A cubemate of mine recently mentioned that he’s often hosted dinner parties where he’s served these tricky culinary showstoppers, only to be shocked by how his friends are bowled-over by the seemingly least impressive part of the whole spread: the salad dressing.
Hearing that reminded me of the time a decade ago (before frenemy was a word) when a judgy friend of mine made the offhand comment while making a salad that “you can tell if a person can actually cook if they make their own salad dressing,” followed by a pointed look. You’d better believe I went home and learned how to make vinaigrette that day.
It sounds weird, but learning to make a vinaigrette was one of the more significant milestones in my unfinished journey of becoming an Accomplished Home Cook. It gives you the power to tailor a sauce that’s fresh and perfectly suited to the dish you’re serving—whenever you want.
But as they say, with great power comes great responsibility. Here’s what you need to know to start making your own vinaigrettes and instantly vault yourself to the next level of home cookery.
The basic vinaigrette ingredients
- Acid (usually vinegar)
- An emulsifier (usually Dijon mustard)
- Seasonings (herbs, spices, shallots, fish sauce, etc.)
- Salt and pepper
Vinaigrettes beg to be customized. Swapping the type of oil, acid and seasonings creates vastly different types of vinaigrette. For example:
- Extra virgin olive oil + Champagne vinegar + Dijon + shallots and fresh thyme
- Walnut oil + raspberry vinegar + a drop of honey + fresh, chopped tarragon
- Grapeseed oil + toasted sesame oil + rice vinegar & lime juice + miso + freshly grated ginger
The basic vinaigrette ratio
A good rule of thumb is to follow a 1:3 acid-to-oil ratio. But if you like your vinaigrette to have more zing, adjust the proportions to suit your taste.
The basic vinaigrette procedure
- Add your seasonings (except fresh herbs, if using)
- Add the emulsifier
- Add the acid
- While whisking, slowly pour in the oil until the mixture is emulsified
- Quickly whisk in any fresh herbs
Here’s a secret: It’s okay if you don’t slowly drizzle the oil into the rest of the vinaigrette ingredients while whisking constantly. If you just want to pour everything into one bowl and then whisk vigorously, you’ll still get a fine emulsion.
Here’s another secret: You don’t even have to use a bowl. You can add all of the above ingredients to a jar or bottle, close the lid and shake the bejeezus out of it. You’ll get a fine emulsion that way, too. No one has to know.
Tip: When you have a jar of fancy mustard that you’re about to discard, make a vinaigrette. Unless you have jar-cleaning-out skills that I can only dream of (or you have one of these), there’s probably enough mustard stuck along the jar’s sides and around the rim to make a vinaigrette. Just add your other ingredients, close the jar’s lid and shake.
If you want to get extra-fancy, you can pick up a tool designed specifically for shaking up dressings and marinades.
Super basic: Taste it first
I wish I could say I’ve never served something with a vinaigrette on it that made everyone’s mouth pucker and eyes water because I was too lazy to try it beforehand, but I have. More than once.
So try your vinaigrette before you add it to your dish. Dip a piece of lettuce, kale, carrot, whatever into your vinaigrette and taste it. More often than not, especially if you’re new to the ways of homemade vinaigrette, you’ll want to adjust something, and that is totally okay.
Your vinaigrette will keep for a week, or slightly longer, covered in the refrigerator. You’ll just need to shake it up or whisk it again to re-emulsify it.
Beyond the basics
Vinaigrettes aren’t just for green salads, of course. They make excellent marinades and they dress up grain salads and steamed, roasted, grilled or even raw vegetables like nobody’s business. Splashing a little bit onto a sandwich can make a big difference, too.
Sur La Table resources
Do you make your own vinaigrettes? What’s your go-to combination of ingredients?