There are dozens of bottled salad dressings on store shelves, and we understand why: the siren song of convenience is incredibly tempting. But given exactly how quickly you can mix up a great salad dressing yourself — under a minute, I promise — are bottled dressings really worth the price tag, additives, and precious space in your refrigerator?
As a culture, we’ve learned to set out a bottle for each family member that dresses everything from delicate greens to hearty sandwiches. Even when we spend the time to clean and slice fresh, organic vegetables, it’s easy to overlook the handful of affordable, common ingredients that can be blended into a fresh dressing in practically no time at all.
Fortunately, we can reclaim this ancient food tradition dating back to the Babylonians. It takes far less time to make a dressing than a salad. You likely already have all the base ingredients, like vinegar and oil, in several varieties, and just by incorporating herbs, mustards, and honeys you might have in the fridge or cabinet can change a dressing from spicy to sweet, tangy to rich. The tools needed can be as simple as a jar with a lid, as standard as a measuring cup and whisk — or as absolutely effortless as a bullet blender.
Your perfect oil:vinegar ratio
Using a basic ratio, you can create many salad dressing variations without following a recipe. My preferred ratio produces a tangy dressing from two parts oil and one part vinegar. For a mellower blend, use three parts oil to one part vinegar. Either ratio works each time you make a salad — from one to two servings or scaled up for a crowd.
The power of emulsifiers
The adage that oil and vinegar don’t mix is one reason manufacturers have so successfully marketed bottled salad dressings. Many bottled blends use natural or synthetic emulsifiers to discourage separation. Egg yolks are a common natural emulsifier, but lower-cholesterol and lower-fat manufactured dressings might use an additive like xanthan gum. Researchers have also been testing bioemulsifiers, incorporating corn syrup, waste canola frying oil, and guar gum as potential emulsifiers for foods like salad dressings and mayonnaise.
In a home kitchen, plenty of other options make oil and vinegar creamy. Just a teaspoon of mustard, a dollop of honey, a smidge of tomato paste, or a clove of garlic does the trick. I favor soft, roasted garlic, which breaks down quickly even with a dressing that’s shaken, not stirred. For the silkiest texture, double down with roasted garlic and spicy homemade mustard or raw honey.
The pros and cons of each blending method
When making a dressing, push-button ease is attractive if a bullet blender or small food processor lives on your counter. It swiftly chops up bulky additions like raw garlic cloves and fresh basil leaves, and can incorporate all of the ingredients in moments. When you’ve poured out the dressing, just pour some hot, soapy water in the blender, turn it back on for a second — and you’ve just handled the cleanup, too.
Other options can be nearly as speedy. A small glass measuring cup and little whisk excel when blending oil, vinegar, and an emulsifier that dissolves quickly, like honey. You can drizzle the result out the pour spout onto a salad. However, I often prefer a jam jar with a tightly sealing lid: you can shake a dressing into creaminess really quickly, and the lid pops back on the jar when packing a lunch or storing extra dressing in the refrigerator for later.
Stirring or shaking also has a flavor advantage. Some people find the polyphenols in extra-virgin or high-phenolic olive oil bitter, especially when those antioxidant-laden molecules are dispersed into droplets by a high-speed blender. Garlic, too, can have a stronger, bitter note the more it’s broken down. Hand-mixing dressing imparts a lighter, milder tone.
Julie Laing has been blogging about eating well year-round at Twice As Tasty for more than five years. She published her first cookbook, The Complete Guide to Pickling, in 2020.
The Best DIY Salad Dressing
PREP TIME00 min
COOK TIME00 min
1 teaspoon mustard, honey, and/or garlic (this serves as an emulsifier)
1 ½ tablespoons vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 tablespoons oil
In a small jar or measuring cup, quickly break up the emulsifier with a fork. Add the vinegar, salt, and pepper. Screw on the jar lid and shake briskly or whisk until the salt dissolves.
Alternatively, combine the emulsifier vinegar, salt, and pepper in a small blender or food processor and blend until smooth.
Add the oil; reseal and shake the container or whisk the ingredients by hand until they combine. (You can mix in the oil using the blender or food processor instead of by hand, but the garlic and any oil high in polyphenols may taste bitter.)
Drizzle immediately over your salad, or set the dressing aside and shake again just before serving. Store extra dressing in the refrigerator, where it will keep for several weeks.
You can create so many dairy-free salad dressings using this same base, including honey mustard, balsamic vinaigrette, roasted raspberry, citrus cilantro, and more. For honey mustard dressing, use 1½ tablespoons each of honey, mustard, and apple cider vinegar. For a balsamic vinaigrette, mash a clove of roasted or raw garlic and 1 teaspoon of mustard into balsamic or apple cider vinegar. For a raspberry vinaigrette, add ¼ cup of roasted raspberries, a small shallot, and honey with red wine vinegar. For a citrus dressing, replace the vinegar with orange, lemon, or lime juice. Mix in honey and/or garlic, a pinch or two of turmeric, and a couple of tablespoons of cilantro for a big pop of flavor.