Salads 101: How to make salad dressing at home 🥗

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Do you know the basics of making salad dressing? From different types of sauces to helpful equipment to storage life, here’s a refresher on preparing salad dressing from scratch.

An illustration showing a bottle of salad dressing next to a bowl of salad with the text "How to Make Salad Dressing"Pin

Since we’ve been living on minimal- or no-cook meals after demolishing our kitchen, I’ve made plenty of different salads

Even though I’ve prepared homemade salads for years, once I began upping my salad dressing game, I realized my salads had a lot of room for improvement. 

Going back to the fundamentals helped me make salad dressings faster, tastier, and with less mess. Here are the essentials for making the best homemade salad and dressing in your kitchen. 

What’s salad dressing? 

At its core, salad dressing is a sauce you put over mixed pieces of food (usually raw vegetables) to give them flavor. Usually, salad dressing has 3 components: 

  1. fat
  2. acid
  3. (optionally) aromatics, seasonings, and flavorings

Within that framework, there’s room for creativity. You could invent a new salad dressing today. 

An illustration showing the basic formula to create a vinaigrettePin
Oils include olive oil, walnut oil, canola oil, and avocado oil.
Acids include apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, wine vinegar, and rice vinegar.
Flavorings include herbs, spices, condiments (mustard, sriracha, chili oil), fruits, and aromatics.

Different types of salad dressing

In Western cuisine, there’s 2 main types of salad dressing: 

  1. Vinaigrette: This is an emulsified sauce made from a fat and acid (most commonly oil and vinegar or citrus juice). The sauce could have seasonings, herbs, and aromatics to enhance flavor. This French Goat Cheese Salad’s dressing is an example of a vinaigrette.
  2. Creamy dressing: Creamy dressings are usually made with mayonnaise. They could also contain sour cream, yogurt, crème fraîche, buttermilk, and other fermented dairy products. Coleslaw dressing is an example of a creamy dressing. 

While most common, these 2 types of dressing aren’t the only ones.

For example, in Chinese salads (and often other Asian cuisines), salad dressings don’t have a lot of oils or fats in them. 

Asian salad dressing is water based. Instead of a large quantity of oils, the volume mostly comes from a combination of sauces like soy sauce, fish sauce, vinegar, and/or broth. 

There are usually fats and oils in Chinese salad dressing. The most common is sesame oil. But there isn’t as much oil/fat as a Western-style emulsified vinaigrette or creamy dressing. This Chinese Cucumber Salad recipe is an example of a Chinese salad dressing.

Consider trying different types of salad dressing, especially to add variety to your diet. Here’s advice on how to find a well-tested recipe

TIP: Because Asian salad dressings can be watery, the sauce may not evenly coat your salad ingredients. You can fix this problem by tossing the salad ingredients into the sauce or spooning the sauce over the ingredients before you chow down. Check out this Silken Tofu Green Onion Salad recipe as an example.

3 types of salad dressing side-by-sidePin

Salad dressing vs. vinaigrette

What’s the difference between a salad dressing and a vinaigrette? 

Vinaigrette is a type of salad dressing that’s made with oil and acid (vinegar or citrus juice). Herbs, spices, aromatics, and sweeteners are added for texture and flavor.

Vinaigrette is a French term and often used interchangeably to mean salad dressing even though vinaigrette doesn’t include creamy dressings. Vinaigrettes can also be used as marinades.

Salad dressing vs. mayonnaise

What’s the difference between a salad dressing and mayonnaise?

Mayonnaise (or mayo) is a condiment / sauce that can be used as an ingredient in a salad dressing, such as in Tuna Salad. Although mayo is made using the same process as most salad dressings (you emulsify oil, lemon juice, and egg yolk), mayonnaise by itself isn’t spread over salad greens.

Typically, other acids (like lime juice or apple cider vinegar) along with herbs and spices are added to mayonnaise to thin it out and make the dressing. 

Helpful equipment

What equipment to use could be an article on its own. Using the wrong equipment creates a huge mess, makes the process take longer, and leaves an oily residue on everything (there’s a lot of oil in vinaigrettes!) leading to more cleanup. 

Let’s touch on my favorite tools to make salad dressings faster and easier.

The minimalist approach to making salad dressing:

  • A bowl or a glass jar: If I’m making a creamy dressing with mayonnaise, a mixing bowl is the easiest vessel for holding the sauce. If I’m making a vinaigrette, a glass jar with an airtight lid is the easiest tool to make the vinaigrette because I can shake the ingredients together until they are emulsified.
    • A lid: If you’re preparing extra dressing, it’s great to have leftovers. The glass jar usually comes with a lid, so you can pop the lid back on the container and store the dressing in the fridge. For the bowl, I usually put a plate over the bowl and store the leftover sauce in the fridge (it’s good enough if you plan to use the dressing within a few days). You could also transfer the leftover dressing to a storage container before placing in the fridge.
  • Measuring cups and spoons: Useful for precision, especially if you’re a beginner. Measuring is unnecessary once you’ve made the salad dressing a few times as you’ll be able to eyeball the quantities.
  • A whisk or a fork: These tools emulsify the oil and water-based ingredients for a creamy, evenly combined sauce. (If using a glass jar with a lid, I skip the fork and shake the jar until the vinaigrette forms.) 
An illustration showing the basic tools for making salad dressingPin

