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5 Basic Elements of Homemade Salad Dressing

How to Make Homemade Salad Dressing - The Messy Baker

People roll their eyes when they hear I make my own salad dressing. From their reaction you’d think I was weaving my own linen or milling my own wheat. But homemade salad dressing is one of those ludicrously simple items that provides a suspiciously high return on your investment. Think of it as the Ponzi scheme of the culinary world — only no one gets hurt.

Homemade salad dressing takes all of 2 minutes, requires no specialized equipment and can be fine-tuned to suit any palate. Not only is it as low-sodium as you choose, it costs less than the gourmet dressings in the grocery store.

Homemade Salad Dressing

Whether you want a simple vinaigrette or creamy variation, all dressings come down to these 5 elements:

  1. Oil:  Don’t use that $35 bottle of extra virgin olive oil you picked up at the specialty shop. The high end oils are usually for finishing and the delicate qualities will get lost. Instead, use a good quality olive oil or neutral-tasting alternative like canola, grapeseed or safflower. Combined with a bit of sesame oil or nut oil, you’ve got an dressing you won’t find in the store.  How much oil do you need? Traditionally, the oil to acid ratio is 3 to 1, but I prefer an equal mix.
  2. Acid: The go-to vinegars are balsamic, red wine and white wine. Want a change of pace? Try champagne or sherry vinegar. Alternatively, you can substitute some or all of the vinegar with freshly squeezed lemon juice. A splash of lime juice goes well with citrus-based salads.
  3. Sweet: To take the edge off the acid, add a touch of sugar. Ordinary white sugar will do, but you’ll add more flavour with honey, maple syrup, apple juice, frozen orange juice concentrate or even jam.
  4. Salt: A generous pinch or two is usually enough. If salt tolerances vary at your table, season individual servings with finishing salt.
  5. Aromatics: Minced fresh herbs, shallots, citrus rind, black pepper and/or garlic aren’t mandatory but add flavour and variety. Common salad herbs include basil, thyme, tarragon, cilantro, mint, parsley and dill. Mix and match as you please.

Mix and Pour

To make your dressing, combine all the ingredients in a small mason jar with tight fitting lid and shake. If using a small bowl, whisk the oil into the other ingredients. Store any unused dressing in the refrigerator.

Fine Tuning

Before serving, sample a bit of dressing on a piece of lettuce and, if necessary, adjust according. Here are some quick fixes to common issues.

  • Find garlic too intense? Don’t add garlic directly to the mix. Instead, crush a clove with the flat of a knife to release some of the juices. Drop the clove in the oil reserved for the salad dressing and shake to incorporate the juices. After 5 to 10 minutes, remove the clove and use the gently flavoured oil in the dressing.
  • If you don’t like the oil to separate, a bit of mustard will help emulsify the dressing.
  • Creamy dressing more your style? Add a bit of mayonnaise or use buttermilk as a base.
  • Add heat with a bit of curry paste or oil infused with dried chilies.

Top This

Of course, you can always go to town with the extras. Sweet, salty, spicy or crunchy, almost anything tops a salad. Though sadly, this is one dish where chocolate chips fail to make an appreciable difference.

Best toppings:

  • strong cheese, grated or crumbled
  • bacon bits
  • dried fruit
  • fresh fruit slices
  • nuts – toasted, spiced or candied
  • toasted seeds

Still need some inspiration? This maple dressing goes beautifully with fresh greens and candied nuts. Homemade ranch dressing goes well on baby spinach with bacon bits. What’s your favourite flavour combination?

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41 Responses to 5 Basic Elements of Homemade Salad Dressing

  1. Cheryl May 10, 2010 at 3:23 pm #

    This is a great primer, and I agree with everything you wrote except the offhand dismissal of chocolate chips. (OK, fine, I agree with that part, too, though begrudgingly.)

