Why You Should Never, Ever Buy Salad Dressing

Slate's Culture Blog
June 27 2012 12:19 PM

You’re Doing It Wrong: Vinaigrette

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There is no reason to buy bottled salad dressing.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Lettuce is easily the most stubborn vegetable. Much as Cake refuses to make any kind of music but deadpan rock, lettuce pretty much refuses to do anything but be salad. Sure, you can put it in sandwiches or wraps, but good luck dispensing of an entire head that way before it rots. And though some brave souls have experimented with cooking lettuce, I doubt any of them have come away happy. Hot, wilted, watery lettuce is the definition of unappetizing.

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

So salad it is, from now to the end of time. Happily, there are many things that can take a green salad from mediocrity to excellence, among them a salad spinner (which will let you wash and dry your lettuce without getting water all over your kitchen or wasting bundles of paper towels) and flavorful add-ins (avocado, nuts, fruit, cheese, etc.). But the one absolutely non-negotiable component of a lettuce-based salad—besides the lettuce, of course—is homemade dressing.

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Now, I am not a home-cooking fundamentalist who believes that homemade foods are always preferable to their packaged counterparts. But homemade vinaigrette is always better than bottled, in large part because vinaigrette manufacturers can’t seem to resist putting godawful quantities of sugar (and sometimes water) in their product. What’s more, homemade vinaigrette is so absurdly easy that using bottled dressing in its stead is a crime against reasonableness.

Here is what you will need: Oil, vinegar or lemon juice, salt, and pepper. The pepper is optional. So is everything else. You can add a little of virtually any edible thing to vinaigrette: onion or shallot, garlic or ginger, herbs or spices, miso or soy sauce, yogurt or sour cream, nuts or nut butter, mustard or horseradish, honey or sugar, anchovies or capers. How much you add depends on your palate. As a rule of thumb, start with ½ teaspoon of a supplemental ingredient per ⅓ cup of oil, then taste and add more if necessary. If you add too much, just add more oil or vinegar to balance out the flavor. You’d have to try really hard to mess up here.

As far as equipment goes, you have several options. The old-fashioned way is to put the vinegar in a bowl with the salt and pepper (and any add-ins, minced) and add the oil very slowly as you whisk vigorously. An easier way is to put all the ingredients in a blender and blend for about 10 seconds—but the ease is not worth the cleanup: Washing the various parts of a blender is a hassle, especially when they’re coated in an oily film. You can also put everything in a jar, screw on the lid, and shake vigorously, but this method results in a thinner, less cohesive vinaigrette.

The best of all worlds is an immersion blender, which turns your ingredients into a thick emulsion without exhausting your deltoids or making your blender grimy. (Is You’re Doing It Wrong in danger of turning Brow Beat into an immersion blender fan blog? Perhaps. But that doesn't mean it’s not the best tool for making vinaigrette.)

The way I like to make vinaigrette is with lemon juice (which naturally tastes fresher than any vinegar), soy sauce (which softens the acidity of the lemon), mustard (whose sharpness is just perfect in vinaigrette), and garlic (which makes everything taste better). It’s good enough to make quick work of any amount of lettuce before that stubborn vegetable goes bad.

Green Salad With Soy-Garlic Vinaigrette
Yield: 4 servings
Time: 10 minutes

⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
Salt and black pepper
1 small head lettuce, trimmed and cut or torn into 1- to 2-inch pieces

1. Put the oil, lemon juice, soy sauce, mustard, and garlic in a small bowl, glass measuring cup, or mug; season with salt and pepper. Process with an immersion blender until the garlic is minced and the mixture is thick and smooth, 15 to 20 seconds. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

2. Put the lettuce in a salad bowl, drizzle with the vinaigrette, and toss to coat. Serve immediately.

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