While I love elegant salads like a Waldorf or Nicoise, some of my favorite salads are the simple ones – super fresh greens with a touch of bitterness (like arugula) tossed with equally simple dressings that just enhance the veggies, not overpower them.
Growing up, I firmly believed that salad dressing came in a store-bought bottle, unless it was a special occasion and my mom emptied a packet of Good Seasons into our special dressing cruet. Little did I know that making salad dressing from scratch is pretty darn easy. And with a bit of balancing skills, you’ll end up with the best homemade salad dressing every time.
How to make the best homemade salad dressing
Salad dressing is not rocket science, but we want to leave you with two concepts mastered: consistency and a balanced flavor profile.
When you understand these, you’ll be on your way to not only mastering the best homemade salad dressing but also understanding some essential basics to create all sorts of delicious food.
The correct ratio of oil and vinegar for salad dressing
While you could drizzle on some olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, a sprinkle of salt, and few grids of pepper, that’s not really a salad dressing.
Every good salad dressing needs fat, acid, and a binder – a.k.a. an emulsifier.
When it comes to oil for dressings, it’s ultimately up to you, but we recommend sticking with high-quality olive oil or avocado oil. You can read about the health dangers of other oils here. For acid – lemon, lime, or vinegar are the usual suspects.
The emulsifier coats the oil molecules and makes it easier for the oil and (water-based) vinegar to combine and evenly coat your salad. Emulsifiers include ingredients like mayonnaise, mustard, honey, tomato paste, tahini, miso, and egg yolks.
The typical ratio for oil to vinegar in a vinaigrette is 3:1 plus a small amount of emulsifier. This will cover your bases when it comes to consistency. Now let’s talk flavor…
How to balance flavors for salad dressing and beyond
The secret you need to make the best homemade salad dressing (or really cooking in general) is all about balancing the flavors. In order to do this, it’s fun to first understand a bit about how we sense taste.
There are five basic human tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. While every dish does not and should not be a balance of all five flavors, understanding how these flavors work together will help to take your cooking game to the next level – not to mention making the best homemade dressings to enhance your beautiful salads.
Let’s take a look…
Sour or acidity is essential in making food taste good by adding vibrancy and counter-balancing sweet and bitter flavors. When it comes to salad dressing, the sour is inherent in the initial ratio of liquids and is usually either citrus or vinegar.
Sweetness, in turn, levels sourness or bitterness. The sweet/sour/bitterness of really good lemonade is a great example of this. In salad dressing, the other flavors are often balanced with sweetness from a touch of honey as an emulsifier, a bit of citrus or other fruit, or even a creamy ingredient.
Salt also counteracts bitterness, but more importantly, salt enhances flavor, often taking a dish from bland to WOW. Think of salted caramel, for example. On its own, caramel can be tongue-stingingly sweet, but with a sprinkle of salt, it leaves your tastebuds with a more rounded, satisfying experience.
How much salt to add to food can be rather controversial, and frankly a matter of personal taste. That said, many amateur home cooks and professional chefs alike make the mistake of not using enough salt, and then the resulting dishes are disappointingly bland. Salad dressings are no exception, so start slow and use this flavor to make your dressing – AND the salad itself – really pop!
Though often overlooked, bitterness brings balance to the senses the way lemon zest or certain herbs can cut through the richness and bring a dash of brightness to the flavor profile of a dish. For salads, often the bitterness comes from the greens or veggies being dressed, but herbs and spices can bring a touch of bitterness as well.
Finally, umami is a sense only discovered to have designated taste buds in 2002. Umami is the taste of the amino acid called glutamate and is distinct because it spreads across the tongue, lasts longer than other flavors, and causes the mouth to water. Umami naturally occurs in many foods including aged cheeses, cured meats, seaweed, cooked tomatoes, mushrooms, fish, meat, and more. In relation to other flavors, it’s considered more of a complement rather than a balancer.
Umami is an important component of a great dressing and is often accomplished through the emulsifier. A touch of miso, blue cheese or parmesan, tomato paste, anchovies, fish sauce, or a flavorful nut or seed oil like sesame or peanut are all ways the best homemade salad dressings impart an umami sensation.
It’s important to remember that recipes are not the end-all-be-all in knowing how to create a balanced dish. This is both because taste profiles will vary with ingredients (consider the different tastes of a strawberry in and out of season and the variety of saltiness in buying different types of soy sauce, for example), and also because, in the end, taste is always subjective. Tasting as you cook and adjusting flavors accordingly is a skill that chefs and home cooks alike must master.
Our favorite salad dressings to add to your meal plan
When you want a quick and simple dressing, this is it. Lemon and olive oil are brought together with a touch of honey as a sweet emulsifier. Shallot for some bitterness, and salt and pepper to taste. After a while, you can just eyeball the proportions, but until it feels like second nature, don’t be shy about measuring out your ratios: 3 parts oil to one part lemon.
Out of lemon or want to try something different? Experiment with various kinds of vinegar – balsamic, red wine, rice wine, and apple cider vinegars all make lovely vinaigrettes as well.
Who doesn’t love ranch dressing? Whether it’s topping a hearty cobb salad or served alongside homemade buffalo wings, this dressing come dipping sauce is the favorite of kids and adults alike. That’s why we’re going to skim over the details of what really goes into most ranch dressing that you’ll find at your favorite restaurants and grocery stores, and instead, tell you you MUST put this homemade ranch dressing on your meal plan immediately.
We have both traditional and dairy-free options for you to make a zesty, perfectly balanced and HEALTHY ranch dressing you can consume to your heart’s content.
This is a classic Asian-inspired dressing made famous by the not-at-all Asian “Chinese chicken salads” beloved by Americans. Rice vinegar and oil are brought together with a touch of honey. Fresh garlic and ginger and a touch of sirachi give this dressing its unique spicy, bitter kick, and the coconut aminos (like soy sauce) and sesame oil round things out with their deep umami taste.
Caesar dressing is definitely more of an advanced recipe because the emulsion can be a bit tricky. You are essentially making a thinner, much more flavorful mayonnaise. That said, don’t let that deter you from trying, as you don’t need a perfect consistency for your salad to be divine.
Our caesar dressing combines avocado oil with lemon, egg yolk, whole grain mustard, garlic, salt and pepper. If you are vegetarian, we use capers and for everyone else, the anchovies bring the special umami touch to your caesar dressing. Try it on our Chicken caesar salad or our White Bean Ceasar.