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15
Salad Dressing 101


Just about four years ago, Mark Bittman wrote a great piece in the New York Times; A Well-Dressed Salad Wears Only Homemade, and it got me thinkin'.  Why did salad dressings feel like such a mystery?  Why is there usually a huge amount of grocery store real estate devoted to them?  Why are they so darn expensive?

A recent peek at dressings in my grocery store upstate, showed even the cheapest dressings at around $2.50 for an 8 oz bottle, jumping to $3.59 a bottle for something just slightly more natural.  That's $40-57 a gallon--compare that to something like the price at the pump, and it feels like complete lunacy.

The other glaring issue I noticed was that sugar, often in the form of high fructose corn syrup, and WATER, frequently make up two of the first three ingredients.  Again, lunacy.

A few weeks ago I did a cooking demonstration at a local harvest festival.  Showcasing the gorgeous local produce (supplied by Beaver Dam Brook Farm in Ferndale, NY), I did a brief primer on dressings and vinaigrettes.  As I was myself when I first started cooking, many of the audience members at my cooking demos were surprised at how fast and simple it was to make a vinaigrette.  And so much less expensive while eliminating chemicals, emulsifiers, and that big dose of unnecessary sugar.  It seemed crazy that there we were, at a huge farmers' market, a group of people devoted to buying the freshest, least traveled, produce, and yet were not thinking much about then topping that produce with something that was possibly over a year old (when purchased, not to mention the time it has sat on that narrow shelf on the door of your refrigerator), gooey, syrupy, and most likely swimming with ingredients from a factory and not a farm.

So here's the basic formula:

1 part acid + about 3 parts oil + seasonings and flavoring agents

Put the acid in a bowl with the seasonings and flavoring ingredients, if using.  If you have time, allow that to sit for 5-10 minutes to better infuse the vinegar.  Then while whisking continually, pour the oil into the acid, in a slow, steady stream.  The mixture will begin to come together and emulsify.  You can also do the same, a bit quicker, with a fork for a "broken" vinaigrette.  Or make things very easy and put it in a blender, instead of a bowl, in the same order, streaming the oil in the top while the blade is going.  This works particularly well if adding fruit or vegetables for flavor.

Most commonly, extra virgin olive oil is used, but gorgeously flavored hazelnut, walnut, pumpkin seed, and avocado oils are also becoming widely available.  The acid can be lemon juice, lime juice, vinegars (balsamic, white or red wine, sherry, rice, cider) or a combination.  Season with salt and pepper, and flavor with shallot, garlic, mustard, pureed fruit or juice, honey, pureed roasted vegetables, fresh herbs, dried herbs, or ground spices.  One of my favorites is a three-ingredient vinaigrette of lemon juice, sea salt, and hazelnut oil over a green salad with roasted beets.

Experiment with some of these combinations:

olive oil + white wine vinegar + dijon mustard (just a dab), minced shallots and garlic (a classic)

grapeseed oil + rice vinegar + fresh mango (pureed in a blender), season with salt and pepper to taste

olive oil + sherry vinegar + roasted red peppers (again season and puree in a blender)

walnut oil + white wine vinegar + roasted fennel and roasted garlic

olive oil + lime juice + honey and ground cumin

or this Roasted Cherry Tomato Vinaigrette, I posted recently.

The formula is simple, it's not rocket science, you can hardly go wrong, and the options are so much more rewarding than the same-old same-old you'll find on the dusty eye-level shelf at your store.  Do yourself a huge favor, work this into your life.  Experiment, taste, and experiment some more.  Tonight.


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Catie Baumer Schwalb is a chef, food writer and photographer, who splits her life between the city and the country. Not too long ago Catie was a New York City based actress and playwright for more than a decade. She has her Master of Fine Arts from the National Theater Conservatory, and her Grand Diplôme in classic culinary arts from the French Culinary Institute in New York City. ... Read More

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