Growing up, when my family had salad with supper, whoever was setting the table that night also set out four or five bottles of salad dressing. We always had ranch, thousand island, Italian and a low-fat vinaigrette of some sort. Our salads were as basic as the bottled dressings were artificial: iceberg, cherry tomatoes, packaged croutons. My mom was a great cook, but salads back then didn’t mean the same thing as they do today.
Although my parents’ fridge still contains bottled dressings (much to my dismay), when I am charged with putting together the side of greens (which I always am on my mother’s behest), I get creative with my ingredients and take the opportunity to whip up a homemade dressing. This is the part my mom loves most, but without a simple recipe to follow, she’d rather reach for the refrigerated stuff. I get it. On occasion I’ll search my cookbooks or the Web for a new idea, but I’ve been eating salads as meals for so long that mostly I just grab the garlic/oil/lemon/honey/chili flake/mustard and go at it.
The way to get started making salad dressing from scratch is to start with three ingredients: olive oil (the best cold-pressed extra virgin one you can afford to stock), a lemon and salt (preferably Maldon sea salt). Years ago, I learned from British chef Jamie Oliver, who is all about upping your family’s nutrition intake, that those were the only items you needed to turn a leafy bunch of greens into something extraordinary. (Oh, and fresh-ground black pepper helps, too.)
Once you’ve mastered this very simple technique (the key is to start out with barely a tablespoon of the oil and toss and toss and toss until all the pieces are coated), then you can comfortably move on to sauces with more flavor and ingredients.
Most of the items needed for the eight salad dressings in the slideshow above are things you likely have in your home pantry and fridge. All are healthier versions than their supermarket counterparts (save for some organic varieties like Annie’s). In any case, from scratch generally makes things more budget-friendly, and these recipes are no exception.