If you’re new to line cooking, chances are they’re going to start you out on garde manger, also known as “pantry”, also known as “apps”. One of your responsibilities will likely be to provide a family meal salad every day. You’re going to have minimal time to accomplish this task given the other prep and setup work you will have to do to be ready for service on time.
In the year I spent working garde manger, I always tried to accomplish a family salad in under 10 minutes, which meant filling a deep hotel pan with lettuces and other garnishes, dressing it, labeling it, and cleaning up my mess. I had to feed 35 - 45 people a night depending on the day of the week.
Given the time crunch you will be under for family meal, you don’t have time to go look at a recipe, and you certainly don’t have time to measure out ingredients. You have to learn to do it using your palate. You also don’t want people to get bored with your cooking. Family meal is your chance to show out a bit in front of your peers and your chefs, so if you care about your craft to that extent then here are some tips and tricks that I learned along the way that can help.
First off, let’s talk about equipment. The fastest way to get a dressing together is not with a whisk or a bowl. Use a quart container. Get a quart container, put your ingredients in using the clear sides to eyeball your measurements. When you have it assembled, put the lid on and give it a shake, taste, make adjustments, repeat. You’ll never go back to doing it any other way. I even do it that way at home unless I’m building a vinaigrette directly in the bowl.
The next major thing to call out is salt. The reason a restaurant salad tastes so much better than what home cooks plop on the table is salt. Your lettuce greens are going to need to be salted. Even if you serve dressing on the side, you are going to want to apply salt to the veg directly until it tastes balanced.
Two main categories of dressings
Now that one fifth of the flavor diagram is taken care of in the form of salt, let’s talk about the two main categories of dressings: vinaigrettes and creamy. Both are emulsions of fat and acid and can both be very tasty. They both have their advantages and I’ll delve into both.
The quicker of the two types of dressings to put together is a vinaigrette. A vinaigrette is an unstable emulsion (it will break when not agitated) consisting of roughly 3 parts fat to one part acid. The 3 to 1 ratio is a guide point, there’s plenty of exceptions to the rule and it always always always comes down to the context of the item you are dressing so use it as a starting point, taste and adjust.
For the quickest possible salad dressing, take a quart container and measure out 3 to 1 canola to vinegar, add a decent pinch of salt, shake and taste. You should taste a balance of the richness of the oil, cut with the acid, and balanced with the salt. If any of those three things are out of balance, fix it, shake it, and taste again. If that all tastes good, pour that over your salad greens that you salted in the hotel pan and, with gloves on, toss, toss, toss. Taste again. Everything still in balance? If so, then you’re done. Boom, dressed salad in a couple of minutes.
Now that you have the basic idea let’s talk about the fat and acid components and then take it a step further. For the fat, canola, or “salad oil” will probably be your best bet. If using olive oil, be careful because 100% olive oil will likely be unpleasantly bitter. It also costs more. I generally find it best to stick to neutral oil and let the acid do the talking. For vinegar, I would steer clear of the fancy bottles you’re using to finish salads during service opting instead for the big handle gallon size containers of apple cider, champagne, sherry, or red wine vin. Your chef will be pleased with your eye towards cost savings.
It’s fun and easy to bang out quick vinaigrettes like this but eventually it will feel like you’re making the same salad again and again. Here’s some ways to jazz it up:
Consider that lemon will give you a true North Star acid flavor. Supplement your vinegar with some acid to make it shine through more.
Consider lime and what that flavor is evocative of as an alternative to lemon. Latin American or Southeast Asian theme to family meal? Lime is many times, the way to go.
If your going to use lemon or lime, add the zest as well. A lemon vinaigrette is going to have lemon juice punch to it, but also be heavy on zest to really drive home the flavor.
Add heavy herbs if you want them to shine through. Most soft herbs do well in dressings. Mint, cilantro, parsley, chive, oregano, dill, marjoram. Experimenting with one or two of them every time you make a dressing will help your palate really develop a competency towards them.
Consider what sweet, spicy, and umami can bring to the table. Like the taste of that lemon or lime vinaigrette? Adding some soy sauce is like dropping some serious bass to the song you’re listening to.
Here’s some classic vinaigrettes that are handy to be able to trot out situationally
Do maybe a 50 / 50 blend of olive oil and canola. For your acid use red wine vinegar and maybe give it a little more pop with some lemon. Oregano mince will give you that classic “Greek” flavor and then if there’s some shallot trim lying around throw that in there and season it with salt to taste.
Start with canola and optionally a small percentage of olive oil. Add predominantly lemon juice and cut it with a clear vinegar, say champaigne vin. Add the zest of at least 2 lemons per quart, but if you do 4 or 5, it wouldn’t hurt. Season with salt.
Peel ginger and micro plane about a tablespoon of it into a pint container. Next do the same with carrot. Then add soy sauce and lemon. Go ahead and taste it at this point and you will be amazed at the terrific amount of flavor it packs. From there you can thin it out with canola oil so that it becomes appropriately mild to act as a salad dressing.
The other main branch of dressings can be a little daunting until you get the hang of them. I didn’t start comfortably banging out creamy dressings until vinaigrettes became rote and I wanted to bring more punch to my salad flavors. Ranch, Bleu Cheese, honey mustard, thousand island, and caesar, all can be started the same way and once you grasp the one simple idea behind them.
