Making a vinaigrette is more technique than recipe. Once you know the basics, you’re free to mix up the ingredients (no pun intended) to suit your tastes and salad. Think of a vinaigrette as a sauce. It should enhance, not dominate, the flavors in your salad.
A basic vinaigrette consists of two key ingredients – fat and acid. The fat is typically some type of oil – olive oils, nut oils, even vegetable oils. (Vinaigrettes shouldn’t be confused with salad dressings, which rely on items like mayonnaise, sour cream, yogurt or buttermilk for their thick and creamy texture.)
Acids include any type of vinegar, as well as acidic fruit juices like orange, lemon, lime and grapefruit. Oil (fat) and vinegar (acid) don’t play well together naturally, so they’re whisked together temporarily or emulsified just before they’re used.
The traditional ratio of fat to acid in a vinaigrette is 3 to 1, meaning 3 parts oil to 1 part acid. This ratio should be used only as a guide, not law. The ratio can and will vary based on the types of oil and vinegars you’re using and the other ingredients in your salad.
The ultimate goal is to create a vinaigrette with the perfect balance of flavors so your palate’s not assaulted by a mixture that’s too acidic or too oily. Keep in mind that you’ll likely want to use less of oils with stronger flavors, like extra virgin olive oil and most nut oils like hazelnut or walnut oil. Experiment and taste until you find the ratio and balance that’s right for you.
Other ingredients, like herbs, spices, mustard, honey, sugar or minced garlic or shallots, can be added to give your vinaigrette an extra burst of flavor. Those should be incorporated before whisking in your oil.
Once assembled, don’t be tempted to taste your vinaigrette on its own. You should always taste your vinaigrette or salad dressing in combination with the foods you’ll be serving it with. Pinch a piece of lettuce, grab a bite of tomato and dip it into your vinaigrette to give your taste buds a preview of what’s to come.
Vinaigrettes can be made ahead, but be sure to re-whisk just before serving as the oil and vinegar will separate. Even though you can prepare your vinaigrette ahead of time, don’t add it to your salad until just before you’re ready to serve or your crisp salad greens, veggies and even your meat or seafood will wind up a soggy mess. I’ve found that homemade vinaigrettes pack a bigger flavor punch than their store-bought counterparts so you’ll likely use loads less if you make it yourself.
To make a vinaigrette, combine your acid along with any other ingredients you’re adding for flavor in a bowl. Whisking constantly, gradually add the fat in a slow steady stream until your vinaigrette comes together, which means you should see no separation of oil and vinegar in your bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper . The longer your vinaigrette ingredients sit, the stronger their flavors will be so try whisking up your vinaigrette an hour or so before you’ll be ready to use it for a nicely flavored mix. Don’t forget to rewhisk just before serving.
Basic Balsamic Vinaigrette
1 tablespoon Balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
1. Whisk vinegar and mustard together in a small bowl.
2. Gradually add oil in a slow, steady stream, whisking constantly. Rewhisk just before using.
Makes about ¼ cup.