Salad dressings hold the key

After last week’s article, I am sure that you have a greater appreciation for salads and understand that there is a whole lot more to a salad than just leafy greens.

We are going to share more on this topic but, before we do, let’s recap what we learnt so far: a salad is made up of four body parts – a base, a filling, a dressing and a garnish. Salads can be warm or cold, simple or composed, vitamin-rich or protein-rich. There can be appetizer salads, main course salads, accompaniment salads and , of course, dessert salads.

Last time, we also explained that apart from vegetables, salads can also contain protein items such as grilled, fried or pan seared chicken, poached fish or roasted meats such as lamb, beef or pork and, in the case of a dessert salad, poached fruit.

A critical point made last time is that the garnish, like the rest of the salad, must not only be edible, but must provide some beauty and extra-nutritional value and should not be confused with decoration; so you can decorate the area, but must garnish the plate.

Now, let’s look at the dressing which, for me, is the most important body part of the salad, as it brings the entire flavour, texture and indeed character to what can otherwise be a very distinct, but bland flavoured product.  And this is so because, generally, salad ingredients are not influenced by cooking which, if you remember from a previous article, is done to enhance flavour, therefore leaving the enhancement of flavours to be passed on by the dressing.

A salad dressing is described as a well-balanced liquid or semi-liquid used to add flavour, texture and moisture to the salad.  It has also been described as a cold sauce, as it serves the same purpose as a hot sauce which is to flavour, balance and enrich.

Salad dressings are usually broken down into three categories:

1. Oil and vinegar dressings, which are un-thickened.

2. Mayonnaise-based dressings, which are thickened dressings

3. Cooked dressings, which are similar to mayonnaise in appearance and texture but are much more tart and have way less oil.

Sour cream, yogurt and fruit juices can also be used as a base for salad dressings and are usually used for fruit salads or as a low calorie dressing.

Salad dressings are typically oil-based and are made using a temporary or permanent emulsion; an emulsion being the bringing together of two ingredients that would not normally stay together, in this instance, oil and vinegar. A temporary emulsion is formed when you vigorously shake the oil and vinegar and they remain combined for a short time, but after the oil will return to the surface and the water will sink to the bottom. A permanent emulsion is oil and vinegar, but this time, held together by an emulsifier, which in the case of salad dressings is generally egg yolk.

Great attention must be paid when selecting the oils and vinegars for your salad dressings as the major flavours of your salad dressing will be taken from these two ingredients. In the case of oils, corn, cottonseed, canola, vegetable and salad oil are commonly used as they are milder in flavour and therefore more amenable to flavour infusion through the use of herbs and spices.  Peanut oil or olive oil, both virgin and extra virgin, are very strong in flavour and bring a distinct taste to salad dressings. As such, they are used for specific salads.

Just like the oils, there are the milder acids which are commonly used in salad dressing making including cider, distilled and white wine vinegars. Then there are the stronger flavours such as cherry vinegar or balsamic vinegar which is aged in a barrel and has a much stronger and well-defined flavour. These too, are reserved for specific salads as they can easily over-power any basic or simple salad prepared.

The key point here is choosing the correct base products, which are oil and vinegar and the use of fresh herbs and spices for flavouring, as the flavours from fresh produce are more readily available, while dry herbs and spices will take extra time for the flavour to be extracted. Therefore, salads made with these dry ingredients should be prepared well in advance. Proper seasoning and skillful balancing of flavours are also key to perfectly blended salad dressings.

For your most often used dressing, which is French dressing or vinaigrette, the rule of thumb is one-part vinegar to three-parts oil, but this is not written in stone as it can vary depending on the acidity of the vinegar or the flavour-strength of the oil, with salt, pepper and fresh finely chopped herbs. The pepper is usually placed with the oil and whisked together to start the infusion, while the salt is dissolved in the vinegar to ensure proper incorporation; they are then added together and vigorously whisked or shaken.

(Peter Edey is a Certified Executive Chef with the American Culinary Federation, a graduate of l’École Ritz Escoffier, Paris and a Certified Caribbean Hospitality Trainer. Email: peter@dcbarbados.com)

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