The vinaigrette is probably the most useful basic recipe in a cook’s repertoire. Once you learn how to make a tasty vinaigrette, you’ll never buy bottled salad dressing again. (If you have a bottle of salad dressing in your refrigerator, go read the ingredients list–I’ll bet it’s mostly sugar of some form or another!) But vinaigrettes go way beyond dressing salads. I use them as marinades, to dress simply cooked vegetables and as a sauce for fish as well.
At its simplest, a vinaigrette is nothing more than oil and vinegar (usually salt and pepper, too). First, the oil. I am nuts for olive oil (which is pretty ironic, since I loathe olives). I use it for almost everything. I’ve read in cookbooks that the strong taste can be too overpowering, but I never find that to be true. So my first choice is always going to be olive oil. I don’t like to use vegetable or canola oil for a vinaigrette, because I don’t think they contribute much in the way of flavor, and flavor is the whole point, as far as I’m concerned.
Other useful oils to have on hand are nut oils like walnut oil and almond oil, which have a sweeter, stronger flavor. They should be kept in the refrigerator or they will go rancid. Infused oils–oils infused with another flavor, such as basil, garlic or chiles–are a fun alternative. Sesame oil is also a good choice, but since it’s so strong, I usually mix it with a neutral oil like canola.
The other component is the vinegar. Stocking a variety of vinegars is the key to always having a lively salad. For a simple salad of mixed greens, I prefer balsamic vinegar, which packs the greatest flavor punch. I also keep on hand red and white wine vinegars, sherry vinegar and apple cider vinegar. There are many, many other flavors, so go crazy. For instance, I’ve had a bottle of raspberry vinegar for a while that comes in really handy for fruit salads. My father once gave me a bottle of lemon-thyme-infused vinegar that was heavenly on greens.
The alternative to vinegar is citrus. Lemon and lime juice contribute bright, sunny flavors to the vinaigrette. I particularly enjoy them on simply cooked vegetables and fish.
The basic formula to making vinaigrette is: 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar. (I’ve seen cookbooks advocate 4 parts oil, but in my opinion, that just makes the salad taste oily.) So if you’re making a lot, use ¾ cup oil and ¼ cup vinegar. If you’re just making enough for two salads, use 3 tbsp. oil and 1 tbsp. vinegar.
You do have to make some adjustments to this formula depending on your ingredients. If you’re using a strongly flavored oil, such as a nut oil, use a ratio of 2 parts oil to 1 part vinegar. If you’re using lemon or lime juice, which is not as acidic as vinegar, also use a ratio of 2 parts oil to 1 part juice, and mix in some of the zest for extra flavor.
What else can you add to your vinaigrette to jazz it up? The standards are, in any combination (per 1 cup vinaigrette):
- 2 cloves minced garlic
- 1 minced shallot
- 1 tbsp. mustard
- 1 tbsp. honey
- 1 tbsp. minced capers or pickles
- 1 tbsp. seasoning mix
- 2 tbsp. or more fresh herbs, minced
I hate to keep touting Penzey’s, but they sell a number of mixes that will add instant flavor to any vinaigrette. My husband particularly loves their Italian dressing mix, which is pretty zesty.
So, how to make it? If you’re getting ready to dress the salad, just whisk together all the ingredients until well combined and toss. If you want to really emulsify the vinaigrette–in other words, combine the oil and vinegar so thoroughly that they won’t readily separate–put all the ingredients but the oil in the blender. With the blender running, slowly pour the oil in and keep mixing until the vinaigrette is thick.
Chef’s tip: To make an easy creamy vinaigrette, substitute heavy cream, sour cream or plain yogurt for 1/3 of the oil, adding it after whisking in the oil.
Store extra in the refrigerator. The oil will probably solidify, and the vinaigrette will separate. Take it out for a while before dinner to let it come to room temperature, then re-whisk before serving.
Basic Vinaigrette for Two
- 1 tbsp. vinegar
- 1 tsp. mustard
- 1 clove garlic, minced, or ½ shallot, minced
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 3 tbsp. olive oil