Big Little Recipes

A 3-Ingredient Sauce to Upgrade Whatever's Around

May 19, 2020

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else—flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst: We don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we’re making a dressing that’s as easy as 1-2-3.

Whether for a salad, grain bowl, or lettuce wrap—or just that forgotten cucumber in the crisper—a simple dressing recipe always comes in handy. (Dressing as in sauce, not as in Thanksgiving side. Though, honestly, that often comes in handy too.)

Maybe it’s a minimalist vinaigrette or many-ingredient ranch—either way, fat's often the star. Say, olive oil or mayo. Or bacon grease or buttermilk. Or blue cheese or tahini. And for good reason: Fat provides flavor (a buttery contrast to humble roughage) and structure (for something that would otherwise be watery).

But do dressings need fat? Actually no. In fact, they can be more flavorful without it.

Romaine and cucumbers, having a really good day. Photo by Yossy Arefi

Think of nuoc cham, a Vietnamese staple made with water, lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar. Or Japanese ponzu, which hinges on yuzu juice, soy sauce, mirin, and vinegar. In dressings like these, the fat isn’t missed, because the other ingredients are so flavorful. Palette-coating oil would only dim their shine.

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Top Comment:
“Ok, I will be making this recipe asap (the croutons sound crazy good!) but you can’t demonstrate a whisk that awesome and not tell us how to get it ;) ”
— L

The same holds true for this tangy-sweet miso dressing. Which, these hunkered-down days at home, I have been putting toward anything and everything—and I hope you will, too. Here’s the cheat sheet: by volume, one part apple cider vinegar, one part honey, one part white miso. Whisk together and adjust as needed (say, more vinegar to contrast something luxe, like steak, or more honey to offset something salty, like feta).

Apple cider vinegar is always in my pantry. I love its fruity sourness, not leaning too far in one direction or the other. That said: This is not the time to go out just for apple cider vinegar. If you happen to only have white wine, rice, or malt, roll with that. Even freshly squeezed lemon juice. Just avoid big personality vinegars like balsamic or sherry, which would draw too much attention.

Now, onto the honey: A raw, grainy-textured and brawny-flavored variety works wonders. But a milder bear-shaped bottle is also great (and so cute). If you don’t have honey in the first place, other liquid sweeteners like maple syrup, molasses, sorghum, or agave can step in, though not as seamlessly as when swapping vinegar. Start with a smaller quantity (say, about half), then rework the ratio from there.

And finally, most importantly, the miso. As author and teacher Sonoko Sakai writes in Japanese Home Cooking, this is “a living seasoning. There are countless varieties...made with a variety of grains and beans...that undergo fermentation with salt and koji.” The result is a highly nutritious, flavorful paste that my fridge is never without. Here, we’re using white miso (shiro miso), which has a creamy hue and sweet-ish disposition. With a flavor that’s powerful, but not overpowering, it’s an ideal candidate for dressings.

What’s more: Miso’s peanut butter–esque thickness means the dressing will happily cling to lettuce leaves, vegetable spears, chicken cutlets, tempeh nuggets, and grilled cheese croutons alike.

In the video demo above (please excuse my cat’s interruptions), I opted for the last, riffing on this Big Little Recipe from last year. Tell me, what’s the first thing you would put this dressing toward? Share ideas in the comments below.

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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


Karena May 29, 2020
We live in Oaxaca, way down in southern Mexico. What if miso isn't available? Are we totally screwed???
nutcakes July 24, 2020
Miso is singular; you are just going to have to make something else tasty. Read her lead-in for ideas.
mamalisa May 25, 2020
does Food52 sell the mini whisks?
Emma L. May 26, 2020
Hi! I snagged the mini whisk in the video from my mom (and am not sure where she originally found it). Here are a couple small-size options from our shop:
L May 20, 2020
Ok, I will be making this recipe asap (the croutons sound crazy good!) but you can’t demonstrate a whisk that awesome and not tell us how to get it ;)
Emma L. May 20, 2020
I actually got it from my mom!
L May 20, 2020
Moms always find the best gadgets!!
Lisa B. May 19, 2020
If I don't have miso can I use peanut butter?
Olivia N. May 19, 2020
I've never tried that swap before, but I wonder if a mixture of peanut butter and a dash of soy sauce would better capture both the creamy goodness and funkiness of white miso. It might not be the same, but – in the spirit of experimentation and using what you have on hand – it could be a great swap!
Lisa B. May 19, 2020
Thanks! That sounds about right - I'll try that!