Dressings make a salad shine, by adding flavor elements that support or contrast the flavor profile of the other ingredients. They’re simple enough to make, as they’re composed of only a few ingredients, but sometimes they can just seem…off. Too something. Too sour or too sweet, too thick or not thick enough. To ease your quest for the perfect dressing, we’ve got some tips on how to make a truly stellar salad dressing, or how to fix one with a case of the blahs.
Good dressing is a balancing act between acidity, oil, and the grace notes that tie all the ingredients together. A classic ratio for salad dressing calls for a ratio of 60% oil, 30% acid, and 10% other flavors.
The world of flavor is divided into categories: sour, sweet, salty, bitter, spice, and umami. You knew that. But there’s more beneath the surface; these flavors are always working with and balancing against each other.
Acidity is a key component of dressing, cutting through the thickness of oil. Most commonly, citrus juices and vinegar are used for this purpose. White vinegar has a pure and sometimes overwhelming bite, but rice vinegar, apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, champagne and balsamic vinegar all offer their own unique acid and flavors. Lemon juice is a complement to almost any flavor profile, while orange juice might be used when a touch of sweetness is wanted also, and limes sing with peanuts and cold noodles.
Sourness can also be used to balance out excess sweetness and spice, as in a spicy curry that is cooled by a dollop of sour yogurt. Fermented or pickled vegetables have an acidity to them, as well, as do tomatoes; the juice left over from cutting tomatoes, or drained from a jar of canned tomatoes, is a wonderful salad dressing base. The brine that fermented vegetables pickle in adds both salty and sour notes. A dressing that has become too acidic can be balanced out by the addition of creamy ingredients such as tahini, avocado, or peanut butter, depending on the flavors that you’re working with.
Bitterness is not always something that we think about as desirable in food, but it too has a role to play. Salads composed of endive, radicchio, kale, or dandelion often have both salt and sweetness in the dressing to balance the bitter. But sometimes a touch of bitterness is desirable in a dressing, as a secret ingredient that may just make a dressing. A dash of cocktail bitter adds depth and interest to a dressing, and grapefruit juice is an excellent blend of bitter, sour, and sweet. Citrus zests, like lemon, lime, and even orange are often used to bring flavor with a touch of bitterness.
Spices can liven up a dressing that has a case of the blahs. It can come from black pepper, jalapenos, grated horseradish, hot sauce, garlic, wasabi, and mustard, depending on the level of heat desired and the other ingredients in play. Spice cabinet staples such as chipotle powder and red pepper flakes are welcome additions as well. Vegetable ingredients such as minced arugula, leaf mustards. and raw radish also add a spicy bite. Raw herbs, such as basil, tarragon, sage, rosemary, summer and winter savory, mint, lemon balm and lemon verbena all add intense bits of flavor and spice to a dressing; consider them chopped super-fine and added to the dressing, or torn and scattered as a topping on the salad.
It’s easy to correct a dressing that isn’t salty enough by adding salty ingredients such as capers, miso, anchovies, or a hard grating cheese. But it is also easy to over-salt a dressing, especially when shaking white stuff from a shaker. One solution might be to add more acid and oil, essentially diluting the salt but not making more dressing in the process. That’s fair game, but you might also consider adding something sweet to balance out a bit of harsh salt flavor, or to complement a salty ingredient that is dominating the dressing. Honey or maple syrup, particularly, counteract the bite of excess salt and add a silkiness that rounds out the flavors. Saltiness balances bitterness while enhancing sweetness. That’s why Karla often adds a pinch of salt to a sweet preserve, to bring out the full depth of sweet fruit flavors, and why a strongly bitter leaf, like radicchio, needs an assertive dash of something salty to stand up to it.
Fixing a broken dressing. Sometimes, adding too much oil too quickly, instead of slowly incorporating oil into the acid and flavor base, will cause the oil to pool at the top and no emulsification will happen. Thus, a broken dressing.
You can avoid this by using the proper tools and paying attention to your ratios. For most dressings, a large mixing bowl and a whisk, or a blender work best. Avoid using a blender for olive oil based dressings as the rapid mixing will cause the oil to oxidize and turn bitter. A squeeze bottle or a mason jar with the lid secured works well when giving a good shake to mix and emulsify the dressing properly.
If you already have a broken dressing, you can try this method to remedy it. Create a smaller, new batch of your emulsion, then whisk the broken batch into it the new batch.
This can be done by placing a teaspoon of your acid in a clean bowl and adding a small amount of the broken emulsion, whisking quickly to form another, stable emulsion. Once that emulsion forms, slowly pour in the rest of your broken dressing, whisking constantly.
A whisk can be your best friend.
Try some of these ideas next time your dressing seems to need a little pizzaz!
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