One of the easiest ways to eat healthy food that’s quick to prepare is to make salads. Unfortunately, I often hear complaints that salads are bland or assembling them creates a mess.
Did you know one of the major culprits leading to lackluster salads is a crummy salad dressing?
While salad dressings seem simple, there are many ways to screw them up if you don’t understand the basics of salad dressing.
What if you could fix or eliminate these problems with the right knowledge?
This article covers the most common salad dressing mistakes and how you can make the best salads at home.
1: My salad dressing tastes too sour
In the low-fat world, it’s common to think that eating fats are bad. This often leads to adding as little oil or fat to the salad dressing as possible.
The classic vinaigrette has a ratio of 3:1 oil to acid, which means 3 parts oil to 1 part acid.
For example, for 750 ml of olive oil, you add 250 ml of balsamic vinegar to create 1 L of salad dressing.
TIP: Experiment with the classic 3:1 fat-to-acid ratio to find your favorite ratio. It could be 2:1 for a tangier salad or 4:1 if you want just a hint of brightness.
When non-fat thinking enters the picture, you might make salad dressing that flips the ratio backwards to 1 part oil for 3 parts acid.
PROBLEM: This leads to very acidic salad dressings and ultimately sour salads.
Imagine every bite of leafy green tastes like you’re sucking on a lemon. Tasty?
SOLUTION: Add more oil to balance out the acid. Add a pinch of sugar, which reduces the bite in the acid.
2: My salad dressing tastes too sweet
A major reason for making salad dressing at home is to avoid the highly processed store-bought bottles. A bit of sugar does wonders to balance a salad dressing that’s too acidic. But you can accidentally add too much.
PROBLEM: Too much sugar in salad dressing makes it less healthy. You also risk losing the refreshing brightness that acid brings to salad dressing, turning lettuce into a sugary mess.
SOLUTION: Just like seasoning salt to taste, taste your salad dressing before adding any sugar. Sprinkle a bit of sugar and taste as you go (I typically add ¼ or ½ teaspoon at a time depending on how much dressing I’m making).
Most salad dressings benefit from different forms of sugar. Try maple syrup, honey, coconut sugar, and fruit juices, which add unique flavors that boring white granulated sugar doesn’t have.
NOTE: If you’re making a fruit salad or dessert salad, it could make sense to use more sugar in your dressing. That said, your salad probably has sweet foods like fruits, marshmallows, and candy or chocolates. In this case, a tangy dressing that’s not overly sweet still works better.
3: My salad dressing tastes too salty
Salad dressing often tastes salty because it will be spread across a big plate of vegetables. But you can also accidentally add too much salt.
PROBLEM: Too salty salad dressing tastes yuck and forces you to reach for water.
4: My salad dressing is bland
Salad dressing is often bland because you’ve missed the opportunity to add the 3rd optional component to salads: seasonings, aromatics, and flavorings.
PROBLEM: You’re dissatisfied with oil (fat) and vinegar (acid) alone. Your salad dressings taste bland, and you pining for the flavors of store-bought dressing.
SOLUTION: Make sure you’re adding enough salt to your salad dressings. A lot of times, we taste dressing on its own. But it’s best to taste the salad dressing mixed with your vegetables (base) as the dressing won’t be so salty when it’s mixed into other ingredients.
Once you’re sure there’s enough salt, add in herbs, spices, and aromatics to boost the flavors in your dressing. Here are common flavorings you can add:
- Fresh or dried herbs: Basil, cilantro, thyme, dill, oregano, herbes de provence, tarragon, mint, rosemary, sage, rosemary, parsley
- Spices: Fresh ground black pepper, red pepper flakes, freshly grated ginger, mustard seed, fennel, cumin, celery seeds, anise, paprika, poppy seed, cloves
- Aromatics: Minced onion, shallots, garlic, green onion, chives
- Flavored oils: Sesame oil, olive oil, Sichuan peppercorn oil, infused oils (e.g., chili oil, garlic oil, etc.)