    My favorite unique salad addition is instant croutons. I tear up whatever bread we have lying around (last week it was challah) in large chunks, spritz it with olive oil spray, and set it in a moderate oven while I make the rest of the salad. A few minutes later, it’s sufficiently dried out enough to qualify as a rustic crouton. AND it gets my kids to eat tons more salad!
    .-= Cheryl´s last blog ..Fantasy =-.

    • Charmian Christie May 11, 2010 at 9:21 am #

      @Cheryl, love the instant crouton idea. I never have them on hand (I will eat them as a snack) but this sounds like the perfect solution.

      And thanks for backing me up on the chocolate chip front. It was tough to put out there.

  2. The Diva on a Diet May 10, 2010 at 3:52 pm #

    What a spectacular post, Charmian! So many great tips in here, I don’t even know where to start. Love it!

    I must say, I’m happy to see your preference for an equal ratio of oil to acid. That’s my pref. too and I always thought I was breaking the rules! ;)
    .-= The Diva on a Diet´s last blog ..Spicy Sweet Potato and Tomato Soup from The South Beach Diet Super Quick Cookbook =-.

    • Charmian Christie May 11, 2010 at 9:24 am #

      @The Diva on a Diet, it took me a while to work out the ratio I like best. I suspect most people lean this way without knowing it since my homemade dressings are always popular and the only real trick is reducing the amount of oil.

      Glad you found the post helpful.

  3. The Diva on a Diet May 10, 2010 at 3:53 pm #

    Oops forgot to answer … I’m a Ranch kinda girl – the dressing, not an actual ranch – so that’s my fave. Now I’m off to check out your recipe for it. Yay!
    .-= The Diva on a Diet´s last blog ..Spicy Sweet Potato and Tomato Soup from The South Beach Diet Super Quick Cookbook =-.

    • Charmian Christie May 11, 2010 at 9:25 am #

      @The Diva on a Diet, you and Andrew have a lot in common. Scotch, ranch dressing… If you ever come for dinner I’ll know what to serve!

  4. Jill U Adams May 10, 2010 at 5:56 pm #

    Thank you, Charmian!

    I have made my own dressing before, but always felt like I was on wiggly ground somehow. Nice to have some not-too-strict guidelines in mind…

    • Charmian Christie May 11, 2010 at 9:27 am #

      @Jill U Adams, glad you found the post useful. I’ve been winging salad dressing for a while and find it quite liberating. I hope you enjoy homemade dressing more often, not. Feel free to share any tricks you learn along the way!

  5. Dressing May 10, 2010 at 11:01 pm #

    Dressing is a part of our pesonallity os make a febulous dressing for dashing personallity

    • Charmian Christie May 11, 2010 at 9:29 am #

      @Dressing, you’re right. Salad dressing is an easy way to express your personality. I’m feeling rather spicy today, so some chili peppers might work their way into the mix…

      • jeff October 14, 2010 at 3:21 am #

        @Charmian Christie, mam, can i you something? whats is the 5 international dressing? please email me your answer….this is my email(naniekoh_jeff@yahoo.com) thank you…

  6. Lisa MacColl May 11, 2010 at 5:29 pm #

    You inspired me. I blogged about you today.
    http://lisamaccoll.blogspot.com/2010/05/reasons-why-ill-never-be-chef.html

    • Charmian Christie May 18, 2010 at 12:02 pm #

      @Lisa MacColl, thanks for the mention. I appreciate the support.

  7. Jessica May 16, 2010 at 6:11 pm #

    I agree totally with you! Making your own salad dressing is so easy…and delicious! Plus, I find myself eating salad more often b/c I don’t want my creamy (no preservatives thank you) salad dressing to go to waste!

    • Charmian Christie February 20, 2011 at 10:45 am #

      Sorry I missed your comment. I agree with you totally. And I must confess, that I eat salad mainly for the dressing. The beauty of homemade is I can vary it endlessly and never get bored.

