Saturday, February 26, 2011

Creamy Buttermilk Caesar Salad Dressing

In terms of the most underrated and under-appreciated ingredients in the kitchen, buttermilk is pretty hard to beat. But its benefits reach far beyond baking. While buttermilk does play a pivotal role in everything from muffins to waffles to cornbread, I don't think that recipes for those foods really show off the buttermilk's tangy flavor or unbelievable creaminess.  That's why my favorite way to use buttermilk is in its raw form.

To be honest, I love the flavor of plain buttermilk. Coming from a non-milk drinker, that's saying a lot. It tastes like liquid sour cream and it's so rich that just a little bit goes a long way. But I understand that drinking buttermilk straight is kind of gross and disconcerting for most.

Recently, I've started using buttermilk is salad dressing. One of my favorite summertime salads is Deb from Smitten Kitchen's corn bread salad. It has a buttermilk lime dressing that's loaded with herbs and sweet and tangy flavor. It's a fun spin on my all-time favorite bread salad. Nevertheless, the dressing is a bit thin and the fresh lime and herbs that it contains don't make it year-round fare.

Enter Cook's Illustrated. I've described my love for Cook's Illustrated and my nearly limitless faith in their recipes. A few months ago, we acquired their Healthy Family Cookbook, which has been an incredible addition to our growing cookbook collection. It's sort of like the classic Best Recipe cookbook for lightweights. And by lightweight I mean that the cookbook is loaded with pictures but withholds the exhaustive recipe testing notes (which are actually my favorite part, but then again I also think Lagrange multipliers are fun) . This is the kind of cookbook that showcases easy, everyday recipes that just happen to be healthy.

I was intrigued by their section on salads. Despite the reputation that salad has for being a healthy food lover's dream, the truth is that some salads, with their oil- or fat-heavy dressings and myriad of toppings, aren't as wholesome as they're cracked up to be. It's actually pretty shocking to discover the nutritional information behind just a few tablespoons of salad dressing. However, the folks at America's Test Kitchen devised an ingenious way to retain the familiar flavor of Caesar salad dressing and the thick and creamy texture without the extra calories and fat. The secret ingredient? Low-fat buttermilk.

Here, buttermilk lends its tangy flavor and thickness to the salad dressing. Other pantry staples complete the dressing, making it a perfect dressing to make year-round. A bit of mayonnaise and Dijon mustard add body; the dressing's salty, savory notes come from a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce and some minced anchovies. Only two tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil (a fraction of the amount called for in our previous go-to recipe from Ina Garten) are needed to round out the dressing. What results is something that is surprisingly and unexpectedly delicious, endlessly creamy with a pleasing sourness from lemon juice and buttermilk. It's actually hard to believe that it's a healthy recipe.

No longer will you worry about what to do with the extra half-carton of buttermilk that you have languishing in the refrigerator unused. Make this salad dressing! In fact, I think we may have to start buying buttermilk regularly. I've already started to think about different variations for this recipe: green goddess and ranch dressings come to mind, but even simple additions like herbs or a different vinegar could really transform the dressing.

I realize that I just spent seven paragraphs talking about salad dressing of all things, but I simply cannot withhold my love for this new recipe. I suppose there are worse things I could be obsessed with. Cheesecake, for example. Oh, wait....

Creamy Buttermilk Caesar Salad Dressing 
Adapted from The America's Test Kitchen's Healthy Family Cookbook

This dressing is the perfect complement to more substantial salad greens like romaine or red-leaf lettuce and baby spinach. To make a more substantial salad, add Ina Garten's Caesar additions: oven-roasted cherry tomatoes, crispy pancetta, and perhaps some garlic croutons.

Yield: about 3/4 cup dressing

1/4 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons light mayonnaisse
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
3 anchovy fillets, rinsed and minced
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup (about 1 ounce) grated parmesan cheese, optional

In a measuring cup or jar, add all ingredients except olive oil and cheese. Whisk vigorously to incorporate (if using a measuring cup) or shake the jar to incorporate the ingredients. If using a whisk, slowly drizzle in the olive oil while whisking to emuslify the dressing. If using a jar, add the olive oil and shake well to emulsify. Add the parmesan, if using, and serve atop salad greens.

The dressing will keep, stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container, for up to a week.


  1. thanks for posting a healthy creamy dressing, they are one of my favorites for salads and dipping- we never have a shortage of buttermilk now that andrew is the official biscuit apprentice at church.

  2. I love any recipe from ATK! I will have to give this salad dressing a try..looks yummy! :)

  3. ...added buttermilk to my shopping list!

  4. buttermilk makes everything better! (esp fried chicken <3) :)

  5. Ooh, I love buttermilk salad dressings. I make ranch all the time. I'll have to try this!

  6. will add to the list. i'm not a buttermilk drinker (really don't drink milk at all) but you've made it sound as tho' i'm missing a lot of goodness.thx.

  7. we love caesar...just returned from a trip to the pike place market in seattle with a cache of fresh scallops and lovely salad makings. this dressing will be perfect to dress the greens and compliment the sweet scallops. thank you!