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Vinaigrette Basics

I probably have 50 different versions of vinaigrette on my computer, so I thought distilling them down to a useful, flexible “master recipe” might be fun. This way, you can have some fun experimenting with different ingredients, once you get the hang of balancing the flavors.

Ingredients to have on hand:

Good quality vinegar—there are many around, and tasting the difference between them can be very instructive. Note the acidity level on the bottle for a good clue to how much to use. You’ll find a range, from the sweeter balsamic to mild rice vinegar to some very tart wine vinegars. Sometimes it’s nice to blend a few different ones.

Other liquids and flavorings—lemon juice, other citrus juices, pomegranate juice, even apple juice can bring an interesting variation to the salad. One benefit of adding a little lower-acid liquid is that you can get away with using less oil, if that’s a concern to you, and still end up with a well-balanced dressing. Another way, of course, to sweeten up a dressing is with some honey. Just don’t over-do it. A tiny bit goes a long way.

Aromatics—A clove of garlic can be smashed and left to macerate in the vinegar for a little while then removed (or simply rubbed on your wooden salad bowl). A finely diced shallot, added to the vinegar and left to mellow for 10 minutes before whisking in the oil, will take on a lovely sweet flavor. For an Asian flavor, ginger or lemon grass, or a kaffir lime leaf, or all three can be used.

Spices—the most common is mustard, either dry or prepared. Mustard, besides flavor, is an emulsifier, so you can whisk together a dressing, and keep it from separating. Salt and pepper, preferably freshly ground pepper from the mill, are necessary. Sometimes I add a little Tabasco sauce, especially with a slightly sweet dressing, which it subtly balances.

Herbs—what have you got fresh in the garden, or in the fridge? I don’t like dried herbs in dressings very much, but that’s my taste. Chopped chives, parsley, tarragon, cilantro, basil each add a different flavor. Do keep in mind that if you’re making the dressing in larger quantity than you need right away, the herbs will discolor, especially basil. You might want to make a plain vinaigrette, and then dress it up with herbs when you use it each time.

Good quality oil—vary which one for different flavored dressings, from extra-virgin olive oil, to fancy nut oils, to simple grape seed oil, to toasted sesame oil. Do pick an oil from a food crop (general advice I follow for all cooking, too).

How to make the dressing:

The key to making a good vinaigrette is to combine everything BUT the oil, then whisk it in last (this is not always true for some other dressings however). You want to get your aromatics, liquids and spices together and let them sit around for a few minutes to meld the flavors. Slowly whisk in the oil. Then, you taste—I like to taste with a leaf of lettuce (or piece of vegetable) rather than plain. Finally, you adjust. Need a bit more acid? Add vinegar. Too acid? Temper it with a bit more oil. If you make a dressing this way, you can make more than you need, store it in the refrigerator, and bring it to room temperature for your next salad.

Basic Vinaigrette

Yield: 1/2 cup (plenty for salad for 8)

  • 1-2 tsp. very finely chopped shallot (one small shallot)
  • optional: one small clove garlic, smashed but left whole
  • 1 tsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1 Tbs. balsamic vinegar
  • 2 Tbs. red wine or white wine vinegar
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • good grinding of fresh black pepper
  • 5 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil

Combine the ingredients except the oil. Let sit 10 minutes. Remove the garlic clove if you’ve used it. Whisk in the oil, taste, and adjust as needed.