  8. gardengirl May 17, 2010 at 10:18 am #

    my go-to salad dressing is olive oil, RICE VINEGAR, and a little balsamic. So. Ridiculously. Tasty. … I have to restrain myself from eating it straight instead of putting it on my salad.

    ratios as such:
    1/2 oil
    1/3 rice vinegar
    1/6 balsamic*
    then season to taste

    *substitute with grapefruit juice for a really summery fresh salad topper!

    • Charmian Christie May 18, 2010 at 12:04 pm #

      @gardengirl, rice vinegar is another great ingredient. Love the idea of using grapefruit juice. I make a salad with grapefruit segments so why not put the juice in the dressing. Thanks so much for sharing this recipe. I’ll have to give it a try soon.

  9. Carrie May 18, 2010 at 12:18 pm #

    I too find the 3:1 oil-vinegar ratio a little much, since you can end with 1/4 cup (or more) of oil in your dressing, however, I also find a 1:1 ratio to acidic.
    My solution: add a bit of fruit juice, broth, or even water. It helps to balance the dressing, without adding too much fat.

    • Charmian Christie May 19, 2010 at 1:44 pm #

      Good point, Carrie. My 1:1 ration includes a bit of juice so I guess it’s more a 2:1 ratio.

      Never tried broth, only juice. I’ll have to give that a try!

  10. Matteheous @ Menu Musings May 21, 2010 at 3:50 pm #

    And here I thought my grandmother was the only one who did this! I should start doing this, too…When I was in college I switched from ranch dressing to vinigrette (mostly because the salad bar was the only place I trusted in the Crapateria!)–it not only makes a difference in taste, but also in calories!

  11. Brigette January 20, 2011 at 10:35 pm #

    Thanks, I’m on the Candida diet so I can’t have store bought dressing. I’ll try the oil recipe and hopefully will be able to eat salad happily rather than because I have to:)

    • Charmian Christie January 21, 2011 at 10:07 am #

      @Brigette, oh, candida is no fun. If I remember correctly vinegars are off your list, but you can go to town with lemon or lime juice.

      Play with the ratios to find what tastes good to you. I think fresh herbs make a HUGE difference and use them liberally. Here’s a link to me making salad dressing on TV. Hope it gives you some added ideas.

      http://christiescorner.com/2010/08/20/peach-and-arugula-salad/

      Hope you can enjoy a delicious salad again soon.

  12. Cheri February 19, 2011 at 1:57 pm #

    I stumbled upon your site today while looking for a homemade ranch dressing. I’m so glad I did!! My 5 yr old son and my husband both prefer ranch on their salads and I was out. After using your recipe and realizing how easy it is to make my own dressing, I doubt I will ever buy store-bought dressing again. The guys loved it and so did I. I used light sour cream and it was still wonderful. I love that it doesn’t contain any of the “junk” like MSG. Thanks so much for a great recipe!

    • Charmian Christie February 20, 2011 at 10:43 am #

      My husband is a ranch dressing fan, too. I developed this in sheer desperation because, like you, I hated the MSG and artificial preservatives.

      I’m so glad you like the recipe. Homemade salad dressing is so easy to make I’m sorry I didn’t discover this earlier in life!

      Enjoy your greens!

  13. Ed June 6, 2011 at 10:57 pm #

    Nice practical and thoughtful info with maybe with a touch of pretty but not dwelling on it. Emphasis on convenience, economy, nutrition, taste, and fundamentals….way to go!
    Question: I make a lot of Good Seasons Ranch dressing from the little packets along with buttermilk and Smart Balance mayonaise. It comes out good but why do they have to charge so much for their little packet of spices? What are the main things in it?

    • Charmian Christie June 7, 2011 at 9:20 am #

      The basic rule of convenience foods: The less you do, the more you pay. Spice packets are pre-mixed and pre-measured for you, therefore they are more expensive than if you bought the individual spices and measured them yourself.

