When you look at what’s in grocery store aisles, dressing is the #1 thing you should make and not buy. Why? Because commercial dressings rely on commercial-grade, heavily refined oils like soy, canola, grapeseed, corn, and safflower, none of which will do any favors for your fresh spring salads. (Because any plant-derived oil can be called vegetable oil, you’ll often see generic “vegetable oil” in ingredient lists.) Vegetable oil is typically whatever kind of oil was the cheapest to buy and then repackage at the time the manufacturer purchased it—labeling oil as “vegetable oil” allows manufacturers to avoid the expense of having to relabel their goods every time prices drop. Not only are these oils nutritionally poor due to having been over processed, they’re also flavorless, whereas fresh, unprocessed oils like extra-virgin olive oils and unrefined nut oils create richly flavored dressings.
When shopping for unprocessed oils, remember that oils should taste, smell, and look like what they came from: unrefined peanut oil has a very peanutty flavor and a mahogany color, for example, while extra-virgin olive oils range from grassy green to molten gold, with each variety tasting like the olive it was pressed from. Look for clues on the package, too: words like “unrefined” or “extra-virgin” accompanied by a defined heat limit (“suitable for up to X degrees Fahrenheit”) and/or storage tips (“store away from heat and light”) generally indicate less-processed oils. Once you’ve found a brand that has a rich aroma and flavor, remember that brand the next time you go shopping!
California Olive Ranch makes genuinely extra-virgin olive oil that makes a great base for DIY dressings (disappointingly, most olive oils labeled as “extra-virgin” are not), while another California-based company, La Tourangelle, makes extremely flavorful nut and seed oils. Once you begin exploring unprocessed oils, not only will you appreciate their depth of flavor, you’ll be able to taste which oils are fresh and which are not.
After you’ve chosen your oil, then all you need to do is pair it with an acidic ingredient like citrus juice or vinegar and whisk away! Emulsifying ingredients like mustard and honey help dressing blend into a smooth, free-flowing dressing, or you can swap out the oil for a creamy base like Greek yogurt or nut butter thinned with a little water. Pick and choose from these ideas:
Acidic ingredient: red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, rice vinegar, balsamic vinegar (or your favorite vinegar), lemon juice, orange juice, lime juice
Emulsifying ingredient: Dijon mustard, honey, egg yolk
Fun add-ins: minced fresh herbs/dried herbs, finely chopped nuts, small seeds like poppy seeds and sunflower seeds, pureed cooked chickpeas or white beans
Start with a ratio of 2 or 3 parts oil/creamy ingredient to 1 part acidic ingredient, then add a dab of your emulsifying ingredient (if using) and whisk until smooth. Add a pinch of sea salt, freshly ground pepper, and any “fun” extras to taste.
Homemade dressing can be refrigerated for a week.