How we tested
Oil and vinegar make the simplest salad dressing, one that's easy enough to put together yourself: Just whisk oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper, and serve. So why would anyone purchase a bottled salad dressing? We can think of a couple of reasons. Sometimes you are just too tired to do it yourself. But the better reason is that sometimes you want something with more personality and zip. Italian dressing, for example, contains not just oil and vinegar but garlic, red pepper, oregano, and other herbs and spices. Sounds good, but several of those ingredients need to be finely chopped, which can add up to a lot of work. All of a sudden the commercial stuff in the bottle starts to look attractive.
Still, if the supermarket Italian dressing tastes awful, we'd just as soon stick to plain old oil and vinegar. To find out if any of the Italian dressings out there are worth buying, we rounded up seven leading brands. Of the dressings we selected (all available nationwide), most had similar ingredient lists: oil, vinegar, water, sugar, and salt, along with garlic, onion, red bell pepper, various herbs and spices, stabilizers, and preservatives. (A key ingredient in these dressings is xanthan gum, a stabilizer that gives them their signature thickness.) Each dressing was sampled on a piece of iceberg lettuce and given a numerical score by 20 panelists, who did not know which brands were being tasted. Styles and flavor profiles did vary between brands, but tasters had clear favorites.
Were any of these dressings good enough to buy? We found only two that were up to snuff. The winner requires that you add your own oil and vinegar at home, so it was closest to homemade. Our second place brand was OK but on the sweet side -- a good choice for kids. Some tasters called it "light and spicy," while others said that it reminded them of the dressings served in school cafeterias.