Dressed to impress: Chefs reveal their secret salad dressing recipes

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The quality of what you put on your salad matters just as much as what you put in it.

Don't you sometimes wish that you could collar the chef who has just prepared your restaurant meal and ask how something or other is done; some smart trick that has tickled your tastebuds?

For me, especially at this time of year, it's nearly always salad dressing that brings on this desire to corner the man or woman in whites, a nagging sense that the unctuous liquid covering the leaves and other vegetation in any halfway-decent restaurant salad is noticeably superior to the oil-and-vinegar concoctions I mix at home. My library of cookbooks from Nigel to Nigella – by way of Jamie, Hugh and Delia – stresses how easy everything is: "mix one part wine vinegar to three parts olive oil" and all that jazz – but somehow the results are never quite the same as when you visit the top pros to eat.

"Generally I think the reason why people come up to chefs in restaurants and say: 'Your dressing was fantastic' and ask how they make them is that they tend to be emulsified," says Tom Pemberton of Hereford Road restaurant in London's Notting Hill – meaning the dressing, not the people, tend to be emulsified. No drunks here. But hold the emulsification, Tom. Diners actually come up to you and ask how you make your dressing? Yes and not just the eating public, either, adds Matt Cranston, head chef of the Anglesea Arms in London's Hammersmith, one of the oldest and consistently best gastro-pubs in the country. "My mum is obsessed with dressing. What am I now? 40 years old. For the past 30 years she's been asking me how to make salad dressing and she still can't do it."

Readers will understand my game now. Lacking brazenness as an anonymous diner, I'm using the cloak of journalism to beard top chefs in their lairs. Along with Tom Pemberton and Matt Cranston, Rowley Leigh of Le Cafe Anglais in London's Bayswater, and Yotam Ottolenghi – the Israeli-born veggie king – have been enmeshed in my quest to nail the perfect summer salad and how to dress it. The only trouble is that they disagree on the ingredients, or at least on some of the ingredients. My panel of experts are united in one thing, however, and that is salt. We civilians, on the highly understandable grounds that a salad – if nothing else – ought to be healthy, simply aren't using enough of the white stuff. "Chefs tend to season things quite highly – more so than at home – and when people go to restaurants they think: 'Oh that's tasty'," says Pemberton, while Rowley Leigh, in a simple answer to my simple question about the difference between the dressings one tastes at home and in a restaurant, replies: "The salt, probably." I dip my finger into the dressing that Cranston is whisking together for a goat's cheese salad and it does seem extraordinarily briny to me – but then Cranston is simultaneously sparing with the amount he applies to the salad.

"It's important not to use too much dressing," he says, as I have flashbacks to the Total Wipeout-style dunking to which my lettuce at home is habitually subjected. But just when I'm feeling that I could prepare salads like this myself and live beyond middle age, Cranston then adds salt to raw salad leaves. "People don't season while they are cooking," he says, catching my look.

"They only season afterwards, which is a completely different thing. If you season while cooking then it draws flavours out." Add salt at the end, in other words and you're only tasting salt. In salads, says Leigh, sodium chloride should be the first ingredient into the bowl.

"It's crucial that you dissolve the salt in vinegar before you add the oil, because salt doesn't dissolve in oil," he advises. "First thing I do, automatically, when I make a dressing, is put salt in a bowl, and then vinegar, possibly mustard, possibly sugar, possibly garlic – all those things I'll smooth to a paste before I start adding the oil."

Our chefs differ as to their preferred vinegars, although all agree that it should be of the finest possible quality – leave the industrial malted variety to the fish and chip shops. Ottolenghi says he likes to use champagne vinegar, while Cranston prefers red wine vinegar and Pemberton sometimes likes to uncork the tarragon vinegar. They are no more unified about the oil, except to stress that it is the very last thing to go into the mix.

While Cranston and Leigh belong largely to the olive oil brigade, Ottolenghi argues that this can be too harsh in a leafy salad and advises a more neutral vegetable oil such as groundnut or sunflower.

"I think using olive oil is quite a risky business," says Ottolenghi. "It tends to be quite heavy and dominant. I keep the olive oil for more hardy salads – one that mixes up legumes... you know... beans, or a grain or a lentil." Leigh concurs: "I would agree that in a classic French vinaigrette I would usually mix half and half – olive oil and sunflower oil. But it depends on the use: with tomatoes you want the strongest possible oil you can get. You can't beat sliced tomatoes with new season olive oil."

