Two French Dressings. Both Worth Your Time.

American "French" dressing and a French vinaigrette. Photo by Richard Swearinger.

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.

Piment d'Espelette drying in the Basque Country, France. Photo credit: Photothèque Piment d’Espelette AOC

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.

Recipes:

Vinaigrette Maison: A Classic French Vinaigrette

American “French” Dressing: A Classic

 

 

* 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.

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4 comments to Two French Dressings. Both Worth Your Time.

  • Greg

    Just wondering if you are going to be teaching any classes (cooking/lifestyle)with your new book release- looks fantastic!

  • Wini

    That’s so sweet of you to ask. I like to think that my recipes are so easy (and that I give you all the info you need), that you don’t need to be shown any how-to’s. But I will be doing a few event out and about—likely talking about the approach and ingredients, etc. I’ll announce those as they come up. Thanks!

  • Great- hope you make it up to Rochester, MN – we have a Barnes/Noble and I would be happy to see if they would host a signing for you – if that is how it works. My day job is in marketing at Mayo Clinic – my farm that I run with my partner is my passion – http://www.wrenhillfarm.com. Let me know if you would ever like some goats! :-)
    PS- do you touch upon the philososphy of “french women don’t get fat ” in your book – I am trying to embrace pleasure/lifestyle vs. diet to lose a few!
    I see you have several posts on french lifestyle that should help.

  • just sent you a message via your contact page today – did you receive it? Not sure that is working…thanks!

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