October 25, 2006
The Minimalist

The Well-Dressed Salad Wears Only Homemade


ONE measure of a good home cook is the ability to make salad dressings. Even the best cooks reach for the better-quality bottled stuff on occasion. But taking two minutes to combine extra virgin olive oil, vinegar and a couple of real seasonings is an enlightening experience, one that can make you vow to leave the mass-produced concoctions of cheap oil, water (more water than oil, if it’s low-fat), dried spices and hideously unnatural chemicals on the supermarket shelf.

The simplest dressing, vinaigrette, is this: around three parts oil to one part vinegar or lemon juice, salt and pepper, and maybe some added flavor. This may be an herb (a pinch of dried tarragon is good, fresh chives better) or a condiment (Dijon mustard is classic, and a splash of soy sauce is amazing). There might be a bit of onion, garlic (easy on this), scallion or shallot. Combine them with a fork for a “broken” dressing, or with a whisk or a blender for a lovely, creamy emulsion. Presto.

Curious cooks progress from vinaigrette to bigger challenges: ranch dressing, which contains a mysterious flavor that drives people to distraction; the intriguing carrot dressing served over too-cold salads in many Japanese restaurants; and blue (or “bleu”) cheese dressing.

Because all are good even when they’re bad, imagine how great they’d be made well.

To take blue cheese first: if you combine blue cheese with yogurt or sour cream, maybe a little garlic, lemon juice and salt and pepper, in five minutes you will produce the best blue cheese dressing you’ve ever had. Start with good cheese. The classic choice is Roquefort, a blue made from sheep’s milk, but plenty of others work well, too, like Maytag or another well-made American blue; Stilton; or almost any blue from France, Italy or Spain. It should be strong but not piercingly sharp.

The Japanese carrot dressing is a little trickier because you need a food processor and some specialty ingredients: white miso, sesame oil, rice wine and ginger. Sample the result and see what that odd orange stuff was meant to taste like.

Ranch dressing is another story. Said to be an American concoction from the 1950’s, it has a secret ingredient: buttermilk. The flavor is enhanced if you use a little buttermilk powder, which is stocked in the baking section of many supermarkets. It’s a good substitute for buttermilk in biscuits and keeps for a year or so.

Ranch dressing is even better if you start with homemade mayonnaise, which is little more than vinaigrette super-emulsified with egg. This added step might make the entire process take as long as 10 minutes.

Once you make the effort, bottled dressings may disappear completely from your refrigerator.