How to Make the Perfect Salad Dressing

Because otherwise you won't eat salad.  

The key to a good salad is in the dressing.  Any kid or crotchety old man who has been forced to eat a salad against his better judgement, will tell you it's not so bad if he's allowed to dump a decent dressing all over it.  

Packaged dressings are convenient but often rely on an excess of sugar, fat or cheap oils and ingredients to make a shelf-stable product.  And while making a homemade salad dressing can seem tedious or challenging, it's actually one of the simplest and fastest things you can make in your kitchen.  Plus it'll incentivize you to actually eat that salad.  

While there are a lot of great dressing recipes out there, here are my rules for a making an easy and delicious salad dressing, whether or not you are following a recipe.  

1. Use 2 parts oil to 1 part vinegar.
Most salad dressings use 3x as much oil as vinegar, but I like a brighter, tarter vinaigrette, so I reduce the amount of oil.  Especially if you are adding beans or grains to your salad, the excess oil just makes it taste flat, in my opinion.  However, if you find that ratio too tart or sour, simply add more oil until it's to your liking.  Mild vinegars like rice or apple cider work especially well in this ratio.

2. Shake and store in a mason jar.
Bowls and little plastic containers are too much work for me when it comes to mixing up a quick dressing.  I like to use tiny mason jars.  I just add the ingredients in any order, shake it up and serve.  If I'm serving it later, I just take the dressing along it the jar since it won't leak and will be easy to shake up again.  Most homemade dressings can last in your fridge for 3 days and some, up to a week.  Just keep it in the jar and shake as necessary.  

3. Add a touch of something sweet.
While the fat in oil balances out the acidity of vinegars, your dressing can end up tasting a little two-dimensional if you only rely on these two ingredients.  Instead of adding excess oil, I like to balance out the remaining acidity in vinegar with just a touch of something sweet: usually 1/2 a teaspoon or so of maple syrup, honey or coconut sugar.  Since leafy greens are usually the stars of our salads, this sweetness helps counteract their bitterness.  If you aren't a fan of more bitter greens like arugula or kale, try adding something sweet directly to your dressing and see how it changes your experience of that bitter taste.

4. Salt!
The word "salad" originally comes from the Latin word "sal" which means salt.  So in a way, it's really the most important ingredient in your salad!  ("Sal" is also the root of the word salary because Roman centurions used to be paid in salt, which really underscores the importance and value of salt.)  Without salt, we won't be able to taste all the vegetables and our final dish will taste bland.  Be sure to add a generous pinch of sea salt straight to your salad dressing--that way you'll stretch a little bit of salt to all the nooks and crannies of your greens.

5. Change up your usual dressings.
While I love a basic lemon vinaigrette or an Italian dressing, new combinations can make the same old salad feel fresh and new.  Try mimicking the flavorings of the next dressing you get at a restaurant--ask the server what's in it (probably only a few ingredients) and use those flavors, plus the ratios and tips I've given you here to recreate it at home.

Here are a few of my favorite formulas:

  • Toasty Walnut Dressing:
    1 tablespoon aged Balsamic vinegar + 2 tablespoons toasted walnut oil + salt
  • Shallot-Tamari Vinaigrette:
    1 tablespoon rice vinegar + 2 tablespoons shallot-infused oil* + 1 teaspoon tamari + dash of maple syrup + dash of toasted sesame oil
  • Cilantro-Lime Vinaigrette:
    1 tablespoon lime juice + 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil + handful of cilantro + 1 teaspoon honey + salt (use blender)

Have a favorite go-to salad dressing?  Post it in the comments below!

*To make shallot oil, heat a grapeseed oil in a small skillet or pot and sizzle a sliced shallot in it for 5 minutes.