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Basic Technique: Vinaigrette

This was probably the technique that made me a food snob. Once I learned it, I was ruined. Why anyone spends money on store-bought salad dressing, which tastes of nothing but the stabilizers they put in it, is beyond me.
*Death to store-bought salad dressing! Who’s with me! Chaaaaarge!

All you need is some good vinegar, some oil, and a pinch of salt and a grind of pepper. Whisk these together, and you’ve got vinaigrette! Michael Ruhlman’s new book, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, has the perfect recipe:

3 parts oil: 1 part vinegar

That’s it! See? You never need to buy salad dressing again.
No, really, I mean it. Put down the bottle of “Lite Italian”. Have you read the ingredients list on that thing? It should say: Oil. Vinegar. Spices. What is xanthan gum, and why is it in my salad dressing?

I’ve got the recipes to prove it; you’ll be getting them for the rest of the week. The important part is the ratio, and the following technique.
And, as you’ll see, the technique might not be that important, either.

Basic Technique: Vinaigrette
*For a 6oz to 8oz bag of lettuce, “1 part” is about a tablespoon – 3tbsp oil, 1 tbsp vinegar…

  • 1 part vinegar
  • pinch of salt
  • pinch of freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 parts oil

Optional ingredients:

  • 1/2 part dijon mustard (to help emulsify the vinaigrette)
  • 1/2 part aromatics – garlic, shallot
  • 1/2 part herbs – parsley, thyme, tarragon, chives…
  • 1 pinch sugar
  • Directions: Easy Way
    1. Whisk to blend: Whisk all the ingredients in a small bowl until creamy.


    Directions: With Finesse
    1. Dissolve the salt: Whisk the salt, pepper and vinegar in a small bowl until the salt dissolves, usually about 10 seconds.

    2. Optional Mustard: Whisk the mustard into the vinegar

    3. Add the oil slowly: Add the oil in a slow stream, whisking until creamy and emulsified.

    4. Other optional ingredients: Whisk any other optional ingredients.

    *I’m going to do a bunch of specific variations on this basic technique this week:
    1. Balsamic Vinaigrette (link here)
    2. Lemon Herb Dressing (link here)
    3. Red Wine and Mustard Vinaigrette (link here)
    4. Caesar Salad Dressing (link here)
    5. Creamy Blue Cheese Dressing (link here)
    *The main variations are:
    *Oil: I’d say 90% of my vinaigrettes use Olive oil. Good alternatives are nut oils, like hazelnut and walnut oil. You can use a neutral oil, like canola, if you want a milder dressing. I often use it when I’m looking for an asian profile; straight toasted sesame oil is overpowering, but a little bit of it in a mainly canola oil dressing works great.
    *Creamy dressing: For a creamy dressing, use 2 parts mayonnaise and 1 part oil.
    *Vinegar: Let your imagination run – this is where most of the flavor in the dressing comes from. The better your vinegar, the better your dressing. Red wine or balsamic are my two standby vinegars; I’ve also liked dressings with sherry vinegar, and rice wine vinegar (asian profile again). And, if you have access to fruit flavored vinegar, this is where to use it. Fig vinegar is one I’ve used often, when I want a fruity/sweet overtone.
    *Optional ingredients: Think herbs, spices, and aromatics.

    Low Fat Variations:
    [Added 8/13/09]
    *Generally, I think that if you’re going to have vegetables, they taste better with a little fat on them. But, if you are really serious about trying to lose weight, every calorie counts. Here is what I do when I am cutting as many calories as possible.

    *Low-fat variation: Substitute 2 parts water for 2 parts oil. So the ratio becomes: 2 parts water, 1 part oil, 1 part vinegar. Yes, that’s it. The dressing comes out thinner, but you’ll be surprised at how good it tastes.*
    *I picked this trick up from Jaques Pepin, but he recommends using chicken broth, not water. I can’t bring myself to use canned broth after Michael Ruhlman’s rant. From what I can tell, the only difference in taste is because the canned broth has more salt in it. Just add a little extra salt to the vinaigrette if you think it needs it.

    *For low-fat creamy dressings: Replace most of the mayonnaise with low-fat yogurt. Use low-fat greek yogurt if you can find it; it’s thicker. I would go with 2 parts low-fat yogurt, 1 part mayonnaise, 1 part vinegar. [Inspired by Somewhat Low-Fat and Really Low-Fat Salad Dressings,]

    *I’m being finicky in the “finesse” directions. If you’re in a hurry, just go with the “easy” directions. They works best if you use the dijon mustard option – it helps keep the vinegar and oil in suspension. “Oil and water don’t mix” and all that.
    *The easy method is how I used to always do this, actually. It was only recently that I learned that you get better results with the “dissolve salt in vinegar/slowly drizzle oil while whisking” approach. The easy results were so good, I was already in my revolutionary zeal, pour the bottled dressing in the harbor mode. It just goes to show you, there’s always a way to improve your technique, even if things are working well now.
    *If you want the really, REALLY easy, “I don’t own a whisk” version: Toss the (dry) lettuce with the salt and pepper first, then the oil. Finally, toss with the vinegar. That’s old school.

    *This is a great way to learn to eyeball quantities. I never measure, I just do it by time – I do a three count pour of vinegar, then a nine count pour of oil. I taste it when I’m done, and adjust the vinegar or oil, depending.
    *I usually make just enough dressing for the salad I’m about to serve, but this will keep in the fridge for up to a week, or longer if you don’t put any aromatics (garlic) in the dressing. If you do store vinaigrette with olive oil in the fridge, it will get…sludgy, if that’s a word. It’s just the olive oil thickening in the cold; let it sit at room temperature for a few minutes and it will go back to normal.
    *Garlic in oil creates an oxygen free environment that can cause botulism (details here). That’s Real Bad News. Don’t keep garlic in oil for over a week.
    *What dressing do you want to know how to make? Leave me a note in the comments, and I’ll do a post on the recipe.

    Update 4/17/09: I was asked by a reader* if you can use a blender for your vinaigrette.
    *OK, it was my aunt Lois. She counts as a reader, right?

    Yes, of course! A blender makes a great vinaigrette; it’s really just a matter of personal preference.

    I prefer a whisk and a bowl, because it’s easier to clean up – I toss them in the dishwasher when I’m done. And you “lose” less dressing to the container. I have an easier time getting the dressing onto the salad when I don’t have to work around the blades of the blender. But a blender will do a much better job of emulsifying the oil and vinegar, and it’s certainly easier to use. No elbow grease required.

    In the “Easy” version of the directions, just toss in the blender and whiz it up until it’s creamy. In the “finesse” version, do the individual steps in the blender. Wherever I say “whisk”, use your blender’s pulse function a few times. When you get to the “add the oil” step, just run the blender until processed. Also – I would increase the quantities a bit if you’re using the blender for a small amount (like in these recipes) – you’ll leave a some dressing stuck to the blade and walls of the blender.

    The other option I’ve seen used is a jar with a tight fitting screw-on lid.* Use the easy instructions, put everything in the jar, screw on the lid, and shake until creamy.
    *Make sure it’s a screw on lid. I tried this I used a rubbermaid type container, with a press-on lid, and the lid popped loose after shaking a few times…oil and vinegar everywhere.

    Inspired by:
    Michael Ruhlman: Ratio

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    Filed under: Building blocks


    Hi! I’m Mike Vrobel. I’m a dad and an enthusiastic home cook; an indie cookbook author and food blogger with a day job, a patient spouse, and three kids who would rather have hamburgers for dinner.

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