All hail Caesar salad! Invented in 1924 by the Italian-born Caesar Cardini-who was then running restaurants in both San Diego and Tijuana-the original Caesar salad relied on the flair of its tableside preparation as much as on its ingredients. The dressing was similar to a French mayonnaise, but gutsier, mingling lemon juice, vinegar, oil, and egg yolk with garlic, a splash of Worcestershire sauce, and Parmesan cheese. The egg yolk was the magic ingredient, stabilizing the emulsion and turning it into something so lush and creamy that we're still tossing it with romaine lettuce and croutons nearly a hundred years after its creation.
But let's be honest about the reality of desk lunches and weekday dinners: while I'll happily spend a few minutes making a week's worth of fresh croutons, having a good bottle of supermarket Caesar dressing on-hand means I'm a lot more likely to eat or serve this crowd-pleasing salad.
Start looking at Caesar dressings, and you'll find plenty of choices to make. Creamy or vinaigrette? Refrigerated or shelf-stable? Low-calorie or regular? There are even vegan versions, made with plant-based substitutions for the usual egg, cheese, and Worcestershire sauce or anchovy.
For this round-up, I decided to go with the dressings that were most similar to what you'd get at your favorite takeout salad place, as well as easy-to-find on a supermarket shopping trip. This meant creamy and shelf-stable. All of the brands I found contained cheese (predominantly Parmesan, although one used Asiago and another the saltier, sheep's milk Romano); five out of the seven contained egg yolks, and all but one contained anchovy.
Of course, there's no universal standard for a perfect Caesar salad. But while you can always top it with your protein of choice-from grilled chicken, grilled salmon or sliced flank steak to tofu or tempeh-the Caesar generally resists other add-ins. After all, it's already got crisp, fresh hearts of Romaine, plenty of croutons, and a shower of curled or shredded Parmesan. The richness of its dressing is what makes a Caesar memorable. Savory with garlic and anchovy or Worcestershire sauce, tangy with lemon and vinegar and lush with egg yolk and oil, it might recall mayonnaise in texture, but it's something you'd rather drizzle than dunk.
So which dressing will rule the fridge? Here are my top three, with the runners-up, below.
Caesar Cardini's Original Caesar Dressing
Coming in at number 3, it's the eponymous Caesar Cardini's Original Caesar Dressing-the only one to claim heredity from the original Cardini's restaurant. Despite its name, this dressing tasted more like tartar sauce to me. It was very thick, with a pickle-y top note, perhaps from the celery seed. While I might not put this on my salad, it would make a good veggie dip for a crudité platter.
Girard's Caesar Dressing
Nudging ahead is Girard's Caesar Dressing, in its sleek pyramid-shaped bottle. Got friends coming over and want to act like you're lunching in your favorite place downtown, with mango iced teas, jazz, and dishes you won't have to wash? Classy Girard's is the closest you'll get to that restaurant Caesar... while still wearing your comfy pants.
365 Whole Foods Market Organic Caesar Dressing
What about when you've got lots of people to feed, and some of them are picky? Winning the sash for "Best Bottled Caesar Salad Dressing" is 365 Whole Foods Market Organic Caesar Dressing. Mayo-ish, creamy, and well-balanced, with a good Parmesan flavor, this dressing is just right. Think of Rick Astley in salad form: won't let you down, won't run around (it's nice and thick), and never gonna make you cry (not too much garlic!).
Didn't Make the Cut
Newman's Own Creamy Caesar Dressing
Newman's Own dressings are usually reliable supermarket staples, but the top ingredients of their Creamy Caesar told a different, brownish tale of canola oil, water, olive oil, Worcestershire sauce. It had a pleasant texture, but where was the lemon? The garlic? The Parmesan? (Way down on the "contains less than 2%" part of the list.)
Briannas Asiago Caesar Dressing
Working alone at home? Bring on vampire repellent Briannas Asiago Caesar Dressing, punching above its weight in garlickiness, tartness, and cheesiness. You can see the shreds of Asiago in the dressing, and you can really taste (and taste, and taste) the pungency of the garlic puree and vinegars (both rice and balsamic) in this one.
Trader Joe's Romano Caesar Dressing
With no egg yolk, Romano instead of Parmesan, and only a plant-based Worcestershire, Trader Joe's Romano Caesar Dressing swings but misses the creamy, salty richness at the heart of a Caesar salad's appeal. The label suggests using it as a marinade for grilled meat, chicken or fish; for this one, that's probably a better destination than a salad bowl.
Ken's Steak House Creamy Caesar Dressing
Looking for the easy-listening station on the Caesar dial? Ken's Steak House Creamy Caesar is smooth, thick, bland, and forgettable. Sorry, Ken: Even naked lettuce was more exciting than you.
Annie's Organic Caesar Dressing
Annie, Annie, are you OK? In its eight-ounce glass bottle, Annie's Organic Caesar was, ounce for ounce, the most expensive of the dressings we tried. Unfortunately, I can't really tell you what Annie's tastes like, because the whole experience was overwhelmed by a gritty, sandy texture that turned my salad to sandpaper. Was it the Parmesan? The dried garlic? The anti-clumping cellulose powder? There may be no limit to the amount of cheese you can put on a salad, but there is a limit as to how much cheese you can put in a dressing. Sadly, Annie's has found it.