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Practicing the basics: vinaigrette dressing

Salads are super healthy, easy to throw together and a great time-saver when making lunch or dinner. But they can also be very bland and uninviting without some kind of salad dressing. Store-bought dressing is fine, but sometimes you get caught in a pinch without a ready-made alternative (or one that you like). Vinaigrette is the foundation for a wide variety of salad dressings. It’s also very easy to make — in its simplest form, it’s only three ingredients all of which you should already have in your house — and you can customize it a thousand ways to match both your tastes and the specific ingredients in your salad.

In fact, the bulk of a vinaigrette is just two ingredients: oil and vinegar. The problem with mixing oil and vinegar, though, is that they really hate each other and won’t stay mixed for more than a few seconds if left on their own. So the third main ingredient is an emulsifier. Emulsifiers are molecules that bond with liquids on one end and fats on the other, so they force oil and water to stay mixed. There are many kinds of emulsifier molecules, but the most common (natural) ones we use in cooking are mustard and egg. Vinaigrette recipes use one or both of these: usually in the form of Dijon mustard, and/or mayonnaise (which contains egg).

The only other trick to making a vinaigrette is to get the right proportions of oil, vinegar and mustard/mayo. In part this is to balance the flavors, but it’s also to optimize for getting the oil and vinegar to fully mix — just the right amount of each ingredient without any left over. Fortunately for us, chefs have been working on this problem for hundreds of years and have worked out the proper ratio (by volume):

  • three parts oil to one part vinegar;
  • three parts vinegar to one part emulsifier.

Or to put it differently: nine parts oil to three parts vinegar to one part emulsifier. If you want to make a very small amount of simple vinaigrette, just a couple of servings, you would combine three tablespoons of oil, one tablespoon of vinegar, and one teaspoon of mustard (one tablespoon is three teaspoons). Whisk them together in a small bowl; or pour them into a jar, screw the lid on tight, and shake vigorously for about 30 seconds.

That’s it. If you have oil, vinegar, and mustard, and you can remember the proportions above, you can always make yourself a quick-and-easy salad dressing.

In practice, however, this is only where the fun begins, because we get to choose which oil(s), which vinegar, and which mustard or mayo to use. And we do this almost exclusively to vary the flavor: as long as we keep the proportions roughly the same, for the purposes of this recipe pretty much any oil, vinegar, or mustard/mayo will function the same.

The classic vinaigrette uses extra-virgin olive oil, white wine vinegar (which is different from generic white vinegar!), and Dijon mustard. That’s a good starting point: you can make that first, decide what changes you’d like to make to the flavor, and start making substitutions. Generally speaking, extra-virgin olive oil is a strongly-flavored oil, whereas there are several “neutral” oils with much less flavor (canola, vegetable, sunflower) and some with much stronger flavor (walnut, truffle, sesame). With the oils you can easily mix a flavored and a neutral together to get just the right amount of flavor while keeping the volume the same.

There are also plenty of options for vinegar, but there are three very common ones: white wine, red wine, and balsamic. White wine vinegar packs the least punch, while balsamic is the strongest. While I don’t recommend mixing vinegars together — there is no “neutral” vinegar — you can substitute water for some of the vinegar; it will serve the same purpose for keeping the volume in the right proportion and the emulsifier will bind to it just as well, but it will reduce the overall amount of flavor.

For emulsifiers you have a range of choices. Among mustards you can try Dijon or brown; I wouldn’t recommend yellow, or stone-ground where you can still see the seeds. For mayo, stick to “real” ones that contain egg; mayo is, itself, an emulsion, but the egg it contains is what you need for your vinaigrette.

Once you’ve settled on your choice of oil, vinegar, and emulsifier, there is a universe of choices for other flavorings that you could add. Those include:

  • Salt and pepper. If nothing else, this is a nice way to deliver salt and pepper to your salad and have it actually stick to the vegetables.
  • Shallots and/or garlic. Basic aromatic vegetables. They also provide one other hidden benefit: they help the emulsifier to do its thing. Oil can only attach to the emulsifier when it’s broken up into tiny droplets; whisking or shaking can accomplish this, but having more small solid being thrown around with the oil and vinegar create more agitation and provide additional assistance in breaking up the oil.
  • Ginger. Mince or grate it up well.
  • Herbs. So many choices: parsley, chives, tarragon, thyme, oregano, and more. Ideally we pick herbs to complement the specific vegetables in the salad.
  • Honey.
  • Bacon bits.
  • Lemon juice: you can substitute lemon juice for some or all of the vinegar.

Keep in mind that while a vinaigrette with just oil, vinegar and mustard will have a long shelf life, once you start adding perishable ingredients such as aromatic vegetables, ginger, lemon juice and bacon, you’re dramatically shortening its life (though the acid in the vinegar helps). A vinaigrette with perishable ingredients is good in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Many vinaigrette recipes call for adding the oil last, and doing so slowly while whisking constantly. This is to address the issue raised earlier: oil prefers to stay in one large blob, but it needs to be broken up into tiny droplets in order for the emulsifier to latch on to it. Adding it slowly while whisking makes it easier to break it up into droplets. The smaller the batch you are making, the less of an issue this is; and particularly for small batches, shaking it vigorously in a small jar is pretty effective for breaking it up. But if you can whisk in the oil slowly, you will discover that it stays mixed longer (even with an emulsifier, the oil and vinegar will eventually separate out again).

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Makes about 1 cup. Time required: 5 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup white wine vinegar
  • 4 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste.

Combine the vinegar and mustard in s small bowl. Slowly add the olive oil while whisking constantly, until all of the oil has been added and the mixture is well combined.

Season to taste. Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Tips and suggestions:

  • You can mix all of the ingredients in a jar with a tight lid by shaking vigorously instead of whisking it in a bowl. Or in a squeeze-bottle with a cap, which makes it easy to store and serve (and to shake it up again as necessary).
  • Slowly whisking in the oil requires three hands: one to hold the bowl steady, one to whisk, and one to pour in the oil. Rather than holding the bowl, you can stabilize it by placing it on top of a pot (put a kitchen towel in between the bowl and pot to cushion it and hold it in place a bit better).
  • If adding other flavorings (see above), mix them in with the vinegar and mustard before adding the oil. Especially solid ingredients like diced aromatic vegetables: they will increase the agitation as you’re whisking and help the oil and emulsifier attach to each other.
  • Substitute red wine vinegar, champagne vinegar, or balsamic vinegar for the white wine vinegar. If the taste is too sharp, use less vinegar and add an equivalent amount of water.
  • Substitute other kinds of oil for the olive oil: a neutral type such as canola or sunflower to reduce the flavor, or a stronger-flavored type such as walnut, truffle or sesame. If adding stronger-flavored oils, use small amounts but keep the overall volume of oil the same by using a neutral oil as well.
  • Use brown mustard instead of Dijon mustard. Or substitute an equivalent amount of mayo (but only “real” mayo that contains egg!).
  • To make just one or two servings: combine three tablespoons of oil, one tablespoon of vinegar, and one teaspoon of mustard; and season to taste.

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