“To make a good salad is to be a brilliant diplomat – the problem is entirely the same in both cases. To know how much oil to mix in with one’s vinegar.” Oscar Wilde
People feel strongly about salad dressing.
French cooking authority Julia Child (Mastering the Art of French Cooking) notes that French dressing, aka sauce vinaigrette, is a simple mixture of oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. A vinaigrette is as good as its ingredients, so she counsels using an excellent quality wine and extra-virgin olive oil; The usual proportion is one part vinegar to three parts oil. Vinegar can be replaced by lemon juice and some French prefer a lighter salad oil to olive oil. Mustard is an acceptable addition, as are fresh herbs in season. Garlic is used in the south of France. But Julia notes that “ingredients like Worcestershire, curry or cheese are not French additions, and sugar is heresy.” She cautions to make sure your greens are dry, your vinaigrette is freshly made and that you toss them at the last moment before serving.
Italian dressing, according to Marcella Hazan (Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking), “is extra virgin olive oil, salt and wine vinegar,” and “olive oil is the dominant ingredient. Italians will never say, when savoring a well-tossed salad, What a wonderful dressing! They do say What marvelous oil!” She goes on to note that salad greens must be perfectly dry so that water clinging to the leaves does not dilute the dressing, and that salads must be dressed at the table at serving time, never before. Moreover, the dressing ingredients are never mixed in advance. They are poured directly onto the salad in the following order:
o “First put in the salt… neither too much nor too little. Give the salad one quick toss to distribute the salt and begin to dissolve it, then
o pour in the oil liberally. From observation, I have found that people outside Italy never use sufficient oil. There should be enough of it to produce a gloss on the surface of the vegetables.
o Add the vinegar last, just the few drops necessary to impart aroma, and never more than one skimpy part vinegar to three heaping parts oil. A little vinegar is sufficient to be noticed, a little too much monopolizes all your attention to the disadvantage of every other ingredient. Also bear in mind that the acid of vinegar, like that of lemon, cooks a salad, which explains why oil is poured first, to protect the greens.
o As soon as you put in the vinegar, begin to toss. The more thoroughly a salad is tossed, and the more uniformly the salt, oil and vinegar are distributed over every leaf and every vegetable, the better it will taste. Toss gently, turning the greens over delicately, to avoid bruising and blackening them.”
Marcella continues that freshly squeezed lemon juice “is an occasional, agreeable substitute for vinegar” and that garlic “can be exciting when you turn to it sporadically, on impulse, but on a regular basis, it is tiresome.” She says that pepper “is not common. It was probably too expensive a spice originally to become part of a humble, everyday dish like salad” and that balsamic vinegar “can be called upon from time to time to amaze the taste buds”, but if called upon too often, it “becomes cloying”. “Either basil or parsley”, she points out, “will do most salads some good.”
As for Middle Eastern salad dressings, Claudia Roden (The New Book of Middle Eastern Cooking) writes that “According to folklore, it was once believed that olive oil could cure every illness except the one by which a person was destined by fate to die. People still believe in its beneficial qualities and sometimes drink it neat when they feel anemic or tired. It is used lavishly in salads and cold dishes…. Salad dressings are a mixture of olive oil and lemon juice or, less commonly, wine vinegar, with salt and pepper…. Proportions are 3 to 4 tablespoons of olive oil to 1 of vinegar or a good deal more lemon juice –sometimes the same amount of lemon as oil.”
“Common embellishments are crushed garlic, scallions, chopped mild red or white onion, and chopped fresh herbs such as parsley, mint, dill and cilantro. To give a salad a flavor of North Africa, add ¼ teaspoon harissa, or a pinch of ground chili pepper and a teaspoon of paprika, or a pinch of cumin and coriander or cinnamon. Alternatively, you can perfume the dressing with drops of orange blossom or rose water or geranium extract, and you may use bitter orange instead of lemon juice. Instead of adding raw crushed garlic, try boiling or roasting the cloves in their skins until they are soft, then peel and mash them into the dressing.” Claudia goes on to say that rocket or arugula (gargir), purslane (bakle) and cress (rashad) are popular Arab salad leaves.
And there are Asian dressings, some easily translated into vinaigrettes. In his large square tome on Thai cuisine, David Thompson (Thai Food) explains that Thai dressings are prepared before the salad is assembled, but not more than an hour or two ahead. They are traditionally made with a mortar and pestle (while you could substitute a blender, it would “not give the same well-textured finish”). Ingredients are added to the mortar in a specific order, beginning with those that are the most difficult to pound or which must be completely pureed. Chiles (“only the most fastidious, or fearful, remove the seeds”) garlic and coriander root are pounded first, and then seasoned with sugar, lime juice (“Lemons should not be substituted for limes. They have a very different taste and are completely inappropriate.”) and fish sauce. He cautions that “The dressing should be finely honed, encompassing the salad. It must be intensely flavored since it dresses other, often strongly flavored ingredients; otherwise, it will taste insipid by comparison and there will be no unifying element in the salad.”
I suppose further research would reveal the deeply held epicurean salad dressing beliefs of many more cultures (or celebrity chefs). But it’s probably more important to move on so that you can dress a salad or two and develop your own. The basic vinaigrette rule to remember is the ratio three parts oil to one part vinegar or lemon juice.