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What is Salad Dressing?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Salad dressing is a condiment used to enhance the flavor and texture of salad, ranging from simple green salads to more elaborate versions. There are a wide variety of styles used around the world, and some form is native to many cultures, including most European communities and India. Most markets carry packaged dressings in an array of flavors, and it is also possible to make them at home.

A number of materials are used as bases for salad dressing, such as oils, dairy products, and mayonnaise. Oils are the basis of vinaigrettes, simple blends of oil, vinegar, and herbs, and they are also used in many Asian dressings, along with ingredients such as soy sauce. Dairy products like cream, yogurt, and creme fraiche, are also common bases for dressings, especially in Eastern Europe.

In addition to a base, a dressing can include a wide variety of things, including fresh herbs, pickled vegetables or relish, fermented foods like vinegar or soy sauce, nuts, and dried or fresh fruit. Other condiments, such as salad cream or ketchup, can also be included, as can spicy additions, like chilies, and sweet ones, such as sugar and molasses. Many cultures have a specific dressing in common usage, such as the blend of yogurt, dill, cucumber, and lemon juice used in the Mediterranean to dress simple salads, or the vinaigrette, which is in wide use in France and Italy.

Dressings can be thick and creamy, as is the case with blue cheese and ranch dressings, which use a dairy base, or they may be light and runny. Some are even designed for a specific salad, like Caesar dressing for the salad of the same name. Many cultures also have specific preferences about the amount that is used, with some salads being drenched in dressing, while others are only lightly spritzed with just enough to be refreshing.

Many dressings can also be used as dips for bread and vegetables as well as for salads. Typically, they are designed to be shaken before use to combine all of the ingredients, and stored under refrigeration when not in use to keep them fresh and cool. Many people like to invent their own dressings, exploring favorite ingredients to come up with a customized version which reflects their own tastes. As a general rule, almost anything can be added to a salad dressing, although dairy ingredients and acidic ones like lime juice or vinegar can sometimes separate and clot, resulting in a product that does not look very appealing.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By julies — On Nov 22, 2012

I know they say that a vinaigrette dressing is better than a creamy dressing if you are trying to go light. My problem is I don't really like vinegar based dressings, and prefer something like a ranch dressing. If I am eating out at a new restaurant I always ask them if they have a house salad dressing. This is a fun way to try something different for a change.

My husband will only eat French dressing on his salad. He gets frustrated sometimes because some waiters mistake this for ranch dressing. He has learned he really needs to pronounce it clearly and make sure they understand he wants French dressing or they may bring him the wrong one.

By Mykol — On Nov 21, 2012

When I am really counting my calories I will order my salad dressing on the side if I am eating out. This is the easiest way I have found to control how much dressing I am putting on my salad.

Otherwise you never know how much dressing they are going to add to the salad. Sometimes it comes drenched in dressing and other times there is never enough.

I have also found that just because I order a salad, this doesn't mean it is a low calorie choice. It all depends on what I put on the salad, and some dressings are loaded with a ton of extra calories I don't need.

By John57 — On Nov 20, 2012

I have a friend who doesn't like any kind of condiments. When she orders a salad at a restaurant she orders it 'dry'. This doesn't sound appealing to me at all, but that is the only way she will eat a salad.

By LisaLou — On Nov 20, 2012

@orangey03 -- I have read conflicting information on whether low fat salad dressing is better for you than the regular ones. You may be getting fewer calories with the reduced fat dressings, but you may also be getting more sugar. This doesn't really make much sense to me, but I have read about this more than once.

Personally, I can't really tell much difference in taste between the two. I like to make my own balsamic salad dressing that has a little bit of sweetness but is not loaded with extra calories.

By wavy58 — On Aug 30, 2012

It's amazing to me how differently a salad dressing can taste from one restaurant to the other. They could have standard names, like Italian and ranch, but the flavors could vary greatly.

I went to a steakhouse and ordered a salad with Italian dressing, and it was unlike any I had ever tasted. It had flavors that were not usually present in this type of dressing, and I found it addictive.

Another restaurant across town has Italian dressing that isn't nearly as impressive. It just tastes like the kind you buy at the store.

By orangey03 — On Aug 29, 2012

@Perdido – I always buy low fat salad dressings, because the regular kind are just loaded with fat. To me, the low fat versions taste just as good. I can't tell that anything is missing.

I like spinach salad, too, but I eat mine differently than you. I put strawberries and blueberries on top, and I drizzle raspberry vinaigrette dressing all over it.

If I'm eating at a restaurant and they don't have raspberry vinaigrette, I will ask for a light red wine dressing instead. The two taste very similar.

By Perdido — On Aug 29, 2012

I love using Italian as my spinach salad dressing. I eat a bowl of raw spinach leaves covered in this dressing every day at lunch.

The Italian dressing is extremely tart, but I like that. Spinach definitely needs some intense flavor added to it.

It's a healthy salad dressing, because I buy the light version. It still has some fat in it, and this is good, because fat helps you absorb the nutrients in the spinach.

By Oceana — On Aug 28, 2012

@googie98 – I think that is basically the same as Greek salad dressing. I went to a Greek restaurant that used this dressing both on the salads and inside the wraps.

I had a grilled shrimp and bacon wrap with lettuce, tomato, and onion that was full of this dressing. It was light yet zingy at the same time. It lent the perfect amount of flavor to the wrap, and it moisturized everything nicely.

By googie98 — On Sep 27, 2010

@medicchristy: This is the recipe for creamy cucumber dressing. It is absolutely spectacular! The ingredients are:

1 cup plain yogurt

½ cucumber (peeled and chopped in small pieces)

1 clove garlic (minced)

1 tsp. lemon juice

½ tsp. salt

½ tsp. ground white pepper

Add all of the ingredients to a blender and blend until smooth. Refrigerate until it is chilled.

By StormyKnight — On Sep 27, 2010

@medicchristy: This is the recipe for cucumber salad dressing that I use. I am still looking for one that maybe incorporates ranch dressing with cucumbers.

You need ¼ cup water, ¼ cup vegetable oil, ¼ cup vinegar, ¼ cup sugar, 1 tsp. mustard, salt and pepper to taste, and 4 cucumbers.

Mix all of the ingredients except the cucumbers in a covered bowl. Shake very well. Slice your cucumbers up and add them to the dressing. Cover and shake again. Store in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

By medicchristy — On Sep 27, 2010

Does anyone know how to make cucumber salad dressing?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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