Dressing for dinner
Simple though a salad can be, it's amazing how complicated some people make it. Here Delia explains the basics on ingredients for dressings, as well as how to perfect the art of making mayonnaise and vinaigrette.
The well-dressed salad
I really wouldn’t suggest that the French have the last word on everything in the kitchen, but when it comes to dressing a salad properly, we can certainly learn from them. In Italy, a haphazard sprinkling of some vinegar, followed by the same kind of oil with no particular regard for proportions, has killed off many a salad I would otherwise have enjoyed there. (I once read of the owner of a taverna on one of the Greek islands who, with the aid of a sprinkler fixed to the top of a bottle, could aim the dressing for a salad from a distance of four tables away!) In England we have a chemical-tasting oddity called salad cream which often lurks among the naked ingredients.
The French, on the other hand, dress their salads with a lot of care – and care is the operative word. A green salad will be given a wide bowl, with ample room for tossing, so that each leaf will be coated and glistening. A tomato salad will be presented on a wide, shallow plate so that the slices don’t overlap each other and become damp and woolly. The tradition at 18th-century French dinner parties was for the salad to be dressed at table by the hands of the most beautiful lady present. And therein lies the secret of the well-dressed salad – not looks, but hands. I’m convinced this is the only way to dress a leafy green salad really well.
So a few points to remember: always have a roomy bowl with space to toss the salad well, sprinkle in a little dressing at a time – never pour it so that one leaf gets totally drenched, and toss the leaves with your hands gently and carefully, so they get evenly coated but never soggy. Use only enough dressing to achieve this: if you finish up with pools at the bottom of the bowl, you have failed.
The two most widely-used salad dressings are mayonnaise and vinaigrette, and indeed most other dressings are derived in some way from these two. It’s the job of a good dressing to complement a salad rather than disguise it, and that’s why the right ingredients are so important. This needs to be emphasised because the lack of them is the reason why so many dressings in so many restaurants are abysmal. So let’s have a look first at the essential ingredients.
Vinegar As far as I’m concerned, malt vinegar should never find its way anywhere near a salad – its strong taste is too overpowering for delicate salad vegetables (I’m not decrying it: for pickling onions or sprinkling over fish and chips I wouldn’t use anything else!). Salads need the much milder wine vinegar, preferably the kind made by the slow Orleans method, in oak casks. The disadvantage of wine vinegar is, of course, its price, but cider vinegar is also suitable for dressings and is less expensive.
Balsamic vinegar This is the aristocrat of the vinegar world and the best option for a salad dressing. To read my comments on this fabulous ingredient, click on the link below.
Delia on the wonders of balsamic vinegar!
You can also make your own flavoured vinegars by adding sprigs of fresh herbs to steep in vinegar. Tarragon is perhaps the best herb to use – and this is also a good way of conserving it for the winter, when a few drops of tarragon vinegar will give a dressing a nostalgic summery flavour.
Oil Olive oil is obviously the best choice, though its cost seems to get increasingly prohibitive. What few people realise, though, is the enormous savings that can be made by buying olive oil in bulk. It can be widely bought in 3, 4 or 5 litre cans (or polythene packs) which will save you pounds if you’ve been in the habit of buying small bottles from supermarket shelves.
Olive oil The best-quality olive oil comes straight from freshly cold-pressed ripe olives – this is called ‘first pressing’. After that, there is usually a second pressing where the olives are heated in order to extract every last drop. The first pressing gives a fruity but mild taste: the second a stronger, often rather harsh one (sometimes if the olives were over-ripe it is too strong, and the oil has to be what one might call de-flavoured).
The only way to find an olive oil that suits you is to experiment. I have found that a good Italian olive oil is what I personally like best (the most famous kind is produced in Lucca), though I’ve also had very good Greek olive oil made from olives from the Calamata region. Both of these can be purchased at Italian or Greek specialist shops and from supermarkets.
Groundnut oil is always my second choice for salad dressings and, in fact, for mayonnaise it is my first choice. It is rich without having a pronounced flavour, but you do need to hunt around for it in specialised food shops or delicatessen. Maybe it will become more widely available if we keep nagging retailers for it!
Sunflower, soya and all the other culinary oils can be used in salad dressings. These are strictly a matter of personal preference: when used for cooking some of them have a quite distinctive flavour, but when used cold are much milder and do not compete with the other flavours in a dressing. They are, for the most part, more economical than olive oil and therefore worth experimenting with.
Lemons Lemon juice, if liked, can be used instead of vinegar in a dressing. I once had a lovely salad in Greece made from olives, tomatoes, cucumber and Feta cheese, with fresh lemon juice squeezed straight on with a drizzle of olive oil. The combination was just right for that salad, though on the whole I have to admit that wine vinegar is preferable.
The recipe I give, let me say straight away, is a guideline rather than a rule. Not only do individual tastes differ, but the ingredients can vary too. Sometimes a sharper dressing is what’s required, sometimes a milder one. However I usually stick to the old saying, ‘Be a counsellor with the salt, a miser with the vinegar and a spendthrift with the olive oil.’ This is good advice – the most common fault (especially in restaurants) is over-enthusiasm with the vinegar; and even worse, I think, is the addition of sugar to counteract it. Anyway, click on the link below for my version.
Get it right: how to make vinaigrette
No commercially-made mayonnaise, or short-cut home-made version, can beat the thick, shining, wobbly texture of a proper mayonnaise you make yourself. For me, it’s one of the true luxuries of the kitchen. Making mayonnaise for the first time can be a daunting experience, but only if the process is not explained properly. The following method is the traditional one and, I can assure you, pretty foolproof if you follow the instructions to the letter. At first it may seem a bit stupid to be adding the oil, literally drop by drop, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re going to be there all night. The temptation to add more will be great. Don’t, because the fact is, this method only takes 7 minutes from start to finish (yes… I’ve timed myself with a stopwatch).
A step-by-step guide
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