Saturday, March 27, 2010

Homemade "Bottled" Dressing

Making your own salad dressings is a great way to avoid buying icky bottled dressings full of weird ingredients and preservatives, and making them in bulk is a great way to encourage yourself to eat more salads, because who hasn't been in a situation when they know they should eat a salad, but they don't because they don't have any dressing?  I have definitely done that...

My family never bought salad dressing growing up--the whole concept was totally foreign to me until college, when of course the cafeteria salad bars would feature scary pink "raspberry vinaigrette" and thick, gelatinous white "ranch."  We were definitely not a ranch dressing kind of family!  Once I started living on my own I did buy a few bottled dressings, because I thought, hey, this is cheap and convenient!  But I am forced to admit, most of those bottles are still sitting in my fridge, barely used, and I didn't graduate all that recently, despite what I tell myself.  (What, I'm not 22 anymore?  Are you sure?)  Instead, I prefer to mix up my own dressings, something else I learned from my family.  I run glass peanut butter or jelly jars through the dishwasher when they're empty and mix up my dressings in those jars, which hold enough dressing for many salads.  I usually have 2 or 3 different dressings mixed at once.  To keep them straight and to remember what I put in them when it's time to make a new batch, I write the ingredients in permanent marker on the glass or lids. (Permanent marker wipes off instantly with a little bit of nail polish remover on a cotton ball if you want to reassign your jars, too).

Some of my favorite salad dressings are:

EVOO + balsamic vinegar + grainy Dijon + S & P to taste.

EVOO + lemon juice + regular Dijon + S & P + a drop of agave nectar (or sugar) to taste

EVOO + lemon juice + oregano + S & P to taste

EVOO + honey mustard + water to dilute + S & P

EVOO+ apple cider vinegar + Dijon + maple syrup + S & P to taste

For any dressing that involves mustard, it's best to mix your mustard and acid together (either vinegar or lemon juice), and then slowly drizzle in the EVOO while whisking constantly.  If you whisk enough, you will get a thick, creamy dressing that you may even have to dilute with a tiny bit of water.  Then add your salt and pepper.  Sometimes a little bit of sweetness can take the edge off of a strong dijon and lemon dressing--I have used both white sugar and agave nectar with success.  Dressing with a fruity vinegar and just a touch of maple syrup pairs very nicely with salads with fruits, nuts, and cheese, such as a spinach salad with granny smith apples, walnuts, and cranberries.

The key to making yummy homemade dressing that tastes SO MUCH better than anything you'll buy in a store is to get quality ingredients.  There whole point of salad dressing is to make your veggies taste yummier, and are only a few ingredients in dressing, so why make something that could taste really good taste just so-so because you buy low quality stuff?  I used to buy store brand mustard, but I realized that it's just not as good, (with the exception of the Trader Joe's brand stuff).  However, if I haven't been to TJ's in a while, I will go for Grey Poupon or Maille, both widely available, over Stop n' Shop brand, because they do taste better (to me).  For a simple honey mustard dressing, great over romaine and grilled chicken for a fast meal, I love Inglehoffer honey mustard, which is sweet but not cloying.  Another yummy twist is dijon with tarragon, which I first tried from a gourmet store, but TJ's also has their own store brand.  The tarragon adds a nice herbiness to the dressing, or you can just enhance your own regular dijon based dressings with dried or fresh tarragon.  And I've said it before, but I'll say it again: find a GOOD (affordable) EVOO, because you really taste it in dressing.  There are plenty of decent oils that don't cost too much (again, I always turn to Trader Joe's).  But, just like any ingredient, olive oil can get funky if it's been kicking around for too long (think 18-24 months, opened).  You won't necessarily see a difference in color, but it will just smell and taste off, and the last thing you want to do is coat your delicious greens and veggies with funny tasting oil.  I never let my EVOO go rancid because I just go through the stuff too darn fast, but I have encountered some funky oils in my day.  To prolong the life of any oil, buy the biggest bottle that you think you will use up in a year (obviously bigger bottles = better value, but anything that you have to chuck is an instant bad value, since you're just throwing money away), and store in a cool cupboard or pantry.

As for storing your homemade dressings, I prefer the fridge, although my dad, from whom I learned making dressings in bulk trick, leaves his out on the counter all the time.  He eats so much salad that he goes through dressing very quickly, and he's completely indifferent to proper food storage techniques to boot, so that method works for him.  For me, the fridge is best, and I simply set them out while I'm making dinner to help them come to room temperature, or I nuke them for about 10 seconds (lids removed--they're metal!) to loosen up any congealed oil, stir it up again, and I'm ready to pour.

Whew!  I had no idea I had so much to stay about salad dressing!  And I just realized I didn't address the issue of quantities--and that's because I never measure.  If I had to guess, and if I'm starting with a large jelly jar, I will add two heaping tablespoons of mustard, and then slightly more vinegar than mustard, mix those, then add two or three times more oil that vinegar.  If I'm using a sweetener, I start with just a tiny bit because I don't want the whole thing to taste sugary--it's just supposed to take the edge off.  The key to making something you will love and use is to taste as you go; once a dressing has emulsified it's fairly easy to add in more oil or vinegar or mustard, just stir well and keep tasting until you make your perfect dressing.  While none of the above dressing suggestions are groundbreakingly original, making homemade salad dressings is an easy way to enhance your salads with pure, tasty ingredients without all the extra preservatives and lower quality ingredients that show up in bottled dressings.  If you have a favorite dressing, please share it with me, because I love to try new flavor combos!

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