Salad Dressing . . . is a verb

This is the final post in my DIY Basics series, and it’s all about salad dressing – or as I think of it – dressing a salad.  I’ve been asked many times “What salad dressing do you buy?”  and my answer is usually “I don’t buy salad dressing . . .” and that stops the conversation!  I’d like to continue this conversation here.

While we often think of salad dressing as a bottled product you buy in the store, I have a different approach to salad dressing:  as a verb, not a noun.  The undressed ingredients (ie, greens, fruits, nuts, cheese, herbs, flowers, grains) provide the flavor, texture, and colors that make a salad sparkle.  The dressing is there to heighten, support, and bring together the flavors already in the salad.  This is a different – and I think better – way to approach salad than buying a bottled dressing to add “flavor” to your lettuce.  There’s so much interesting flavor in a well composed salad – the dressing just brings the flavors together and makes them better.

To dress a salad you need only three things: oil, acid, and salt.  A basic ratio is 3 parts oil + 1 part acid + salt to taste = a dressed salad.  Each will play a key role in the salad’s flavor, so the quality of these three simple ingredients is vital.  Let’s explore each one.

Oil:  Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is my go-to oil for most salads. Cold pressed, green and fresh is the way I like my EVOO oil.  Taste your oil plain — it should contribute delicious fruity olive flavor, with its characteristic back-of-the-throat bite.  One of my favorites is made by California Olive Ranch.

my favorite every day EVOO

There are a few dressings that call for a more neutral flavored oil, and for these I use avocado oil.  (Did you know that when you eat fresh greens with a bit of fat your body is able to absorb the nutrients better?   It’s true!)

Acid:  Every salad needs something to brighten the flavors — an acid ingredient.  Vinegars and lemon or lime juice are essential to making my salads.
Citrus:  I have citrus trees, so often highlight my salads with the juice of a lemon or lime I’ve just picked from my tree.  If you purchase citrus, I recommend that you avoid bottled lemon or lime juice — it’s just not the same as fresh squeezed and not worth the trouble.

Lemon curd lemons 2
fresh meyer lemons

Vinegar:  Vinegars come in a huge variety, and can be made from wine, apples and other fruit, rice, grains, etc.  Vinegars range in color from clear to almost black, from very tart to sweet-tart, simple to complex.   Taste your vinegar — it should be clean, bright, and flavorful.  I have several different types of vinegar in my pantry, and use them for the different flavors they offer.  The two vinegars I use most often in my salads are sherry vinegar and white wine vinegar — two excellent versions of which are made by the O Olive Oil & Vinegar company in Petaluma, CA.    Sherry vinegar has a rich, mellow tang and works especially well with salads that include orange segments, olives, or smoked paprika.  Apple cider vinegar is a tasty, inexpensive salad vinegar.  Champagne vinegar is clean and light in flavor.   I love it on delicate spring greens, and use it when I add fresh herbs to my salad.

Salt:  A vital ingredient in dressing a salad is salt.  I use a fine grain sea salt, and my favorite brand is La Baleine.  You can also go super fancy and grace your salads immediately before serving with Fleur de Sel for a special treat.  One of the best aspects of dressing your salads from scratch is that you can tailor the salt to personal taste, for special dietary (ie low-sodium) needs, and to adjust for the saltiness of other ingredients in your salads.  For example, when I include Parmesean cheese in my salads, I will sprinkle on less salt to keep the flavors balanced.

Oil, acid and salt are the three basic ingredients I use to dress a salad, but I often include other seasonings or flavorings as well.  One that makes a frequent appearance is fresh ground black pepper.  While most of the time I dress my salads as I make them, I do make a few dressings in advance — look for future posts on these special dressings.  I hope this post has been helpful.  Enjoy!

Tips for dressing your salad:

  • Dress your salad just before serving
  • Start with cold, clean, dry greens
  • Add other items to compliment the greens (see below for ideas)
  • Pour on your oil and acid (remember the 3 parts oil to 1 part acid rule)
  • Sprinkle on the salt, erring on the low side
  • Toss gently to combine — then taste and add more salt if needed
  • Dust with fresh ground pepper, if desired

A few salad flavor combo ideas:
Leaf lettuce, diced tomato, cucumber with EVOO and lemon juice, salt

Mixed greens, blueberries, goat cheese with EVOO and champagne vinegar, salt

Romaine, tomatoes, avocado, toasted pepitas with EVOO and lemon juice, salt

Spinach, diced apple, toasted walnuts, gorgonzola with EVOO and sherry vinegar, salt

Mixed baby greens, orange segments, toasted almonds, green olives with EVOO and sherry vinegar, salt

Baby arugula, sliced mushrooms, Parmesean cheese curls with EVOO and champagne vinegar, salt

Leaf lettuce, ripe peach chunks, toasted pecans, blue cheese chunks with EVOO and apple cider vinegar, salt

Leaf lettuce, crisp bacon, apple with EVOO, sherry vinegar, salt



4 Comments Add yours

  1. Sarah Leung says:

    I love this post and learned a lot about Salad dressing. Thank you.

    1. tablemuse says:

      Hi Sarah! Glad you learned something. Thanks for reading. Let me know how your next salad turns out

  2. Sharon says:

    Penny, fun facts about your uncle Steve… 1. He works for a major food distributor and has actually been to the olive harvest at California Olive Ranch.
    2. We get lots of samples for oils and vinegars and salts.
    So there are only those 2 facts, all else is personal opinion. We enjoy your posts as I retired from from a food brokerage for organic natural foods and you mention in your blogs many of the manufacturers we represented. I don’t know how to take a picture of my pantry, but if I did I know you’d see we have many similar, quality brands.
    Enjoy reading your blog!

    1. tablemuse says:

      Thanks so much!

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