Here’s the concept: Start with mayonnaise and then thin it out to dressing consistency using milk and or acid. Want to make ranch? Thin mayo out with buttermilk and lemon. Next add a whole lot of garlic powder and onion powder and some herbs. Easy, right?
The exercise of creamy dressings becomes infinitely easier if you have access to ready made mayo or base aïoli. If you want to learn to make aïoli, which I think you should as it is a core part of learning to become a chef, read my article “Mayonnaise without a Recipe”. It’s not hard once you grasp the ratio and get comfortable making it. You can even make a couple of quarts a week and have it ready to use for tomorrow’s caesar salad.
Can you use yogurt instead of mayo? You can but you’re going to have to beat back that tartness that makes you smack your tongue. How? Fat. Add olive oil for richness to round out the flavor. You’ll still end up using less fat than starting with mayo.
The advantage of creamy dressings is that they are going to coat the salad greens more and give you a more rich and robust flavor than you can achieve with vinaigrette alone.
Here’s how I approach some of the classic creamy dressings without a recipe:
Start with mayonnaise, thin it out to dressing consistency with buttermilk and some lemon. Add a generous amount of both garlic powder and onion powder. Add a healthy squirt of lemon for some pop and then the herbs: parsley, chive, dill, and a few cracks of black pepper.
Start with mayonnaise. Hand chop some anchovy and throw them in along with a generous sprinkle of parm, pecorino, or a blend of the two. Grate one clove of garlic per quart (don’t get cute and do more) and add a blob of Dijon. Those are the basics. It’s an anchovy and cheese aïoli at its core. Want to make it more interesting? Augment the acid from the lemon using a white vinegar - Champagne or white balsamic perhaps. Augment the umami of the anchovy with Worcestershire or fish sauce. Use roasted garlic instead of fresh.
Caesar dressing is perhaps my favorite thing to make. It’s such a wonderful flavor exercise for you and your tongue.
You may think it’s honey and mustard but really it’s too abrasive without a core of mayo rounding it out. Start with mayo and add a couple of blobs of mustard, then sweeten it with honey. Lemon can also add a pleasant amount of brightness to this one.
For Bleu Cheese dressing you need for some of the cheese to be emulsified into the sauce and some more added in chunks to garnish at the end. You can either use a robot coupe to blitz in some of the cheese to the mayo or let it sit in acid, let’s say lemon and Champagne vin until it breaks down on its own. From there thin out mayo using your acid, and garnish with more Bleu cheese crumbles. Roasted garlic, dijon, shallot mince, hot sauce, and Worcestershire are also good ideas.
There’s one Ingredient that can be added to any of the dressings described in this article that I think deserve their own callout - shallots. Shallots, minced and thrown into a dressing provide a little sweetness and a whole lot of succulence. Use them liberally when you can. If there is shallot trim lying around the walk-in, always grab them, mince them and macerate them in acid for your dressings. If you can let them soak for 45 minutes or so into the non fat ingredients of your dressing, say the worcestershire, lemon, tobacco, and Champagne vin of a blue cheese dressing, the shallot will take on all of those flavors and provide a little pop with every bite of salad your guest sinks their teeth into. You really can’t use enough of them. I once worked at a James Beard award winning restaurant where about a third of the dressings when viewed from the side consisted of shallot mince, and we had a mandate to stir that dressing held in a Bain Marie with a ladle every time we spooned it out to make sure we got ample shallot action onto the plate.
On garde manger, you may be tasked daily with chopping abundant amounts of herbs for the other cooks to use. Those very herbs would also serve to heighten your dressings. Ask the cooks to throw their unused herbs back at you at the end of service and use them in your dressings the next day. Chopped parsley, basil chiffonade, chive mince, thyme mince, cilantro stems, marjoram and oregano all make wonderful additions to both vinaigrettes and creamy dressings. They can also position your salad into any family meal themes you are running. Latin American? Use cilantro and lime. Asian? Mint, scallion, fried shallots, ginger, soy or fish sauce are your friends. Something more classic? Try combining thyme with shallots and sherry vin. The same rule with shallots applies to herbs - the more the merrier. Go beyond the tablespoon measurements of cookbooks and food television hosts here - use a cup per quart. Hell, use a pint. If you’re making a cilantro vinaigrette, you want it to taste like cilantro.
Okay, that’s a whole lot of information on salad dressings. Who knew there was so much to making humble salads. The main thing is to always taste and learn and adjust. Every time you use a particular vinegar, or herb, or fat, you learn and develop mental maps that improve your palate. You learn to control your flavors and making great tasting food becomes fun and easy. That is what your chef wants you to learn during your time on garde manger. When you matriculate to the hot line, you’ll need to make decisions around flavor in a split second; does this sauce need salt, acid, fat, heat? And you have to be right every single time amid dozens of other things going on around you: orders coming in, special requests from diners, allergies, what’s coming up to the pass in three minutes, how many steaks you have on back, and is that sauté pan behind you about to start smoking? You get the idea. You have to crawl before you walk and dressings are your training wheels on your path to becoming a chef. No one is born with a great palate. We all develop one in the same way we learn to make perfect knife cuts. Anyone can do it.