      I’m not sure what’s in the spice packets but here in Canada, by law, the manufacturers must print the ingredients on the label. Since ingredients are listed in the order of their proportion in the product, you can quickly figure out spices are used and create your own version at home. Here’s my recipe for Homemade Ranch Dressing. Maybe it will give you some ideas for your own version. Have fun experimenting.

  14. KOKO SAAR June 17, 2011 at 9:29 am #

    Hi Charmian,
    I am teaching 32 grade 6′s to make a meal, and one of the “stations” is a homemade salad dressing… can I reproduce your article about “5 basic elements…” on the back of my instructions to inspire further creativity? THANKS!
    Sincerely,
    Mrs. Koko Saar
    Mississauga, Ontario, Canada

    • Charmian Christie June 17, 2011 at 9:50 am #

      Yes, yes, yes. A million times yes. If it gets just one child turned onto homemade food I feel I’ve done something worthwhile. Teaching your students to make a meal is a fabulous idea. I love that you are starting them early. We didn’t get anything like this until Home Ec in Grade 7 and that was only for the girls.

      I’ve emailed you privately but wanted to post here so others would know my answer.

      Thanks for asking permission to reproduce copyrighted work, but even more so, thanks for teaching the next generation how to take control of their kitchen. Please let us know who things went. I’d love to hear back on what the kids thought.

  15. Mary Burry September 19, 2011 at 5:55 am #

    HI Christie, As a born and bred Canadian who now lives in rural Kenya, finding products (like salad dressing) that I was used to eating at home is a challenge sometimes. I am so glad I came across your site. Just by a quick scan of the ingredients, I am pretty sure I can find everything. Can you substitute dried herbs if you can’t get the fresh ??

    • Charmian Christie September 19, 2011 at 9:07 am #

      You can use dry herbs, but they might take a bit longer to infuse their flavours. Oregano, thyme, tarragon and rosemary should work well. I’ve never found dried basil to be worth it, though. Just use about a third of what you would with fresh since dried herbs tend to be more intense.

      I’m betting you’ll have herbs in Kenya we’ve never heard of here, so play with those. The 5 basic elements are very flexible so I’m sure you’ll come up with some amazing dressings based on local ingredients. Good luck with your salad adventures!

  16. Platnex October 13, 2011 at 1:36 pm #

    Wonderful post, just what I have been looking for.

    I am a 23 year old who up till 2 weeks ago weighed 235 pounds and I have been finding tasty dressings nigh on impossible to find that are not loaded with msg, sat fat and salt so I am very much looking forward to trying this.

    Would you hqve any suggestions on decent foods to eat? I am not following any diet but I am keeping my calorie count below 1600 a day and exercising daily and I also have no alergys to name aside for an extreme dislike of mushrooms.

    Thank you very much.

    • Charmian Christie October 15, 2011 at 11:00 pm #

      I’m sure you’ll love homemade salad dressing! I rarely make the same version twice in a row and find I can taste the chemicals in bargain bottle brands.

      As for food suggestions? I’m not a nutritionist or dietician. To cover my butt I should tell you to see a doctor before starting ANY diet. You’re an adult. You don’t need me being a mother.

      What I can share is my personal philosophy. Everything in moderation (allergies are exceptions) and make as much as you can from scratch so you know what you’re eating. Lots of fruits and vegetables and whole grains with moderate amounts of meat / fat / dairy will keep your diet balanced and your taste buds from getting bored. I have a category entitled “Healthy Choices” which you can check out to see if anything appeals. If you’re new to healthy eating Mairlyn Smith’s Healthy Starts Here is a good one to check out as she gives lots of good information and is very funny. She also has great recipes.

      I also believe that you should stop eating when you feel full and eat when you feel hungry. Others may disagree, but I think our bodies know best — if we listen to them.

      All the best with your new eating approach (notice how I danced about the word “diet”).

  17. Jerri January 8, 2013 at 8:28 am #

    I have had the same response from friends about making my own dressing.
    Your ideas are quite helpful as it is easy to get in a rut when you get stuck on
    a favorite recipe.
    I am glad to have found your site.
    Thanks!