Cranston is a firm believer in the olive variety. "It has to be a good quality," he stresses. "Although it doesn't have to be one of the supersonically expensive Ligurian, super-fandango, early-pressed, peasant-filtered oils. But get away from vegetable oil – its texture is a bit claggy and it just doesn't add anything to the whole experience."

Last weekend I tried putting some of this at times conflicting advice into practice when I dressed a simple green salad. Into a mixing bowl I dropped a couple of tablespoons of Dijon mustard, onto which I forced myself to sprinkle more salt than I usually would, before mixing in some expensive Edmond Mallot Burgundy white wine vinegar I had bought on an extravagant whim a few months back and never opened, mainly because I never thought I had a suitably luxurious use for it. Now I know this should be my everyday salad vinegar.

Finally I whisked in the Puget brand olive oil that I buy in bulk whenever I visit a French supermarket (along with Bonne Maman jams – they are a lot cheaper across the Channel), and dampened the whole thing down with splashes of cold water, just like I saw Pemberton doing in the kitchen of the Anglesea Arms. And I have to say that it was the best home-made salad dressing that I have ever made. My wife agreed with me.

At the start of the process I could have added a clove of garlic or, preferably, according to Ottolenghi, a shallot. I might have sprinkled in some cayenne pepper, or some sugar to give it that Heinz Salad Cream sweetness (properly made salad cream is making a big comeback, apparently), or honey or lemon juice. Plenty of time to experiment now that I feel I have the magic base dressing.

But what sort of salads should we be making now that proper, barometer-busting summer is upon us and British-grown vegetables are in plentiful supply?

"Really fresh stuff right now are peas, radishes, baby fennel, herbs, new potatoes, the soft lettuces," says Pemberton. Leigh adds: "I've got a very nice salad, which is just raw fresh peas mixed with chopped cos lettuce and I mix that with lemon juice and olive oil, with grated parmesan on top." Sounds good, but what is the best way to mix and match salad ingredients? Can my usual practice – open the fridge and bung in everything that comes to hand – ever be a recipe for success?

"Only if you are willing to bear the consequences," says Ottolenghi. "Even something that looks easy to prepare needs to have the right balance in it – acidity to sweetness, or acidity to saltiness. The same applies for textures. At the moment I have a salad of faro – which is very close to barley – and marinated red peppers and feta cheese. Then I mix in leaves. So what you get there is the significant sweet flavour of the marinated peppers, the faro gives it a beautiful crunchy texture. You get a lot of excitement in one dish."

"I do think people just look in their fridge to see what they've got, chop it up and throw it in," agrees Leigh.

"At home people tend to think that salad is a sort of compendium – you can put anything you like in and it'll be all right, whereas one needs to exercise quite a lot of editorial control."

Four desert-island summer salads

Yotam Ottolenghi

A very difficult question. In my salad there would be artichoke, an aromatic and beautiful vegetable that no other vegetable comes close to (cook it with lemon juice and coat it with olive oil so there is lubrication going on). I'd probably have peas or broad beans in there, because that adds all that extra freshness. I'd definitely have some herbs – probably mint... and coriander, one of my favourite herbs. I would definitely have some citrusy flavour – in this case lemon juice. If I wanted to make it a little bit more substantial I would add boiled whole wheat grain.

Tom Pemberton

It might be a warm salad – not very English, I know – which a chef I used to work with a long time ago used to make using chorizo, salad leaves and new potatoes he cooked in chorizo fat, which them went bright red. And then he'd make a salad of that, using bacon lardons, and often he'd put a few grapes in it. I can't tell you how delicious it is.

Rowley Leigh

One of my summer classics is white peach and tomato, absolutely delicious. Just peel the tomatoes, peel the peaches, cut them into segments and toss them in olive oil, salt and pepper and basil. Very simple. A friend of mine lives in Venice and she entered a salad competition last summer and she won the competition with my peach and tomato.

Matt Cranston

I'm a big fan of good old-fashioned, what I call 'floppy lettuce', like butter lettuce, which I use at the pub when I can. It reminds me of being younger at home and I just think it's something we don't use enough any more. To me it just says summer. I serve it with peas and radishes and salad cream and croutons.

Suggested Topics
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little