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DIY DRESSINGS - Homemade salad coatings control ingedients, cost
A quartet of dressings and their salads. Clockwise from top left, torn leaf lettuce tossed with Italian balsamic vinaigrette; Romaine lettuce and ranch dressing; Romaine lettuce with blue cheese dressing; and a wedge of iceberg lettuce with thousand island dressing.Photo by TOM BAUER/Missoulian


This monthly column is meant to empower you, the cook. There are few efforts more satisfying than preparing a meal to nourish the people you care about. To know that you have the resources within yourself to bring joy to others by cooking "from scratch" is not only empowering, it fosters community and the loving act of sharing.

Once you discover the empowering effects of cooking, chances are you'll be inspired to do more and more of it.

This month's column features recipes for making your own homemade salad dressings. Technically it's not cooking because there's no heat involved. Nevertheless, using fresh ingredients to create familiar coatings for salads puts you in control of the food you eat. You can tweak the seasonings according to your preferences, something you can't do with a factory-produced product.

What's the most popular salad dressing in America? Ranch. Surprised? It leaped ahead of Italian dressing in the early 1990s and has remained there ever since.

Ranch dressing's beginnings were humble, a product of a couple, Steve and Gayle Henson, who started a dude ranch in Southern California in 1954 called Hidden Valley Ranch. One thing their visitors loved was the homemade dressing for their salads.

They loved it so much that bottles of it were presented to them when they departed.

Seeing they had a potential moneymaker that could have wide appeal with the general public, the Hensons began selling packets of their secret blend of seasonings so that Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing could be made at home simply by combining the dry blend with mayonnaise and buttermilk.

Their efforts were so successful that the Clorox Co. bought their brand in 1972 for $8 million. Then the chemists went to work to create a product that would be more user-friendly to the home cook. In 1983, after producing and marketing several different versions of Hidden Valley Ranch, the company hit paydirt with the development of shelf-stable bottled dressings. The Clorox scientists had the problem of making a product with a high dairy content resist spoilage, and this they accomplished with such yummy-sounding substances as disodium inositate, disodium guanylate and calcium disodium ethylene-diaminetetraacetate. It's comforting to know that today's bottled ranch dressing will keep for about 150 days in the refrigerator.

According to Brendan I. Koerner, writing in on Aug. 5, 2005, shelf-stable dressings accounted for a whopping 82 percent of sales in a $1.7 billion industry.

When I perused the shelves of supermarkets, I found that today ranch dressing is made by several manufacturers and comes in a bewildering variety of flavors and fat content.

A 16-ounce bottle of virtually any salad dressing costs in the neighborhood of $4. A serving of a thick

dressing such as ranch, blue cheese or thousand island, about 1/4 cup, will set you back about 50 cents. Making your own would cut that cost by more than half, and your dressing would be fresh and free of unpronounceable additives.

Here are recipes for four salad dressings that are a cinch to make and that will keep a good week in the refrigerator. Remember, you have to put in good to take out good, so use top-quality ingredients.

Homemade Ranch Dressing

You can make this dressing with lower fat mayonnaise if you wish and use garlic salt (1/2 teaspoon) instead of the fresh garlic and salt. Use a small clove or even half a clove of fresh garlic because its taste intensifies over time. The onion may be omitted, if you wish. It's best to refrigerate the dressing for a couple of hours before using to allow the flavors to develop. The dressing will keep refrigerated for 1 week. Feel free to use it also as a dip for fresh veggies.

1 garlic clove

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon minced yellow or sweet onion, optional

1 cup mayonnaise

1 cup buttermilk

1 tablespoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 tablespoon finely cut fresh chives

Black pepper, to taste

Finely chop the garlic and mash it together with the salt to make a paste. Scrape it into a medium bowl and add the onion, if using. Add the mayonnaise, buttermilk, parsley, chives and black pepper to taste. Whisk together to combine well.

Taste by dipping a Romaine leaf into the dressing. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, if needed. Cover and refrigerate.

• Makes 2 cups.

Italian Balsamic Vinaigrette

There's no such thing as Italian dressing in Italy. There, salads are dressed simply at the table with extra-virgin olive oil, vinegar or lemon juice, and salt and pepper. Commercially made bottled Italian dressing rarely contains extra-virgin olive oil, the oil that is extremely low in acidity and comes from the first pressing of the olives. For best results, be sure to use an aged balsamic vinegar, ideally eight to 10 years. I adapted this recipe from "The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook."

The secret of a well-dressed salad is to use just enough dressing to coat each leaf with no puddles of dressing left in the bowl. Leaf lettuce is ideal with a vinaigrette. For each person use 1 tablespoon dressing. Tossing the salad and dressing well, for about 1 minute, should be just about right.

2 cloves minced garlic

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 1/2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley and chives

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

Black pepper, to taste

Put all the ingredients into a 1-quart screw-cap jar, put on the lid and seal it, and shake well for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Taste by dipping a piece of torn leaf lettuce into the dressing. Adjust the seasoning as necessary. Refrigerate for up to 1 week. Shake well before using. Feel free to add cherry tomatoes, sliced cucumber, or whatever else you like.

• Makes 2 cups.

Creamy Blue Cheese Dressing

The quality of this dressing depends on excellent blue cheese. You can use an American or Danish blue, Italian Gorgonzola or, for a real splurge, French Roquefort. If you wish, substitute 1/2 teaspoon garlic salt for the fresh garlic and salt. A crisp firm lettuce, such as Romaine works best for creamy dressings. Quality will not be compromised by using ingredients lower in fat. But skip anything that's fat-free.

1 small garlic clove

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/2 cup buttermilk

1/2 cup sour cream

1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese, plus more to sprinkle over dressed salad

Pinch of sugar, if needed

Finely chop the garlic and mash it together with the salt to make a paste. Scrape it into a medium bowl and add the mayonnaise, buttermilk, sour cream, vinegar, pepper and blue cheese. Whisk well until thoroughly combined. Taste by dipping a leaf of Romaine into the dressing. Adjust seasoning as necessary, adding a pinch of sugar if you feel it needs it.

Cover and refrigerate for up to 1 week.

• Makes about 1 2/3 cups.

Thousand Island Dressing

The history of this dressing is far from clear, though many claim it's related to Russian dressing. Whatever the case, it's a great dressing and for me, the only one to serve with a wedge of Iceberg lettuce. Talk about retro! When shopping, examine labels of ketchup, chili sauce and sweet pickle relish carefully, and avoid brands that contain high-fructose corn syrup. Organic products are your best bet.

1 small garlic clove

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons finely chopped yellow or sweet onion

1 1/2 cups mayonnaise (low-fat is OK)

1/4 cup ketchup

1 tablespoon chili sauce

1 tablespoon sweet pickle relish

1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar

1 hard-cooked egg, finely chopped

Pinch of sugar, if needed

Finely chop the garlic and mash it together with the salt to make a paste. Scrape it into a medium bowl. Or substitute 1/2 teaspoon garlic salt. Add all the remaining ingredients except the sugar and whisk to combine well. Taste with a firm lettuce leaf. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper and add the sugar if you feel it needs it. Cover and refrigerate for up to 1 week.

• Makes about 2 cups.

Greg Patent is a food writer and columnist for the Missoulian and magazine. Visit Greg's Web site at and his blog at You can write him at

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