey and peanut butter. For a quick emulsion — one that may break if you let it sit too long — you can toss your oil and vinegar into a blender with chopped herbs, pitted olives, feta cheese, goat cheese, or sliced fruit.
The magic ratio
The typical oil-to-vinegar ratio is three parts oil to one part vinegar. I personally prefer something closer to a two-to-one ratio, but some people find that to be too sharp. A good approach is to start at two-to-one, taste, and add oil until you reach a balance you like. (For those who prefer to avoid vinegar altogether, try lemon or orange juice, or even apricot nectar.)
Once I sorted out emulsifiers and oil-to-vinegar ratios, I was off and running. Some people add sugar or another form of sweetener to balance the tartness of the vinegar, but I always taste a dressing first to see if I think it’s really necessary. In place of sugar, I usually turn to honey, maple syrup, fruit juice, jam or marmalade, or fruit purée.
Then there’s the whole universe of vinegars and oils at our disposal these days. When you’re looking for a delicate flavor that won’t overwhelm a subtle-flavored salad ingredient like sliced cucumbers, try rice wine vinegar. At the other end of the spectrum, apple cider vinegar stands up well to bold flavors like garlic or dried cranberries.
Red and white wine vinegars are often written off as too pedestrian and ubiquitous — but in fact they can be quite nice and very affordable. It pays to try a few versions and see if a slight rise in price buys a vinegar that’s a little bit smoother and more palatable to you. A touch of garlic or shallot, along with some mustard, will transform even the humblest red or white vinegar into a dressing that’s bright and lively but not overly tart.
Then there’s the Italian star of the vinegar world, balsamic. This glam vinegar picks up its flavor and some of its color from being aged in wooden casks. It is also thicker than other vinegars because as it ages some of the liquid evaporates (the unaccounted for missing liquid is called “the angels’ share,” just as in the wine-making process). The older and thicker the vinegar is, the more valuable it is as well.
Flavored vinegars can be nice. Raspberry vinegar is good on cucumbers, and strawberry vinegar enlivens spinach salad. If I am feeling really flush, I buy fig vinegar, which is really vinegar with fig juice added to it. I serve it lightly drizzled over arugula with slices of pear and slivers of aged Gouda or Parrano cheese. I was amazed that even some very small children enjoyed it.
As for oil, you don’t need to use a very expensive olive oil in a dressing, but I do always try to buy an organic one. Canola oil also works well — it lets the other ingredients sing. I use expensive oils sparingly, such as walnut and hazelnut, but they are delicious and best used with very light, delicate vinegars that will complement rather than obscure their flavor.
So now you know most of what I know about salad — go forth and emulsify. What follows is a straight-ahead, foolproof vinaigrette, plus one of my new experimental creations that does away with oil altogether.
1 teaspoon mustard
Pinch of salt and pepper
4-6 tablespoons olive or canola oil
Touch of honey or maple syrup
Combine vinegar and mustard in small bowl. Whisk these together and add a pinch of salt and pepper. Now add 4 tablespoons olive or canola oil and whisk with a fork as you add the oil in a stream. Taste the dressing by dipping a piece of lettuce in it. Adjust salt and pepper if needed. It’s easy to add some chopped shallots (1/2 teaspoon) or chopped fresh herbs (1 teaspoon), and if you feel that the dressing needs to be sweetened, add a touch of honey or maple syrup. This makes enough dressing to dress two servings of salad.
Strawberry-Cucumber Salad with Pear Juice/Rice Wine Vinegar Dressing
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
Pinch of salt
Pinch of pepper
1/2 teaspoon sushi ginger, chopped (optional)
Pinch sugar (optional)
1 English seedless cucumber
Mint leaves for garnish
- Whisk together the first four ingredients. Taste before adding the ginger or sugar to see if you already like it without those ingredients.
- You shouldn’t need to seed (i.e., de-seed) the cucumber, but if you do need to, cutting the cucumber in two lengthwise and then running a sharp spoon, like a grapefruit spoon, down its middle usually does the job. Slice the cucumber into thin disks and cut those into half moons. Spread the disks onto the bottom of the salad bowl.
- Hull the strawberries (take off the tops and cut out the fibrous core) and then quarter them. Add to the cucumbers. Add a few mint leaves.
- Pour the dressing over the salad.