It’s always been a conundrum to French food lovers: How did that thick, viscous red-0range dressing we serve in the U.S. came to be known as “French” dressing. After all, most food-lovers know that the most ubiquitous way to dress a salad in France is with a vinaigrette.
I might have solved this mystery. Or at least I have a theory.
An American “French” dressing (the red kind) is made with many of the same ingredients as a classic French vinaigrette: vinegar, olive oil, garlic, mustard, salt, and pepper.
But here’s the difference: The American “French” also includes:
* Sugar (historically, we like things sweeter than Europeans, which, incidentally, is why milk chocolate sells more here than dark chocolate).
* Paprika: This is how the dressing gets its color. Plus, it gives the dressing a little extra spice.
Another key difference is that the “American” French is generally thicker; homemade versions call for whirring it in a blender, which emulsifies and thickens the dressing. French vinaigrettes are thinner; they’re usually whisked just until the oil and vinegar are blended together (but not thickened).
So. How did that paprika make its way into the dressing? And why did we decide to make it so thick? Here’s where my theories come in.
I wonder if, somewhere along the line, an American foodie traveled to France and enjoyed a vinaigrette that had a little extra kick in it wrought by the wonderful Piment d’Espelette, a ground spice that’s red (like paprika), but made entirely from a chile grown in and around the Basque town of Espelette. It works beautifully in vinaigrettes.
The American foodie loved this dressing, but once home, couldn’t get his/her hands on Piment d’Espelette, so used paprika instead. Everyone loved the dressing; it got passed around, then published in cookbooks, then used in restaurants, then bottled.
So. Why is it thick? Another theory.
Anyone who’s worked in a restaurant over the years knows that oftentimes, the ubiquitous American dinner salad—that boring concoction of head lettuce, a cucumber slice, maybe a tomato and some shredded carrots—are usually plated in advance and refrigerated on trays so that the server can simply plop some dressing on it and serve it.*
Vinaigrettes don’t work well for this kind of salad. Vinaigrettes are best tossed with the leaves so that each leaf glistens with the dressing. The only dressings that work for a prepped-in-advance salad are thick ones, like Thousand Island, blue cheese, ranch, etc. So rather than tossing each salad to order (which would take too much time in this hyper-automated salad zeitgeist that, for some reasons, diners accept), the restaurateurs thickened the French dressing so it could easily be served in a plop atop the salad.
That’s my theory, anyway.
And yet, as much as I disparage that outdated-automated mode of restaurant salad making, I do like a good homemade American “French” dressing now and then. It really is a vinaigrette, with a little color and kick from paprika. And if you make it at home, you can cut down on (or omit) the sugar. I like serving it, especially, with salads composed of sturdier lettuces and raw vegetables (carrots, tomatoes, celery, cucumbers). Save the clear French vinaigrette for your most tender lettuces.
* Of course, these days, the best restaurants no longer do this, but rather make the salads fresh to order, tossing well-chosen greens with dressing as needed.