I don’t got for nude salad . Don’t get me wrong. I don’t drench my lettuce to the point where it needs a life preserver, and I’m no fan of super-sweet or goopy dressings that hide the taste of the vegetables underneath. But a great salad is even better with a drizzle of good dressing.
Vinaigrette is a generic term that refers to an oil-and-vinegar-based salad dressing. Although the linguistic purists among us will cringe, I also include in this category dressings that use other acidic liquids, principally lemon juice, in place of vinegar.
Before we get to my simple vinaigrette recipe, a few background tips:
- The oil to vinegar or lemon juice ratio is a matter of personal taste. The traditional proportions for vinaigrette are 3-to-1, oil-to-vinegar/lemon juice. But you’ll find recipes that use a 2-to-2 measurement and others that go toward, or reach, a 4-to-1 ratio. Other recipes dilute the acidity without additional oil by including a bit of another liquid – hot water, fruit juice or even meat or poultry broth.
- The types of oil and vinegar that you use matter. Olive oil tends to have a noticeable taste and each brand or type has its own “bouquet.” Nut-based oils, such as walnut and hazelnut oils, have a definite taste and smell as well. On the other hand, safflower, grapeseed, and canola oils do not. Choose the one that suits your taste and that won’t overwhelm the salad ingredients.
- Vinegars vary tremendously in taste and their sharpness. Although most cooks I know tend to use a wine-based vinegar, either straight red or white wine, or balsamic, my friend Mark taught me that rice wine makes a delightful vinaigrette. Good quality sherry vinegar is nice in dressing too, slightly sweet and mellower (less sharp) than many other wine vinegars.
- “Add-ins” to complement the basic oil and vinegar or lemon juice in your vinaigrette. I always add at least a pinch of kosher or sea salt, plus a bit of freshly ground pepper. Other possibilities include finely chopped red onion or shallots, mashed garlic, fresh or dried herbs, Dijon-style or dried mustard, grated orange or lemon zest, or grated ginger with a touch of sesame oil. If you’re enamored of bacon, you could cook and crumble a strip or two into the dressing and experiment with substituting bacon grease in place of a bit of the oil. The sky is the limit on variations; the key is to add ingredients (both in terms of number and amount of each) slowly, tasting frequently until you get the taste you seek.
- Add the dressing at the last minute. Salad should never be dressed hours ahead of time because that wilts the lettuce and makes the other ingredients soggy. Although some hosts dress a salad before serving it, I prefer to pass the dressing alongside, so that the salad stays fresh if someone chooses to eat it at the end of the meal and each person can decide how much dressing to put on her or his portion.
- My shortcut method. The “longform” vinaigrette-making method requires measuring out the vinegar and herbs first, then slowly adding the oil, whisking the dressing constantly or using a food processor and adding the oil in a slow stream while the machine is running. I am usually too lazy to do that and was glad to that my research for this post indicated that my “shaking” method is now well accepted. I was also pleased to find out from one of my food science gurus, Harold McGee, (in his noted book, Keys to Good Cooking) that adding crushed herbs or powered or prepared mustard helps to make the vinaigrette more stable so it stays mixed for longer.
- Homemade definitely beats store-bought. Store-bought vinaigrette often contains thickeners and less oil than a homemade dressing. I prefer fresh, homemade dressing that can be dressed up to complement a specific salad or my mood. It’s so easy to make that I tend to make small quantities and not to keep it for more than a day or 2, although it will last longer refrigerated in a tightly sealed container.
Simple Vinaigrette Salad Dressing
Servings – enough for 2-3 large salads
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon good quality white balsamic vinegar (I find it richer than “regular” vinegar and mellower than red balsamic.)
- ¼ teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon mixed, freshly picked herbs (For this batch I used chives, snipped into small pieces thyme, hand-crushed to release flavor.)
- 1-2 good pinches of kosher or sea salt
- Freshly ground pepper to taste
- A small jar with a tight fitting lid, or a pitcher with a spoon. A small mason or bell jar for canning works well, but you can also wash out a small glass jar from a store-bought food item. My favorite for small batches like this recipe is the tiny jar (on the right) that I got with a sample of jam.
- Measuring spoons
- Scissor if using fresh herbs
- Measure ingredients into the jar or pitcher.
- Shake the jar or stir the ingredients in the pitcher. The emulsion will separate after a few minutes, so if it is not being immediately used, serve in the jar or with a spoon.
PS – Always start with a great – or at least a good – salad. There is no point in wasting wonderful salad dressing on anything less, and while a good dressing will heighten the enjoyment of a salad, it cannot improve on the salad ingredients.