I can’t think of a better place for people who are interested in learning to make meals completely from scratch to start than making their own salad dressing. As a whole, Americans are accustomed to overly sweet bottled dressings with strange consistencies that can be attributed to various preservatives, stabilizers, and thickeners. Delicate salad greens suffer under these kinds of dressings. Tender bibb lettuce, crunchy and refreshing romaine, peppery arugula and watercress, bitter escarole, mild spinach- these are all lost under a glop of ranch dressing. No wonder so many people don’t enjoy salad. They’ve never tasted them.
Before we talk about how to make a vinaigrette, it helps to know what goes into one. First up, we have fat, usually in the form of oil. Olive oil is the overwhelming choice here, but other oils, cream, and even browned butter can be used for variety. To this, we add an acid, usually vinegar or citrus juice, and a surfactant (more broadly called an emulsifier), like dijon mustard or egg yolk, which serves to marry the oil and vinegar together.
The trick to being able to make a vinaigrette without a recipe is to think in ratios, not exact amounts. I will provide a recipe at the end of this article, but use it as guidelines and as reference points as you are learning, not as the end-all way to make your salad taste good. The basic ratio is three parts fat to one part acid with salt and pepper to taste, but this can vary depending on your salad greens, choice of fat and acid, and other variables. Some of my favorite dressings divert from the standard ratio, usually on the more acidic end of the spectrum, but I almost always start with the 3:1 ratio and go from there. To this basic vinaigrette, add your emulsifier and whisk, then add minced garlic, fresh herbs, spices, honey or various sugars, or a plethora of other ingredients to personalize your vinaigrette.
Below is a list of many common fats, oils, and emulsifiers to get you started, plus common additions and some uncommon but fun ones to try. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it can help give you an idea of just how creative you can get without needing to use a recipe.
Fats: Olive oil, walnut oil, almond oil, hazelnut oil, other nut oils, grapeseed oil, safflower oil, sesame oil, cream, browned butter.
Acids: Red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, champagne vinegar, apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, sherry vinegar, rice vinegar, palm vinegar, lemon juice, lime juice, orange juice, grapefruit juice, other citrus juices.
Emulsifiers: Dijon mustard, egg yolk, soy sauce, honey, Worcestershire sauce
Common Additions: Minced shallots, minced garlic, roasted garlic, minced onion, minced red onion, fresh herbs, various grated cheeses, citrus zest, spices
Fun Additions: toasted and freshly ground spices, roasted shallots, miso paste, fish sauce, coconut, ginger, galangal, pesto, very ripe tomato flesh, chile flakes
Lastly, for those who need a bit more guidance, here is a recipe for a basic vinaigrette.
Basic Shallot Vinaigrette
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 small shallot, minced
1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons dijon mustard
6 tablespoons of a good-quality extra-virgin olive oil
A few grinds of fresh black pepper
1. Mix together salt, vinegar, and shallot and allow to stand 10 minutes. This will take the edge off the shallots and let the salt dissolve. Whisk in the mustard, then slowly whisk olive oil into the mustard mixture. Add black pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning, if needed. Toss with salad greens and serve immediately.