Today, we don’t think twice about making salad dressings or mayonnaise based on oil. Up until the end of the 1800s, though, if you didn’t live in Southern Europe with its ready access to olive oil, you might have been stumped. There were no vegetable oils yet available to you. The plethora of bottled vegetable oils in our kitchens is a very recent phenomenon.
In the 1800s, in both North America and in Britain, salads were becoming more popular. In the absence of oils to dress them, a boiled salad dressing was the answer.
A Boiled Dressing can be thought of as sort of a Hollandaise Sauce for fresh vegetables. It draws on the principle that eggs and vinegar will emulsify in a liquid and form a creamy concoction. The base is usually eggs, vinegar, and a liquid such as cream, milk or water. Some recipes also use a small amount of flour or cornstarch as a thickener. Seasonings such as dry mustard, sugar and salt are added. Later versions would include a tablespoon of olive oil, showing that it was becoming available, but was still a luxury item.
The sauce isn’t actually boiled, but rather simmered or made over a double-boiler. It makes a tangy, pourable sauce that can be preserved in jars by canning, which was useful in the days before refrigeration.
Boiled Dressings have faded from fashion now owing to the availability of cheap vegetable oils, not to mention ready-to-use bottled salad dressings. It is still used though for its tang in salads such as coleslaw and potato salad. It is also very good in heartier, bound salads such as bean or chicken. It is still very popular in the UK, in the form of bottled Salad Cream, and in the American South.
A Boiled Dressing can be a good way to use up leftover egg yolks, depending on which recipe you use. If you want to add lemon juice to freshen it up, add after all cooking is complete.
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/2 cup cold water
1/4 cup vinegar
1 egg or 2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons of butter or cream
Whisk all the dry ingredients in the cold water. In the top of a double-boiler, beat the egg with the vinegar, then whisk in the water mixture. Cook until thick and smooth. When done, add the butter, cream or milk, and chill. If you need to thin it, thin it with more cream, milk, buttermilk, sour cream or Greek yoghurt. For added zip, you can add a squeeze of lemon juice, but only at the end after it is cooked.
Store in refrigerator for up to 3 or 4 days.
Mayonnaise, Miracle Whip, Salad Cream
For party or picnic occasions where salads such as potato will be left standing at room temperature, a boiled dressing can be a safer choice than some other dressings, as it has been cooked. (Ed: note that commercially-made mayonnaise is also a safe choice: see entry on mayonnaise.)
Because it’s been cooked, it can also be a safer choice than homemade mayonnaise for those such as pregnant women who need to avoid raw eggs.
Literature & Lore
“A delicious salad dressing of the latter variety (Ed: “a good boiled dressing”) which is recommended by the Government cooks consists of: Four egg yolks, two tablespoonfuls vinegar or lemon juice, two tablespoonfuls butter, two tablespoonfuls honey, one teaspoonful mustard, one teaspoonful salt, one cup cream and paprika to taste.
Heat the cream in a double boiler. Beat the eggs and add to them all the other ingredients but the cream. Pour the cream slowly into the mixture, beating constantly. Cook the entire mixture in the double boiler until it thickens. As the dressing is needed combine the mixture with whipped cream. This dressing is particularly suitable for fruit salads.” — U.S. Expert Suggests Ideal Christmas Dinner: Miss Caroline L. Hunt, of Bureau of Home Economics of Department of Agriculture, Also Gives Reason Why She Has Selected Items on Her Menu. New York Times. 19 December 1915.