What Is French Dressing?

Posted on 29 Jul 2017 21:02

Dedicated reader Frank W. was kind enough to send me his favorite recipe for French dressing, a "Catalina-style" French to share with readers. You might like this spicier version of French dressing over the stuff you usually find at salad bars or in bottles.

This being CulinaryLore, however, I couldn't resist exploring this whole 'French Dressing' thing. If you've ever had the bright-orange to red and sickly sweet French dressing that comes out of the typical bottle, you may wonder why in the world it could be associated with the French. And, what is Catalina French dressing?

Real French Dressing

True French dressing is a vinaigrette, made with three parts oil to one part vinegar. The vinegar is usually red or white wine vinegar and the oil is olive oil. For the most common combination, dijon mustard, salt, minced shallots, and a bit of garlic can be added. This is, in reality, the classic vinaigrette we all know and the one used most often. It explains why chefs rarely refer to 'French dressing.' Instead, they refer to a vinaigrette to avoid confusion with bottled French dressings. If they do use the word French, they will tend to say 'French vinaigrette."

In fact, when French dressing appears on a restaurant menu, you should ask before assuming it is a vinaigrette.

These classic vinaigrettes were introduced to Americans sometime in the 1880's. Up until that time, Americans were most familiar with creamy English style dressings.

Bottled French Dressing

So, how did this classic French dressing become a creamy sweet ketchup-flavored concoction? Well, the bright red sugary-sweet and slightly spicy French dressing that we find in bottles has nothing to do with the classic vinaigrette, except that it contains vinegar.

Bottled salad dressings began to appear on the American market during the early 1900's. The first such product labeled French dressing appears to have been Milani's 1890 French Dressing. This dressing is still available and the current manufacturer claims it was introduced in 1938 but historical references seem to indicate that it existed at least as early as 1925. The '1890' was intended to show the antiquity of the recipe.

In 1925, Kraft, previously just a cheese company, began to introduce salad dressing products after purchasing several regional mayonnaise companies. They also bought the Milani Company, which led to the introduction of Kraft's French dressing. It contained vinegar, sure, but also sugar, tomato, paprika, and other spices. Today, both products contain similar ingredients but Kraft's product is conspicuously missing one crucial ingredient in any "French" dressing: Oil. Here are the ingredients:

Water, Corn Syrup, Vinegar, Sugar, Tomato Puree (Water, Tomato Paste), Modified Food Starch, Salt, contains less than 2% of Xanthan Gum, Garlic Juice, Paprika, Mustard Flour, Propylene Glycol Alginate, Artificial Color, Yellow 6, Vitamin E Acetate, Potassium Sorbate and Calcium Disodium EDTA (to protect …

Milani brand, however, contains soybean oil as its first ingredient:

Soybean Oil, Water, Vinegar, Tomato Paste, Dextrose, Salt, Paprika, Xanthan Gum. Citric Acid, Propylene Glycol Alginate, Natural Flavor, Apocarotenal And Beta Carotene (Color), Calcium Disodium Edta (Maintain Freshness).

Like other researchers before me, I have been unable to determine if Milani's French dressing always contained tomato paste or whether it was ever a simple vinaigrette. I have also been unable to determine just when tomato paste or tomato puree became an essential part of a "French dressing" in America, although I suspect it was indeed the bottled products, co-opting a French heritage, which caused this association.

This has not stopped many from assuming that American French dressing is a French vinaigrette with ketchup added. This may be supposing a stronger connection to a French heritage than actually existed.

As to Catalina, it is French dressing's spiced up cousin. While the name may be intended to call up visions of sun-drenched Catalina Islands, or, for all I know, Catalina, Arizona, a trademark search revealed that, in regards to dressing, "Catalina" was trademarked by Kraft Foods in 1962, so we can assume that this dressing was an invention of Kraft and derived from the bottle, just as American French dressing did. Although there are many recipes for Catalina dressing on the web, these are all copycats of the original bottled product.

Regardless of their murky past, French and Catalina dressings have their following. This recipe from Frank includes cayenne powder.


Frank W's Catalina Style French Dressing


Frank W's Catalina Style French Dressing

Frank W's Catalina Style French Dressing



1/2 cup ketchup
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup cider vinegar (white vinegar is NOT an acceptable substitute!)
1 cup canola oil
2 tablespoons very finely chopped onion OR 1 tbs dried, minced onion and 1 tsp onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic salt
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper


In an appropriately sized bowl, combine all of the ingredients and mix thoroughly. Chill in the refrigerator before serving.

Makes 2 1/2 cups (20 oz.)

1. "History of Salad Dressings." The Association For Dressings & Sauces. The Association For Dressings & Sauces, 30 Mar. 2016. Web. 29 July 2017. <https://www.dressings-sauces.org/history-salad-dressings>.
2. Hertzmann, Peter. "Soupe Onctueuse D'avocat (creamy Avocado Soup)." Amuse-bouche, Intermèdes Et Mignardises. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 July 2017. <http://www.hertzmann.com/articles/2015/aim/index.php?id=01245>.
3. Sackett, Lou, Wayne Gisslen, and Jaclyn Pestka. Professional Garde Manger: A Comprehensive Guide to Cold Food Preparation. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2011.
4. Smith, Andrew F. Food and Drink in American History: A "full Course" Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2013.
5. Allen, Gary, and Ken Albala. The Business of Food: Encyclopedia of the Food and Drink Industries. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2007.

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