Vinaigrette

By Jessica – September 9th, 2007

I reckon it’s been over 10 years since I’ve bought a bottle of salad dressing—and Jeremy and I eat salad almost every single night. I stopped purchasing salad dressing while I was living in Germany, basically because the typical prepared German salad dressing consists of a mysterious combination of dried herbs—often including tarragon, which I dislike—suspended in a foggy, too-sweet emulsion. It was never to my liking, so I started making my own dressing, and I haven’t looked back since.

Oils and vinegarsThere’s no mystery to a good salad dressing. A vinaigrette, for example—the type of dressing I generally make—is simply a combination of a fat and an acid, generally an oil and a vinegar. The only trick is in the proportions, but those can be adjusted to taste (the classic proportion is one part vinegar to three parts oil, though I usually make a more acidic dressing than that). By varying your oil and your vinegar and adjusting the proportions to fit your salad ingredients and your tastebuds, you can quickly whip up a homemade salad dressing to suit any type of meal.

The dressing I probably make the most is a basic balsamic vinaigrette which works well on any type of green or tomato salad and goes perfectly with Italian food or steaks (incidentally, I also use it to dress my salad Niçoise, which is probably heretical, but hey…). Chop one small clove of garlic and whisk in 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, 5 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, freshly ground black pepper and a pinch of sugar if you like. Voilà¡: instant vinaigrette. This and all following recipes makes enough dressing for one large salad, though the dressing will also keep for a few days if you don’t wind up using it all at once.

Salad Nicoise

With just a slight adjustment, you can create an entirely different beast: instead of extra-virgin olive oil, use 2 tablespoons of walnut oil and 3 tablespoons of regular olive oil, and you have a lovely balsamic-walnut vinaigrette. I make this dressing all through the winter to put on spinach and watercress salad with roasted beets, walnuts and blue cheese. Apple balsamic vinegar works beautifully in this dressing as well.

One dressing that would give the balsamic vinaigrette a run for its money in my house is a classic oil and vinegar dressing I found on Epicurious which calls for sherry vinegar. This is the perfect dressing for tender baby greens, but it can be easily beefed up with extra mustard for use on a spinach or watercress salad, maybe with mushrooms. This is my generic “French food” dressing, but the use of sherry vinegar means that it goes equally well with Spanish food. It’s also a nice dressing for green vegetables like asparagus.

Salad with potatoes, eggs and beansEpicurious was the source of another mustard vinaigrette that I’ve had good success with. It’s a grainy mustard vinaigrette that’s ideal for bitter greens like endive or chicory. A tangy salad like this can be a nice counterpoint to a rich carbonnade—or with the addition of some artichokes and mushrooms, it can almost be a meal in itself. This type of vinaigrette also works well on a potato salad with boiled eggs and crunchy green beans, or a mixed bean salad, or a dinner salad topped with a seared salmon filet

It doesn’t take much tweaking to make a really simple vinaigrette that tastes quite exotic. One of my favorite things to eat growing up (and even now, I might add) was avocado with a curry vinaigrette made by my grandparents in Florida. I make this curry vinaigrette with about 2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar, 4 tablespoons of olive oil (it doesn’t have to be extra virgin), a chopped clove of garlic, a pinch of paprika, a hefty pinch of mild curry powder, a dash of salt, a dash of sugar and some ground black pepper. Cut an avocado in half, remove the pit, pour the dressing into the cavity and eat the avocado straight out of its skin—sometimes messy, but always delicious. This dressing is also good on a salad made with avocado, red onion, cucumber and radish, or just on a simple green salad.

By expanding your range of oils and vinegars just a bit more, you can make extremely flavorful vinaigrettes that go wonderfully with Chinese or Japanese food. I make an Asian vinaigrette using about 2 tablespoons of rice wine vinegar, 1/2 tablespoon soy sauce, 1/2 tablespoon sesame oil, 1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil, a small chopped clove of garlic and an equal amount of fresh grated ginger, a pinch of sugar and some black pepper. This makes a great dressing for a leafy green salad with baby spinach and coriander (cilantro), or it can be used on an Asian-style slaw with chopped Chinese cabbage and grated carrot.

