Never underestimate the power of a good salad dressing or sauce.
Of course, the ingredients of a salad and how they’re combined matter. Texture, variety, color, crunch: These factors are all important, all part of the special chemistry that makes a salad great. And naturally it’s important to seek out ingredients that are fresh and seasonal, so that the flavors of your salad will be bold and bright.
But it’s often the case that dressing is what makes or breaks the salad. It’s the X factor that can unify even the most unexpected assortment of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, grains, or legumes. Dressings can add unexpected flavors to the meal with subtlety: I remember the time I asked my godmother what made her signature vinaigrette so great, and she told me that she always adds a hint of cinnamon. Who would have thought?
Dressings can add unexpected heat or a kick in the form of cayenne (as in the Spicy Cilantro Vinaigrette I’m sharing today) or finely diced jalapeño, or they might enhance savory elements with garlic, shallot, or other alliums. They might feature a spice that you don’t use often enough (the inspiration for my Turmeric Tahini Dressing, which is pretty much a weekly staple at home). They might pair two ingredients you’d never thought to put together, like almond butter and citrus (I dare you to try it!).
A good dressing can also serve as the unifying force in meals that, on first inspection, feel a little disjointed. Ironic, isn’t it, that the component we tend to think of as a finishing touch could actually be the foundation of a meal? But it can be. No matter what jumble of produce, grains, or proteins you’ve got in the fridge—even if it’s just vegetable scrapings and the ends of a crusty loaf of bread—you can probably bring things together with a standout vinaigrette. Or a really great tahini dressing. Dressings and sauces do more to help me cook spontaneously than anything else, because if they’re good enough I know that they can make my other ingredients shine.
Here are four of the dressings I love most. I hope you’ll love them, too, though I should offer the disclaimer that I have my dressing and sauce quirks. One of them is that I always add a hint of sweetness, perhaps to offset the fact that I have a heavy hand with salt (see: my Ginger Miso Dressing). I also tend to be generous with acid: lemon, vinegar, and so on.
Use these dressings on greens or raw veggies, but don’t be afraid to drizzle them over bowls of whole grains or slabs of grilled tofu or roasted vegetables instead. Add spices and adjust flavors to make them your own, and use them as a starting point for new dressing ideas. And may they serve as the foundation for many gloriously last-minute meals this summer, and every season after that.
Gena Hamshaw is a certified nutritionist, recipe developer, and food blogger. She shares her latest culinary adventures at The Full Helping. She's the author of two cookbooks, Food52 Vegan (2015) and Choosing Raw (2014). She enjoys yoga, sweet potatoes, cashews, and things that are smothered in sauce.