Vinaigrette is a simple mixture of three components – oil, (olive, canola), an acidic liquid (vinegar, citrus juice), and seasonings (herbs, salt, mustard). Making vinaigrette is simple. In a small bowl or jar, add vinegar or fruit juice or even water or bouillon. Add salt and pepper. It is especially important to add the salt now, as salt will dissolve in acid but not in oil. Add any additional flavoring elements like herbs. Whisk or shake to combine. You can then add the oil slowly to the bowl while whisking vigorously, or add the oil all at once into the jar and then shake, with the cap tightly closed. For the most stable dressing possible, use cold ingredients.
The two variables that make vinaigrette so adaptive are ingredients and the proportions of those ingredients. The most important ingredient, due to its larger volume, is the oil. Choose oil by taste. It’s hard to go wrong with extra virgin olive oil, but sometimes a neutral oil like canola or safflower will let other flavors prevail, especially with the softer herbs. Nut oils, like peanut or walnut, can add interesting flavor.
The acidic liquid, the second ingredient, can be selected from any number of choices – here is where the flavored vinegars we made before are especially useful. Sherry vinegar is especially nice as it has a rich body and a slightly sweet aftertaste. Balsamic vinegar can also provide body and a hint of sweetness, (to perk up less expensive balsamic vinegar, try adding a touch of dark brown sugar). Wine vinegar is classic. About the only vinegar that isn’t appropriate for vinaigrette is distilled white vinegar. Alternatives to vinegar include fruits juices, especially lemon juice.
Seasonings always include salt and pepper, but then there are a lot of additional options. Finely chopped garlic, shallots, scallions or Dijon mustard are the most common additives, along with almost any herb. Infuse, i.e. allow the seasonings to soak in the vinegar or lemon juice, before adding the oil.
Once you’ve chosen the ingredients, proportions are also strictly up to you – people have varying preferences for acidity or for certain herbs. A 3:1 oil to acid ratio is a guideline most commonly cited, but any other combination is fine and simple experimentation is the best way to find your preferences. It is useful to remember that the higher the acid content, the more salt will be required. Also, when calculating your acid to oil ratio, remember that mustard itself is acidic.
If possible, make the vinaigrette about an hour ahead of time, as this will let the flavors meld. But always add the dressing at the last moment to any food like lettuce that wilts. Also, the base food should be as dry as possible as water particles will repel the dressing and it won’t stick. When adding dressing to a salad, add just enough to make each leaf glisten, (your hands make the best salad tongs). A beginning rule of thumb is ½ cup vinaigrette to 1 quart of greens. Vinaigrette can be stored in the refrigerator for a few weeks; it will solidify but just bring it up to room temperature and shake.
To start, here is a classic herbal vinaigrette recipe – use any herb you like as a substitute for the thyme in this recipe:
- 1 tablespoon minced shallots
- 1 tablespoon chopped thyme
- 2 tablespooons lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon of salt (or more to taste)
- 1/4 teaspoon of pepper (or more to taste)
- 1/2 cup of good tasting olive oil
In a jar with a tight fitting lid, add the shallots, thyme, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Shake vigorously until the salt is dissolved. Add the olive oil and shake.
Other Salad Dressing Ideas:
Besides using herbs in a classic vinaigrette, think of using them in other salad dressings. Follow the above instructions for a vinaigrette, but instead of the acidic component, use a non acid fruit juice like mango or grape juice. Or instead of oil, use chicken fat, stock, or even water to minimize calories. Herbs, of course, are a great way to flavor food without added fat.
Besides vinaigrettes, use herbs in creamy salad dressings. Store bought mayonnaise can really be improved with just a little effort. To a good mayonnaise like Hellmann’s, stir in a little lemon juice in which salt has been dissolved. Start with a teaspoon of lemon juice and half a teaspoon of salt in half a cup of mayonnaise or more, and then add to taste. Now add either spices or herbs that are compatible with the salad ingredients. Here are some ideas:
- Curry is a classic additive when dressing a chicken salad.
- Dill is a great addition to the mayonnaise used for potato salad.
- Use mint in a sweetened mayonnaise on fruit salad.
- Add basil or oregano to the dressing for a tomato salad.
- Add cumin to the mayonnaise used to make a three-bean salad.
- Add caraway to a cole slaw dressing.