Salad with lemon dressing

Of course, a vinaigrette-style dressing doesn’t have to be made with vinegar. Citrus juice, particularly lemon or lime, does the trick as well. You can make an easy Mexican citrus vinaigrette by taking the basic balsamic vinaigrette recipe and using lime or lemon juice instead of vinegar and adding a pinch of cumin. Leave out the cumin and throw in a generous portion of chopped fresh herbs (things like mint, parsley and basil work particularly nicely), and you have a great, fresh-tasting dressing that’s wonderful on a mixed salad with avocados, cucumbers, radishes and maybe some feta cheese. Or skip the herbs and add a splash of Worcestershire sauce and some grated parmesan for a simplified Caesar vinaigrette that’s perfect on robust leaves like romaine lettuce.

In fact, a lemony dressing is delicious on just about any salad or green vegetables, hot or cold: fresh pea salad with radishes and feta, warm green beans, broad beans, runner beans, asparagus… And the more I think about it, the more I realize that vinaigrettes in all their forms are a fundamental aspect of my cooking. They’re so versatile, and they’re an easy way of adding a real kick of flavor. So if you’ve been buying oil-and-vinegar dressings, I would encourage you to try your hand at making a vinaigrette or two yourself. They’re easy-peasy, and once you’ve discovered the acid-to-oil ratio you like, the flavor possibilities are endless.

Lettuce, tomato and basil salad

Comments

Just this August I stopped purchasing salad dressings and am starting down the rosy road of dressing experimentation (man does it ever improve a salad). What a well timed article!

I shall have to try out walnut oil sometime; it sounds good :-)

I can’t help but add some of my own, though I readily admit I skim read this article whilst the kids ran riot. Sorry if I repeat anything already said:

The very best potato salad is made quite simply by boiling good new potatoes (Jeresy Royals if the season is right) and throwing over some chopped shallots, herbs and any home-made vinaigrette. Do this whilst they are still hot (drain the water first of course) and let them cool for an hour or two before eating (though no need to chill).

Somewhere I have a recipe for Endive salad made with "salad cream" that I got whilst I worked at Bibendum in South Kensington. They still make it today; I will dig it out a blog it. If you happen to eat there, try it out, it is stunning.

Which reminds me I have a sherry vinegar and shallot recipe somewhere that was usually made to go with prosciutto and wilted greens, and a few flakes of parmesan — droool!

I have to say, chaps, I love this blog. You don’t post often but when you do (and even when I just read it quickly) you really inspire me to do some cooking, which is really something for a cynical old ex-chef like me, so thanks for taking the time. :)

# Posted by John Oxton on

I’ve never got on with commercial dressings either, and I must admit my homemade version consists of drizzling something acidic and and then something oily over the salad and mixing the lot up, maybe with some chopped herbs. However inspired by your post I’ll have a go at doing it properly and experimenting a bit more.

# Posted by Jeremy Halliwell on

I am a big fan of lemon juice, salt, and olive oil as a dressing with smashed anchovies added if to be used on escarole.

# Posted by Ms. Jen on

Lemon juice, olive oil and salt is also great on rocket/arugula. I’ll have to try it with anchovies some time!

# Posted by Jessica on

hi i’m a filipino but an Italian food and salad enthusiast.I just tried your recipe of the basic balsamic vinaigrette. So now i am actually enjoying my tomato salad while writing this comment.

# Posted by rochess on

Yay, rochess, I’m happy to hear it!

# Posted by Jessica on

funnily enough, I was wondering if I could find a good balsamic dressing recipe this evening.

Seeing Jeremy’s latest twitter I thought I’d have a look at the site, and found this.

Wonderful, Im gonna go try it out for tomorrow’s lunch.

Thanks!

# Posted by Jason Cale on

Great ideas! My family has had my version of vinaigrette for years using the "Good Seasons" bottle. All the measurements are there for simplicity. Just use your own vinegar or lemon juice—-water—-oil of your choosing one tsp. salt and one tsp. mustard powder or dijon mustard from the bottle. Shake and taste. It’s easy and you can add other herbs or garlic if it suits you. Ellie Alspach

# Posted by Elourine Alspach on

Nice site tastefully done

# Posted by omer dooley on

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