Why do kids like to dunk foods so much? I have a couple of theories. For very young kids, I think it’s a way to indulge their natural curiosity about interesting textures and color combinations, a kind of culinary equivalent of finger painting if you will. For older kids, the goal is more utilitarian – dunking is a way to instantly combine two flavors that are better together than apart. Chocolate chip cookies in a glass of milk and a French fry in a puddle of ketchup are two examples that come to mind.
I was thinking about this universal love of dunking while I was in the supermarket recently searching for my older daughter’s favorite brand of ranch dressing. Despite eating plenty of vegetables when she was younger, once she hit her teens, she stopped pretty much cold turkey. The only time she eats them now is when she first dunks them in ranch dressing.
As I recently mentioned in these pages, I’m not a fan of supermarket salad dressings. I usually find it easier and tastier to make my own using vinegar or lemon juice, Dijon mustard, and extra virgin olive oil. One dressing that has evaded this DIY approach is ranch dressing. For years, I’ve bought the bottled stuff, thinking that the mysterious white concoction in a squeeze bottle was simply too difficult or time-consuming to make.
Boy, was I wrong. After doing some online research, I learned that ranch dressing, or buttermilk dressing as I prefer to call it, is similar to my everyday vinaigrette in that it can be whipped up at a moment’s notice using three main ingredients – buttermilk, sour cream, and mayonnaise. Two of these ingredients are easy to keep on hand in the fridge. The third, buttermilk, is the exception, but there is an easy way around that (which I describe below).
The key is finding the right ratio of these ingredients. Most of the recipes I found called for a large amount of mayonnaise. Since I don’t particularly like mayonnaise but love sour cream, I decided to use more sour cream than mayonnaise.
Now about the buttermilk. I used to buy buttermilk occasionally to use in recipes, but invariably I threw most of it out due to spoilage before I was able to use all of it. I decided that I wasn’t going to start making homemade buttermilk dressing if it meant that I needed to buy, uh, buttermilk.
Well, I didn’t need to worry. It turns out that you can produce a pretty good imitation of buttermilk by stirring some lemon juice into regular milk, and then letting the mixture sit for 5-10 minutes. The acid in the lemon juice acts on the proteins in the milk, causing them to coagulate and the milk to thicken and take on a tangy flavor, all characteristics of buttermilk. The more lemon juice you use, the more coagulation occurs. Since I wanted my dressing to be on the thicker side, I used the juice of half a lemon in one-half of a cup of milk.
Finally, to flavor the base recipe, I threw in a minced shallot, a tiny amount of sugar, and some salt and pepper. Compared to the store-bought version, which tasted overwhelmingly of vinegar and mayonnaise, my version was much fresher-tasting and complemented the flavors of the vegetables rather than masking them. I even made three variations by adding to separate bowls of the base recipe (1) grated cucumber, (2) a small amount of white wine vinegar, and (3) sumac, a spice with a subtle sour, lemony flavor that is used in Middle East cooking.
So, mix up a batch of this dressing along with a large container of cut-up veggies. The combination, which can be stored in the fridge for up to a week, will make a great after school snack or a first course for dinner. I guarantee that any hesitation over the idea of eating a vegetable will quickly be won over by the universal desire to dunk.
Buttermilk Dressing for Dunking
½ cup milk*
1 tablespoon lemon juice (about half a lemon’s worth)
1 cup sour cream*
¼ cup mayonnaise*
¼ cup minced shallot (about 1 medium-sized shallot)**
½ teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
1. Make the faux buttermilk: In a medium-sized bowl, stir the lemon juice into the milk and let stand at room temperature for 5-10 minutes. The milk will thicken and start to develop a tangy flavor.
2. After the milk has thickened, add the remaining ingredients to the bowl and whisk to combine until the mixture is smooth and all of the ingredients are evenly incorporated. At this point you can add other flavorings (see below) or serve as is. It should last about a week in the refrigerator.
*You can use any combination of full-fat or low-fat milk, sour cream, or mayonnaise. I do not recommend using fat free versions of these ingredients.
**Leave out the shallot if your child prefers foods with no texture.
Variation 1: Stir in one cup of grated cucumber.
Variation 2: Stir in 1 tablespoon of white wine vinegar.
Variation 3: Stir in 1 tablespoon of ground sumac. (Many grocery stores are starting to carry sumac. I’ve also found it at Trader Joe’s and online at http://www.amazon.com or http://www.penzeys.com.)
To use as a salad dressing, increase the amount of milk to one cup.
Note that while this dressing is full of bone-loving calcium, as a condiment it is high in calories. One 1/4-cup serving using full fat ingredients has around 200 calories. Using reduced fat versions of these ingredients reduces this amount by about half.
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