Comparing vinaigrette to dressing is like comparing linguine to pasta. Vinaigrette is a type of dressing. You can tell you’re drizzling the former because it has a lighter texture and more runny nature. The distinction isn’t a matter of subjective mouthfeel though. Vinaigrettes possess a few clear, identifying components that set them apart from other, often creamier, dressings.
There’s no better way to grasp the differences among salad dressings than to stop buying bottles of the pre-made stuff. Just stop it. Sure, it’s noble you’re making your own salad and eating it (go ahead, pat yourself on the back). But of course, there’s always a way to take it a step further. Make your own dressing to eliminate the store-bought bottle’s added sugar, sodium, and preservatives. Oh, and for the freshest, best-tasting salad too. Taste always comes first for Chowhounds. Newcomers to this make-your-own idea will find it surprisingly quick and easy.* However, a dressing can make or break your salad, so let’s get the basics down before we dip into our favorite recipes.
Vinaigrette is a mixture of oil and something acidic, used as a salad dressing or a marinade. The oil is often olive oil but can be any kind. The acidic ingredient is usually a citrus juice (often lemon) or a vinegar (hence the name): balsamic, rice, wine, apple cider, white, red, and more. The mixture dresses the salad greens or other cold vegetable, meat or fish dishes.
In its simplest form, your recipe should be three parts oil to one part vinegar, plus some salt and pepper to taste. If you want to make it more complicated, i.e.: tasty, elaborate on that foundation with various combinations of spices, herbs, mustard, shallots, and onions.
Dressing is more general, more all-encompassing. It’s a sauce — usually cold — used to coat or top salads and some cold vegetable, fish, and meat dishes, according to The New Food Lover’s Companion. It could be based in mayonnaise, buttermilk, oil and vinegar (see vinaigrette), avocado, yogurt, or whatever.
Also: Dressing has an entirely different meaning, besides that putting-clothes-on-your-body thing. As Thanksgiving approaches each year, we hear more about the other edible dressing, the one with cubed bread and broth in a casserole dish or stuffed into the turkey. You know, stuffing.
*We’re focusing on the salad-type of dressing for now. It’s easiest to put the ingredients in a jar with a tight-fitting lid and shake it. Keep the leftovers in the fridge for a few days for your next salad. Try some of our renditions.
1. Classic Vinaigrette
First, master the basics with this French classic using red wine vinegar, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, minced shallots, olive oil, salt, and pepper. It’s such a versatile vinaigrette, you can use it on almost any salad green. It’s savory and tangy, just what your lettuces need, whether they know it or not. Get our Classic Vinaigrette recipe.
2. Basic Ranch Dressing
This is ranch dressing as it should be: a tangy buttermilk-herb mixture. Not Hidden Valley Ranch’s mass-produced mess. Fresh herbs, garlic, sour cream, mayonnaise play important roles here. Get our Basic Ranch Dressing recipe.
3. Lemon-Dill Vinaigrette
This recipe is not only delicious on salad, it’s great on boiled potatoes, fish, and chicken. They key is freshness. You shouldn’t use dried dill. Try marinating some fish with it for a bright, herby result. Or consider using a less-typical lettuce, like this red endive. Get our Lemon-Dill Vinaigrette recipe.
4. Tahini Dressing
This recipe is ridiculously easy, with only five ingredients‚ and two are salt and olive oil, which you probably already have. Tahini is a paste of ground-up sesame seeds, so this is a nutty-tasting, somewhat thick dressing, tanged up with lemon juice and elevated with garlic. It dresses hearty chicken salad with greens, or drizzle it over roasted vegetables, especially butternut squash and red onions. It makes dishes heartier. Get our Tahini Dressing recipe.
5. Red Wine-Parsley Vinaigrette
No, you’re not using drinking wine for this dressing, but red wine vinegar. With garlic, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, and a touch of sugar, it’s great as a marinade for chicken as well as a dressing for salad, especially Cobb salad. And what about beans? Sure, that too. Get our Red Wine-Parsley Vinaigrette recipe.
6. Green Goddess Dressing
There are multiple variations (some with avocado) on the dressing with this memorable name, but this is supposed to be the original. Packed with grassy herbs, a couple salty anchovy fillets, and tangy creaminess all over, this dressing coats butter lettuces the best, works well in chicken salad, as a dip, and a drizzle on fish. Get our Green Goddess Dressing recipe.
7. Peanut Dressing
Put whatever you want under this peanut dressing: It’s gonna be good. This Southeast Asian dressing requires smooth peanut butter, brown sugar, soy sauce, fish sauce, lime juice, chile-garlic paste, garlic, and oil. And after a taste, you’ll require it in your kitchen again and again. Get our Peanut Dressing recipe.
— Head Photo Illustration: Chowhound.