My flatmate doesn’t get salad dressings. Great cook though he is, he just can’t be bothered with them. He’ll julienne peppers to within a (quarter) inch of their lives, but when it comes to dressing them, he looks a little helplessly towards the storecupboard until I invariably take over.
I’m pretty sure this inability stems not from a lack of talent, but from a lack of interest. After all, whisking up a salad dressing isn’t exactly the most glamorous of tasks in the kitchen. There’s no flambéing or elaborate pastry-work needed. But I still don’t understand the reticence. For me, salad dressings are probably the most important component of a salad – a collection of simple, unassuming ingredients that can transform even the most depressing lettuce leaf into something memorable and delicious.
A mustard sharp vinaigrette on a little gem lettuce, a salted lemon and dill infusion with cucumber, the honeyed sweetness of balsamic and wholegrain on a ripe tomato – if food’s success is reliant on its balance of flavour, then these combinations are right up there. And the beauty of a well-made dressing is that it also balances the rest of the meal. A slow-cooked pork belly, melting and rich might leave you feeling over-indulged, but add a sharp, bitter salad to it and suddenly the flavours come together.
Like everything with cooking, there are some rules you have to adhere to, in order to achieve success. The first holds true for everything – always season it! I am never without Maldon, but any good sea salt will do, and just a small pinch will lift your dressing hugely.
The basic ratio I use for vinaigrettes (ie, vinegar, mustard and oil) is equal quantities of vinegar and mustard, and about 2-3 times as much oil, then sugar or honey to taste. Always mix the vinegar and mustard together well with the sweetener before slowly whisking in the oil – this will give you that gorgeously thick emulsion you’re aiming for.
- A classic French vinaigrette, made with Dijon mustard, white wine vinegar, sugar and oil (not extra virgin). Add finely chopped shallots to this and you’re pretty near perfection.
- Natural yogurt mixed with a couple of tsps of harissa, chopped mint and lemon. Works brilliantly with salads to go with middle Eastern dishes
- A Vietnamese dressing with fish sauce, fresh lime and rice vinegar. The quantities are pretty specific, so click here.
- Balsamic, wholegrain mustard, honey and extra virgin olive oil. This is my go to for all Italian dishes, and is an absolute winner with basil.
So tonight, don’t reach for that sacrilegious bottle of ready-made stuff in the back of your fridge, get your oils and vinegars out and whip up a saucy frenzy. It may not be Blumenthal, but that doesn’t mean it’s not brilliant.
Click here for more salad ideas.