- Creamy mix-ins: Peanut butter, almond butter, other nut butters, tahini, blue cheese, buttermilk, yogurt, mayonnaise, crème fraîche, cheese (like Parmigiano-Reggiano)
- Natural sugars: Honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, palm sugar, molasses, agave nectar
- Citrus & fruits: Lemon, orange, lime, grapefruit juice, fruit jam, crushed berries (raspberries, blackberries)
- Umami-packed flavorings: Soy sauce, anchovies, puréed shiitake mushrooms
5: My salad dressing is too watery
PROBLEM: Unless you’re setting out to make a water-based salad dressing, a thin dressing makes your salad taste disappointing.
When you’re aiming for a luxurious creamy mouthfeel, a watery dressing is disappointing. It will struggle to adhere to the leafy greens and leave you wanting a thicker dressing.
The most common reasons I accidentally make a watery salad dressing are:
- Too much vinegar, not enough oil
- Not enough emulsifiers to stabilize the repelling oil-water mixture.
- The emulsion is broken
An emulsion happens when you mix 2 or more liquids that don’t want to be mixed. In the context of sauces, a vinaigrette is the classic emulsion. Your job is to find a way to mix oil and water (vinegar), which naturally want to separate.
What happens if you don’t mix them? You’ll end up with oil on top of your salad and the vinegar falling to the bottom.
Some pieces of salad will be coated in oil and other pieces will have vinegar. You’ll miss out on the combined flavors and textures that a well-made salad dressing should provide.
NOTE: Some salad dressings are designed to be watery, such as this Chinese cucumber salad dressing. But if your salad dressing is supposed to be creamy and the oil and acid are separating, that’s a problem. Read on to learn how to emulsify your dressing to fix the problem.
Emulsifiers are special ingredients that help you mix oil and water. They keep the vinaigrette stable so that the liquids don’t separate.
Lucky for you, there are a lot of natural emulsifiers in the kitchen that you can add to your salad dressing.
Here’s a list of the most common emulsifiers that are probably in your kitchen right now (from most to less potent emulsifier):
- Egg yolks (thanks to lecithin in egg yolk)
- Mustard (seed)
NOTE: You may have heard of more industrial emulsifiers, including carrageenan, guar gum, mono- and diglycerides, polysorbates, and xanthan gum. Here’s a list from the FDA of common emulsifiers added to food. You don’t have to use these hard-to-find ingredients. Try egg yolks or Dijon mustard.
SOLUTION: If you’re confident that you have a solid ratio of oil/fat to water, make sure you have an emulsifier in your salad dressing to help the oil and water mix.
Another way you can emulsify a vinaigrette (and what most vinaigrette recipes rely on) is by manually whipping or shaking the liquids together until they form an even mixture.
The most common way I mix oil and water is by shaking the salad dressing ingredients together until they form a rich creamy sauce. This is a great solution if you don’t want to add an emulsifier to your vinaigrette.
TIP: Shake or whisk your dressing before applying it to your salad to ensure the salad dressing is smooth in consistency. Another tip is to begin adding a slow drizzle of oil to your vinegar while whisking. Once you get a creamy blended mixture, you can begin to add the oil faster. Once you have an emulsion going, it’s easier to keep it stabilized, and the more oil you add, the thicker your salad dressing will be.
6: Not getting started
PROBLEM: Now that you know all these different ways to make salad dressing and the pitfalls to avoid, there’s only 1 mistake you could make: always buying store-bought salad dressing.
Since salad dressing doesn’t need to be fancy, you can prepare a homemade salad dressing faster than you could go out to buy a premade salad or bottled dressing.
SOLUTION: When you’re in doubt, start with the simple 3-parts olive oil and 1-part balsamic vinegar. Add a pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper to the vinegar before whisking in the oil, and you’re ready to go