    • Charmian Christie January 11, 2013 at 1:12 pm #

      I’m glad you found my site, too. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.

      I get stuck on balsamic vinaigrette myself. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

      Hope you can convince your friends of the virtues of homemade salad dressing. It’s remarkably easy! And so much tastier than the commercial versions.

  18. Dee January 22, 2013 at 7:30 am #

    Thanks so much for a nicely worded, user-friendly and idea-laden article! And some great ideas in the responses too (love the crouton idea). This page is now firmly stored in my cooking folder!

  19. cindy February 10, 2013 at 2:33 pm #

    looking for a salad dressing that just uses olive oil and herbs. I have a family member with severe food allergies to nuts, dairy, vinegar, citrus (and can only use Stevia as a sweetener) and most dressings contain one or more of those. Olive oil with just salt and pepper is getting old fast! Any helpful suggestions as to combinations of herbs to add would be appreciated.

    • Charmian Christie February 10, 2013 at 8:59 pm #

      Herb combinations that work well for salad dressings tend to use tender herbs — think dill, cilantro, basil, oregano, marjoram, mint, parsley and tarragon. Of course there are hundreds more but you unless you grow them yourself, they are hard to find. Rosemary and sage tend to be too overpowering. If you can, add chives, green onions and shallots can also add aromatics. Since you can’t have citrus, see if you can find lemon verbana at a garden centre and grow some this summer. It’s the most lemony herb and might help provide the lift of citrus without causing dietary issues. In the meantime, dried sumac (I have found it in the Black Label section at Zehrs/Loblaws) is another lemony-tasting spice that you might like.

      Fresh herbs make all the difference with salad dressing. Starting with the herbs you can find at most supermarkets, here are classic pairings. They should all go with olive oil and work with a green salad. Try a combination of two or three (or more) to add interest.

      • Basil pairs with cilantro, marjoram, oregano, mint and parsley.
      • Tarragon (used sparingly) works with dill, basil and parsley.
      • Dill goes with bail, mustard, and parsley. Add a pinch of dried paprika if you can.
      • Mint loves basil, cumin, dill, marjoram, oregano, parsley and thyme (especially lemon thyme).
      • Oregano combines with basil, chili, cumin, garlic, and parsley.

      Play with combinations. Add some dry spices like paprika, coriander, chili, and sumac. If you can, try growing some interesting herbs this summer (even in a window box). Mint now comes in chocolate, ginger, cinnamon, pineapple and lime. You might be able to relieve some of the boredom with these new herbs.

      All the best with your salad dressing. If you find a combination you especially like, I’d love to hear about it. I’m sure you’re not the only one with these dietary restrictions.

  20. Margaret August 17, 2013 at 2:52 am #

    Last day before shopping and not much in the fridge, but I made a very nice tasting dressing tonight using your wonderful suggestions. I served the following over wilted spinach and red pepper with toasted sunflower seeds:

    Safflower mayonnaise, honey, lime juice, and Bragg’s Liquid Aminos (just a touch).

    Thank you so much! We’re on a budget between jobs, and your list was just what I needed.

    • Charmian Christie August 17, 2013 at 11:52 am #

      Your dressing sounds delicious. Lime and honey are a wonderful combination. I heard about/tried Bragg’s Liquid Aminos only last week. Clever to use it in salad dressing.

      I’m thrilled to hear you liked the results and that the suggestions helped to keep you on budget. Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment and share your clever “in a pinch” dressing.

      • Margaret August 18, 2013 at 7:22 pm #

        Thank you,Charmain. You’ve removed the chore to making homemade salad dressing, and goodbye to store bought!

        • Charmian Christie August 20, 2013 at 11:28 pm #

          Margaret, you just made my day! Hope you experiment with flavours. I’ve been making homemade dressing for youears and haven’t looked back!

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