Ingredient Intelligence

The Secret to Better Salad Dressing Can Be Found in the Baking Aisle

updated Mar 4, 2021
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A spoon full of vinaigrette is emerging from a mason jar.
Credit: Joe Lingeman; Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

Whenever dinner feels a little lackluster, I reach for the salad dressing. Sometimes it’s just the thing to take my meal to the next level, flavor-wise: Creamy dressings are my go-to for chicken and grains, while vinaigrettes lend a zip to roasted veggies or a pot of beans. I’m a big fan of some bottled dressings (you have my whole heart, Hidden Valley Ranch), but I also like to make homemade dressing, too. My family can eat through an entire Mason jar’s worth of maple mustard vinaigrette in under a week, and I’m regularly trying new dressings to keep my cooking and eating boredom at bay.

I recently came across a tip (from Life Hacker, via Kitchn’s Production Editor, Tracey Gertler) that completely changed how I think about DIY dressings, though: adding some vanilla extract. I reach for vanilla often to give cookies and cakes a boost, but I’d never thought about adding it to homemade dressings.

Vanilla Extract Is the Secret Ingredient for Better Homemade Dressings

Lovers of poppyseed dressings or raspberry vinaigrettes won’t be surprised to learn that even the tiniest splash of vanilla extract can improve their favorite dressings, but vanilla also works wonders in simple vinaigrettes and more savory-leaning dressings.

Here’s how it works: Vanilla lessens the bite of bitterness and tempers acidity while making sweet ingredients taste more like themselves. As you know from baking, vanilla is usually more of a background player to other ingredients — something you might not be able to call out, but an ingredient you miss when it isn’t there. It does the same thing in a salad dressing. The round, mild sweetness of vanilla enhances the flavor of sweet salad additions, like berries, but it’s also great with veggies that lean toward the sweeter side, like roasted beets or sweet potatoes. It also tempers pungent flavors, like strong cheeses, garlic, and raw red onion.

To try it at home, start with 1/4 teaspoon and increase from there to suit your taste. Want to really play into vanilla’s indulgent flavor? Build a basic vinaigrette — this recipe is a good guide — but opt for a fruit vinegar like Champagne or raspberry and pair it with fruity olive oil or a robust nut oil. After months of putting this tip into practice, I can tell you that both my house favorite salad dressing and simple tahini, lemon, and honey dressings — and of course every meal they grace — are better for their vanilla addition.