Salad days: 17 easy, delicious dressings – from pink peppercorn to tahini

From time to time, you meet people who say: “I can’t make salad dressing.” On the face of it this is a bit like admitting you can’t ride a bike or tie shoelaces, but what they really mean, I suspect, is that they don’t want to make the salad dressing. They want you to make the salad dressing.

That’s because although dressing isn’t complicated, it is a bit of a responsibility, requiring a delicate balance of elements. Decisions have to be made, and your judgment may come into question. At its most basic, a salad dressing comprises three ingredients – oil, vinegar, salt – but an old proverb recounted by Marcella Hazan in The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking holds that the perfect salad needs four people to dress it: “A judicious one for the salt, a prodigal one for the olive oil, a stingy one for the vinegar and a patient one to toss it.”

If you’re going to make salad dressing in this time-honoured, high-wire fashion – right there, on the leaves, in front of everyone – this is all the recipe you need. Do things in that order – salt first, then oil, then vinegar – and be all four people. For the 16 variations that follow, a little more preparation may be required.

Jamie Oliver’s basic French dressing adds chopped garlic and mustard to the mix, and offers up an inviolable ratio for successful dressing: three parts oil to one part vinegar. He also unveils a simple technique you can use for all sorts of dressings: put all the ingredients in a jam jar with a tight lid, so you can shake them up just before pouring.

Felicity Cloake’s authoritative vinaigrette employs half a teaspoon of honey as sweetener and binding agent (oil and vinegar separate as soon as you turn your back on them). She also uses the 3:1 oil to vinegar ratio, even though 2:1 is commonly recommended elsewhere – a blend Cloake dismisses as too acidic.

Those are the basics from which endless variations may be spun, with additions, omissions or replacements. You can substitute lemon juice for vinegar, as in this recipe for rocket with a charred lemon dressing, where the lemon is first halved and then charred, cut side-down, in a hot pan. I’m not sure how much difference the charring makes, even after trying it a few times, but surely no harm can come from it.

Anna Jones’s crisp garlic dressing adds chilli and just-browned garlic slices, with lime juice instead of lemon, to top a salad made entirely of herb leaves: coriander, basil, parsley, dill and mint.

If you’ve got fresh herbs wilting in your fridge, past all use as salad leaves, they can be incorporated into the dressing itself. This tip from Lisa Marie Corso revives tired herbs – any you’ve got, in whatever combinations you fancy – by whizzing them up with garlic, oil, lemon, and salt and pepper. The result is a bit like a chimichurri, and can also be employed in that fashion as a sauce for meats.

Slightly more exotic, but not much more complicated takes include pomegranate dressing the most difficult aspect of which might be finding a pomegranate. It can be used on green salad, rice salad, couscous or any number of largely interchangeable grains. Gill Meller’s tahini dressing is perfect for a salad of aubergine, courgettes, lettuce and seeds.

This sesame dressing will work on any sort of noodle salad. It’s a straightforward blend of sesame oil, lemon, chilli and tamari, which is the Japanese version of soy sauce, with a less salty taste and little or no gluten. For the gluten tolerant, soy sauce will suffice. Jane Baxter’s peanut sauce here serves as a dressing for a chicken and cabbage slaw.

The other main branch of the salad dressing family tree is made up of opaque emulsions, thickened with cream, egg or yoghurt, some of them famous enough to have they own origin stories. Caesar salad, for example, was invented by Caesar Cardini in 1924, allegedly in response to a shortage of supplies at his restaurant. The making of a proper caesar salad is exacting and ritualistic – it’s supposed to be done by a waiter at the diners’ table – but the dressing recipe is a good one to have under your belt. Once again, Felicity Cloake’s definitive take is our guide. If you’ve got the dressing right, you can be pretty inauthentic with the rest of the salad without attracting complaint.

American “ranch”-style dressing also has its own inventor: plumbing contractor Steve Henson, who first came up with it in Alaska and later served it at the California guest house, Hidden Valley Ranch, he ran with his wife in the 1950s. The dressing – a mix of mayonnaise, buttermilk, garlic and spices – proved more popular than the guest house. Technically, authentic ranch dressing is the dried packet version that made Henson rich, or the shelf-stable bottled version that subsequently became wildly popular, but the Greedy Gourmet’s recipe will give you a homemade approximation of that store-bought goodness. Henry Dimbleby’s pink peppercorn dressing is a distant, rather more glamorous relative, using single cream.

Some dressings are versatile; others are indelibly associated with one kind of salad. Remoulade is, in a way, both: it’s used as a sauce for all kinds of things, including meats, but with salad it’s almost always paired with celeriac. Celeriac remoulade one of my favourite things, and I only ever use this recipe, from Nigel Slater, which I keep on my phone in case I find myself in a part of the world that has celeriac but not the internet. I will not lie to you – chopping celeriac into tiny uniform sticks is boring and hard – your hand will be sore when your done. But it’s worth it.

Slater’s Caerphilly salad dressing is more of a winter thing, perfect for bitter, frost-singed chicory, but it’s a rare August that doesn’t feature a few nights cold enough for a heavy salad. Thomasina Miers’ roast coronation chicken thighs may be pushing the definition of salad slightly, but the yoghurt dressing that accompanies it turns it into an ideal summer meal.

Finally, we have that much-derided British staple, salad cream. Before it was a benighted, mass-produced condiment, salad cream was a respectable Victorian dressing. Simon Hopkinson uses his homemade version, made from eggs, tarragon vinegar and whipping cream, to dress a classic high-tea salad. It’s utterly incomparable, especially for me, since I’ve been careful never to try store-bought salad cream in the first place.