Transform Your Salad Dressings by Understanding Emulsions
Explore the fascinating science behind emulsions and follow our easy template to design your own salad dressings.
My favorite lazy creative things to cook are salad dressings. They really allow you to experiment with little or no effort to create your own unique concoction. So if you feel uncertain about creating your own recipes, I challenge you to start with salad dressing tonight! On really chaotic nights, when the little 2-year-old and the baby have been expressing their “emotions” (understand crying so loud that even my husband Apple watch sends out alerts to warn about the danger of being high volume environment) creating my own unique salad dressing in 2 mins tops is a personal energy booster.
Samin Nosrat's Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat has inspired this approach to salad dressing creation, and now we're sharing it with you. You can experiment with different flavors by adding lemon or an unusual oil, and since the only cooking technique required is shaking, you can focus on being creative without worrying about complicated recipe steps.
The Science of Salad Dressings: Emulsions
To start, understanding the science behind emulsions is crucial to making great salad dressings. An emulsion is a mixture of two or more liquids that are usually immiscible, such as oil and water. In salad dressings, emulsions help create a stable mixture of oil and acidic ingredients like vinegar or lemon juice. This results in a smooth, creamy texture that evenly coats your salad greens.
When it comes to salad dressings, there are three main types of suspensions to consider: temporary, stable and permanent suspensions. Temporary suspensions rely on vigorous mixing or shaking to create a short-lived emulsion that may separate over time. Think of your oil and vinegar shaked vinaigrette which quickly separates back in oil and vinegar. On the other hand, stable suspensions involve using emulsifying agents like mustard or egg yolks, which help maintain a consistent lightly creamy texture and prevent the ingredients from separating. They are, in my opinion the best for most salads. Finally, permanent suspensions last for days, such as mayonnaise, but are often too creamy to coat salads.
To create a stable emulsion, you'll need an emulsifying agent that helps the immiscible liquids mix and stay together. In the case of salad dressings, some common emulsifying agents are mustard, yogurt, and egg yolks. These ingredients contain compounds that have a dual affinity for both water and oil, allowing them to act as a bridge between the two liquids and stabilize the emulsion.
Great emulsifying agents for salads
Mustard, for instance, contains mucilage and proteins that can bind with both oil and water molecules. By incorporating mustard into your salad dressing, you provide a stabilizing agent that helps maintain the emulsion, ensuring a consistent texture throughout. Additionally, mustard's sharp and tangy flavor adds depth to the dressing, enhancing its overall taste.
Similarly, yogurt is another excellent emulsifying agent for salad dressings. The proteins and polysaccharides in yogurt have the ability to interact with both oil and water, forming a stable emulsion. This not only results in a smooth and creamy texture but also adds a rich, tangy flavor to your dressing. Yogurt-based dressings are particularly popular in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine, where they are often combined with fresh herbs, spices, and lemon juice for a vibrant, refreshing taste.
Egg yolks or Mayonnaise
Interestingly, I recently found out that raw egg yolks can also be used as an emulsifying agent in salad dressings. The lecithin found in egg yolks has a natural affinity for both oil and water, making it an effective emulsifier. When combined with vigorous whisking or blending, the egg yolks help create a stable, creamy emulsion that imparts a luxurious mouthfeel to your dressing. Mayonnaise will act similarly to egg yolks and provide a great pasteurized alternative if you prefer to stay away from raw egg yolks (if you are pregnant reading this, congrats nerdy mama!).
High viscosity sauces
Other ingredients, like honey, oyster or sweet and sour sauce, can also contribute to stabilizing emulsions due to their high viscosity and natural affinity for both water and oil.
My Salad Dressing Template
You may wonder which comes first, the dressing or the salad? Well, both are essential and need to combine harmoniously. So, let's make the dressing the star of the dish tonight and move ahead with the four main choices needed to compose a mind-blowing but relaxing salad dressing.
Choice n°1 for delicious salad dressings: Salt
Salt is the base for enhancing flavors in your dish. Table salt is the most common, but salty ingredients like soy sauce, cheese such as parmesan or feta, are also great sources of salt. Balance is crucial; adding feta may mean you need less salt in the overall dish.
Choice n°2 for delicious salad dressings: Acid
Lemon is a zesty best friend perfect to brighten any dish. You can also go beyond lemons with other citrus fruits like oranges, and classic vinegar works well too. Experiment with different types of vinegar, such as balsamic vinegar for a sweeter option. The acidity of these ingredients helps to balance the oil in your dressing and emulsify the mixture, creating a smooth texture.
Choice n°3 for delicious salad dressings: Fat
Balance bland salt or acid with special oil like sesame, or add canola or sunflower oil for a blander taste. Every ingredient can't be the star; you need supporting actors. Fat molecules help stabilize the emulsion, making it less likely to separate and providing a satisfying mouthfeel.
Choice n°4 for delicious salad dressings: Wow Flavor
This is where the fun begins; add spices like oregano, paprika or chili flakes, garlic, onions, shallots, pickles, or capers. You can also balance the acidity with sweeteners like honey or sugar. These ingredients add depth and complexity to your dressing, making it truly unique.
Choice n°5 for delicious salad dressings: Texture
For a creamy sauce, use binding elements like Dijon mustard or yogurt. These thickeners and binders further stabilize the emulsion, ensuring that your dressing maintains its consistency and clings to your salad greens. Nuts or seeds add a crunchy feel.
To get started, here are some of our favorite combinations...
Honey Mustard Umami
Salt for beautiful salad dressings: soy sauce, Acid: apple vinegar, Fat: canola oil, wow flavor: honey, texture: Dijon mustard
Pair it with: green salads with no special ingredients to spice it up
Greek Inspired Zesty Yogurt
Salt : table salt, Acid: lemon, Fat: olive oil, wow flavor: fresh herbs such as dill, texture : Greek yogurt Pair it with: Greek salads, roasted vegetables for acidity contrast
Salt: table salt, Acid: balsamic vinegar, Fat: olive oil, wow flavor: pink peppercorns, texture: a bit of Dijon mustard Pair it with: green salads and tomatoes
Remember, there's no need to follow exact measurements. The classic measurements is 3 parts oil to 1 part acid but I believe it is best to improvise… Start with a bit more oil to acid ratio and mix all the other ingredients. Shake well, taste, adjust, taste again, adjust again, and have fun creating your own mix without a recipe. Don't forget that once the sauce is mixed with the salad, it will be slightly diluted in taste. You need to add more seasoning and salt to anticipate it. Just dip a little bit of salad in your sauce to check for it, it also works as a well deserved chef snack.
For a final word, combine and toss the sauce and dressing properly by mixing it in a separate bowl. This way, you can do a final seasoning check by tasting the sauce. Additionally, mixing the dressing separately ensures that the emulsion is well-blended salad to dressing ratio providing the ideal consistency for coating your salad greens.
Embrace the opportunity to experiment with different flavor combinations and textures, and dive deeper into the food science behind emulsions and salad dressings. By understanding the principles of emulsification and the roles that various ingredients play, you can create delicious, unique dressings that elevate your salads to new heights. So go ahead, shake things up, and enjoy your culinary creations without relying on store-bought dressings.