The Secret Ingredient in My Grandma’s Famous Salad Dressing

published Jun 13, 2024
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Homemade salad dressing in mason jar.
Credit: Rachel Perlmutter

I like to think I inherited the itch to host dinner parties from my grandma. When I was growing up, she hosted regular family dinners, holiday meals, and some truly special birthdays (if it was your day, you got to pick the meal and the cake). She would work tirelessly to bring it to life. However, no matter what we were having for dinner, one thing always stayed the same: her salad.

The salad started with a base of romaine, but the rest of the ingredients would come and go. Avocado, broccoli florets, bell peppers, red onions, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, olives — the combination of toppings was never exactly the same, but the dressing was always a creamy vinaigrette that she made without a recipe. We’d start every dinner with the salad, on chilled plates, swapping vegetables with the people to our left or right who would prefer them.

A year and a half ago, my grandma passed away suddenly, weeks before Thanksgiving. I couldn’t make it home for the holiday, which was fine because no one felt much like celebrating. My dad did, however, want to have the salad. We did some guessing over the phone and constructed, from memory, what ingredients felt the most right — “definitely avocado and celery, maybe you can skip the olives.” We came to the conclusion that it was a red wine vinaigrette with a little mayo, Greek seasoning, and Parmesan cheese. My parents had the salad with their holiday meal, and my dad reported back. Sadly, it just didn’t taste right. 

A few weeks later, I came to town for the holidays and we planned to try again for our family Hanukkah dinner. Normally we’d have my holiday salad (one of my grandma’s favorites), but this year we were on a mission. I’d spent weeks combing through my memories and came to one conclusion: It was the Parm. Sure enough, to do the salad justice, my dad had purchased a wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano to grate into the salad. Not a bad guess, because my grandma used nice cheese all the time in her cooking. But for the salad dressing, I swore she used shaker Parm from the green canister. We made a new batch, and my eyes immediately welled up with tears. My dad, also choked up, just said “wow.”

I’m a girl who really loves salads, and this might be the first one I ever loved. I have all of my grandma’s recipe cards and books in my apartment, but the one I cherish the most is the one she never bothered to write down. Plus, it’s a nice reminder that it’s not always the fanciest ingredients that make the most special meals.

Credit: Rachel Perlmutter

Why It Works

  • It’s delicious. The umami-rich salad dressing is creamy without being too heavy, tangy without going overboard, and plays well with a wide range of ingredients.
  • It’s affordable. You can skip the expensive cheese. Less-fancy shaker Parm does the absolute most for your salad dressing. It adds an impressive punch of cheesy flavor and the extra-fine texture melts perfectly into the dressing for an ideal texture.
  • Grandma knows the best.

Key Ingredients in My Grandma’s Salad Dressing

I start with a basic ratio when I make this dressing: 3 parts olive oil, 1 part vinegar, 1 part mayo, and 1 part Parm, and adjust from there. Throw it all in a jar and shake until it looks creamy and delicious.

  • Red wine vinegar. Adjust the ratio to your preference, but I like a zippier vinaigrette with a little more acid.
  • Olive oil. Extra virgin olive is the base of the dressing.
  • Mayo. A little mayonnaise mellows out the vinegar just enough and makes the dressing, delightfully, just a bit creamy. 
  • Greek seasoning. She used this old-school seasoning mix every time. It contains salt, so don’t season until the end.
  • Pepper. Add a generous amount of freshly cracked black pepper.
  • Parm. Skip the fancy stuff and go with the pizza joint classic: green shaker cheese.

This post originally ran on The Kitchn. See it there: The Secret Ingredient in My Grandma’s Famous Salad Dressing