The Clara Project: classic French salad dressing recipe.

You know French salad dressing? The kind you might find on a salad bar or in a chain restaurant … that goopy, high-fructose-corn-syrup-meets-red-dye-no.3 concoction? French dressing is really a hot mess.

It was not always this way.

The first two recipes in The Clara Project were on the sweet end of the taste spectrum: one-bowl chocolate cake and old-fashioned homemade donuts. This week, we go savory. [That's the luck of randomly drawing recipes from Clara's collection. Read more about The Clara Project.]

This 1930s classic French dressing recipe bears no resemblance to the modern version (and thank heaven for that). Today’s French salad dressing often includes ketchup, Worcestershire, grated onion, oil, vinegar and as much as a cup of sugar. There’s nothing particularly French about it.

Back in the 1930s, though, any vinaigrette-type salad dressing was called “French”—as that was the origin of the basic oil/vinegar combination.

vintage recipe for french salad dressing

This vintage recipe for French dressing recalls one that my Mom remembers from growing up; it was printed on the back of the Wesson salad oil bottle. It’s very simple, not at all sweet, pretty to look at and just darn tasty. No question, this French dressing will go into a two-man rotation with my favorite classic vinaigrette dressing.

While home cooks in the 1930s probably had two choices when making a salad—grocery iceberg lettuce or home-grown leaf lettuce—we have so many options today: mixed baby greens, mescluns, heirloom lettuces. I find this kind of dressing to be perfect on a simple toss of sweet butterhead-type lettuce, with perhaps a handful of cherry tomatoes thrown in. It would also be good as a dressing for potato salad. This is waaaayyyy better than the bottled French salad dressing you find on grocery shelves.

I made two revisions to Clara’s original recipe: First, I used 1/2 cup of olive oil and 1/2 cup of grapeseed oil. Clara, most likely, would have used all vegetable oil, but I wanted the extra kick of flavor from a good quality, fruity olive oil. Second, I doubled the amount of paprika after tasting the dressing; I wanted a deeper flavor and color. [Also, Clara's recipe called for "f.g. cayenne"—um, "f.g."? Thumbing through the collection, I found a card listing common measurements and discovered that "f.g." means "few grains" ... or, a pinch.]

Does this old-fashioned recipe remind you of a favorite family recipe? Please share in the comments below!

recipe for classic French salad dressing

classic French salad dressing

1/2 cup good quality extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup grapeseed, canola or vegetable oil
1/3 cup vinegar or fresh lemon juice (I used white wine vinegar)
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. paprika
pinch of cayenne

Pour all the ingredients into a jar or bottle and shake until well combined and slightly thickened. Note: The dressing will separate after sitting; just give it another shake to re-incorporate the ingredients.


About The Clara Project
Once a week, I’ll make and share a recipe from a collection of vintage recipe cards that were written in the 1930s by Clara Shenefelt. See all the Clara Project recipes.


7 thoughts on “The Clara Project: classic French salad dressing recipe.

  1. Pingback: Roasted sugar snap and shallot salad. | writes4food | recipes and wisdom from a Midwestern kitchen

  2. Pingback: The Clara Project: favorite vintage recipes. | writes4food | recipes and wisdom from a Midwestern kitchen

  3. Like your changes. I wonder if you could use honey instead of sugar? I try to avoid sugar if at all possible. I’m going to try it. Thanks.

  4. My mother (born in 1917) made a recipe very much like this, and we had it all the time when I was growing up! I use lemon juice, and much prefer it, and add a crushed clove of garlic to the bottle, as my mother did. Also I use stevia (just a tiny bit) for sweetening. Yum!

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