Minutes of the Institute for Oleic Research, Part 3

Celebrating the start of summer with a cool and creamy buttermilk salad dressing.
buttermilk salad dressing

Spring’s harbingers of summer usually come via a number of natural occurrences—the explosion of lilac bushes with their aromatic flowers, or the first boom of thunder that sends us running home to close the windows.

But at the Institute for Oleic Research, the harbinger of summer comes in the form of a salad dressing. All winter, we’ve tinkered with our house vinaigrette, which begins by soaking a crushed garlic clove in a lake of green olive oil, then whisking in lemon juice, grainy mustard, sea salt, and fresh pepper, for a thick and pungent dressing. Indeed, the salads of winter are an austere bunch, and a sharp yellow vinaigrette that almost induces a pucker brings the woodiest romaine or most unpromising head of iceberg back to life, especially if you’re liberal with extra ingredients like hothouse cucumbers and shreds of purple onion.

But summer’s greens never like to be treated that way, and the first buttery leaves of Bibb lettuce, soft as glove leather, or the sturdier leaves of the first red oak lettuce deserve a dressing that allows the springier flavors and textures to shine.

Accordingly, May is when we switch house dressings at the Institute, from vinaigrette to chive buttermilk dressing. Something about buttermilk just says summer. In the upper Midwest where some of us are from, summer can be said to be almost here when kids start running around with a stalk of rhubarb and a salt shaker, or a streaky glass of fresh buttermilk.

The recipe for our dressing follows. While most recipes call for lots of mayo and just a splash of buttermilk, ours is mostly buttermilk—who’s afraid of the stuff, anyway? We also flavor it with chopped chives, which can be gathered in the wilds of many city parks—including Manhattan’s Central Park, where ours were foraged. Lemon juice adds a bright note, and we also use plenty of sea salt; though the dressing may end up a little on the salty side when you taste it, remember that you’re also salting a bale of lettuce leaves at the same time. The quantity of dressing is enough for two heads of Bibb lettuce, our summer favorite, and if you remember to make it a couple of hours before you serve it, the flavor of chives will penetrate every molecule of dressing.

I.F.O.R.’s Buttermilk Dressing

2 tablespoons regular mayonnaise
3 tablespoons buttermilk
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives

Place the mayonnaise and buttermilk in a deep bowl and mix thoroughly with a spoon. Pour lemon juice into the bowl, stirring continuously. Add salt, pepper, and chives, and whisk the dressing for a full minute, checking to make sure there are no lumps. Let it sit for an hour or two for the flavor to be extracted from the chives. Put your salad in a very large bowl and toss as you add the dressing, making sure that every leaf is coated. Serve with a glass of club soda or Chardonnay. Or even buttermilk, if you so desire.

Explore more Minutes of the Institute for Oleic Research.

Subscribe to Gourmet