Optional fancy equipment to make your life easier: 

  • Citrus juicer: This gives you an easy way to juice lemons and limes.
  • Garlic press: If you want an easy way to crush and press your garlic, onions, shallots, etc. 
  • Grater: Useful for grating cheeses, ginger, garlic, shallots, and other aromatics 
  • Blender/food processor: The power tool substitute for whisks and forks. 
  • Milk frother: An alternative to the blender with less clean up, a milk brother can emulsify your vinaigrette in no time.
  • Squeeze bottle: You can put your dressing in the bottle to shake and mix. The nozzle on the squeeze bottle also makes it easy to drizzle the dressing over the salad.
An illustration showing the fancy optional tools for making salad dressingPin

There are 2 main ways I make and store salad dressing:

  1. I mix the ingredients in a soup bowl and use a dessert plate as the lid. I spoon the dressing on top of the salad ingredients and toss everything in a big bowl to mix. This works for a minimalist olive oil and balsamic vinegar vinaigrette with salt and pepper. It’s also a good solution for mayonnaise-based dressings that require a lot of stirring to eliminate mayo lumps.
  2. I shake the ingredients in a glass jar with an airtight screw-on lid. I pour straight from the jar into the mixing bowl and toss the salad ingredients. This works well for vinaigrettes, especially if they contain condiments like Dijon mustard or herbs/spices.

How to use salad dressing

Restricting your salad dressings only for salads, especially just leafy vegetables is boring.

You can mix salad dressing into carbs and grains like pasta salads, bean/legume salads, and grain bowls.

Salad dressing works as a marinade for vegetables and proteins (meat, fish, tofu, etc.). Most marinades contain oil, acid, and herbs — sounds a lot like salad dressing!

Finally, salad dressings can serve as a dipping sauce. An umami-packed soy sauce dressing with sesame oil salad would work well as a dipping sauce for dumplings (and as a dressing for a Napa cabbage salad).

TIP: You could use a high-quality olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette with oregano for dipping crusty bread (and it would be a great sauce to dress a Little Gem lettuce salad).

Making enough salad dressing

If you’re making just enough salad dressing every day for each salad, you’re missing out on a huge time saving opportunity.

I’m a huge believer in making enough salad dressing for 2-3 salads. This means doubling or tripling the recipe and storing the leftovers in the fridge.

NOTE: If you’re worried your salad will taste monotonous by using the same dressing, it’s a valid concern. There are 2 easy ways to overcome this issue:

  1. Rotate to a different salad dressing recipe each time you make a new batch.
  2. Toss different ingredients together to make a radically different salad.

How long does salad dressing last?

Even though batch preparing salad dressings is smart, it doesn’t mean salad dressing lasts forever. 

Store-bought bottled dressing is often packed with preservatives to keep it shelf stable.

For homemade dressing, although the acids (vinegar or lemon juice) in salad dressing act as a preservative to keep your dressing fresh for a week, made-from-scratch dressings don’t last as long as store-bought varieties. 

Does salad dressing go bad?

Yes. If your salad dressing looks cloudy before you shake it, has visible signs of mold, looks slimy, or smells off, it’s time to throw it away

There’s some concern about foodborne botulism, especially if you have chopped garlic or herbs in oil. While canning low-acid foods is a greater concern than acidic salad dressings, it’s helpful to know the preventative measures you can easily take. 

TIP: The CDC recommends refrigerating unused homemade oils with chopped garlic or herbs and throwing them out after 4 days. This article from International Association for Food Protection recommends freezing your homemade sauces if you plan to keep them longer than 3 days

Salad dressing recipes 

5-minute garlic lemon salad dressing
This must-try garlic salad dressing uses lemon juice to add a sparkle to your green leafy salads. Serve it with sliced carrots and cucumbers. Make extra for the busy weekdays.
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Celeriac Root with Honey Mustard Dressing
Celeriac root, with its mild and unusual celery flavor, offers a crunchy texture in this simple salad. The honey mustard dressing is subtle and complements celeriac wonderfully in this refreshing recipe.
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5-minute spicy garlic cucumber salad
This refreshing garlic cucumber salad is an ideal side dish to balance a heavy main course thanks to its crisp texture and addictive spicy sauce. You'll love it with the original Chinese sauce or the variation sauce if you can't source the exotic ingredients.
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Spicy Mayo Coleslaw
This coleslaw recipe has a twist using spicy mayo. The extra heat gives it more personality than the typical coleslaw recipe. Enjoy the coleslaw with grilled meats or on top of a roast turkey sandwich.
Get the Recipe

READ NEXT: How to Assemble a Salad with Ingredients You Have Right Now

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About Anna Rider

Hi! I'm Anna, a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on with the help of my physicist and taste-testing husband, Alex. I have an insatiable appetite for noodles 🍜 and believe in "improv cooking".

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