REAL COOKS DON’T USE BOTTLED DRESSING
Avinaigrette is the simplest of the great French sauces to prepare. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, though. Despite the fact that there are only two main ingredients, turning oil and vinegar into a dressing that transforms unadorned greens into a finished, well-balanced salad is often hit or miss for most cooks.
The best vinaigrettes do their job quietly, complementing the greens without dominating them or engaging in combat. But all too often vinaigrettes can seem harsh and bristling in one bite, only to be dull and oily in the next. That’s because oil and vinegar, like oil and water, naturally repel each other and getting a stable emulsion requires more than just the right whisking technique.
Given the challenges here, it’s no wonder that many cooks turn to bottled dressings, which rely on a laundry list of preservatives and stabilizers to keep the oil and vinegar emulsified. Yes, bottled dressings are consistent (no worries about vinegary bites followed by oily bites) but they are also consistently bad. Many contain loads of sugar (yuck!) and dried herbs. Salad should taste fresh, not stale, and that means you must (and we really mean it) make your own dressing.
Enough browbeating. Once you master the basic technique (and use our secret stabilizing ingredient that keeps the vinegar and oil together long enough to dress and serve the salad), making vinaigrette will become second nature—something you can do without consulting a recipe and something you can vary almost endlessly. It’s just two ingredients, plus seasonings, after all.
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS
Get the Ratio Right
Modern recipes often call for 4 parts oil and 1 part vinegar. We find this formula yields a bland, greasy dressing. It turns out that slack attention to mixing (modern recipes tend to favor the dump-and-stir or dump-and-shake method) has bumped up the oil-to-vinegar ratio to mitigate the effects of an improperly emulsified dressing. The 3:1 ratio found in classic French cookbooks is correct.
Whisk Slowly, and Don’t Shake
Vinaigrette relies on the principle of emulsification—the combination of two ingredients that don’t ordinarily mix, in this case oil and vinegar. In kitchen tests, we found that two common methods—shaking ingredients together in a jar or dumping the vinegar and oil into a bowl and whisking them together—both produce harsh results. In contrast, the classic technique (slowly whisking the oil into the vinegar) yields an emulsified dressing that tastes smoother, at least at the outset.
Double Up on Emulsifiers
Even a well-made vinaigrette, made by slowly whisking in the oil, will quickly taste harsh. That’s because vinegar is 95 percent water and the vinegar and oil separate after just a few minutes. To make vinaigrette more stable, some recipes call for mustard, which contains polysaccharides (complex sugars) that bond the oil and vinegar molecules together. But the emulsifier in mustard isn’t terribly strong so you have to use too much mustard for our taste. Supplementing a small amount of mustard with a dollop of mayonnaise keeps the dressing emulsified for 90 minutes. The lecithin in the egg yolks is the magic compound that bonds the vinegar and oil molecules together.
Add Seasonings to Vinegar
Salt won’t dissolve in oil, so for even seasoning add the salt (and other seasonings and the emulsifiers) to the vinegar and then start whisking in the oil. Herbs can be added to the finished dressing.
Use a whisk (rather than a fork) to produce a stable dressing that won’t separate.
MAKES ABOUT ¼ CUP
- 5 minutes (including prep)
- Liquid measuring cup for pouring oil
- Small bowl
Substitutions & Variations
- This recipe is only as good as the ingredients that go into it. Extra-virgin olive oil is a must. Don’t bother with bland substitutes like vegetable oil.
- The master recipe (as well as the walnut and herb variations) works with nearly any type of greens. The lemon vinaigrette is especially designed for mild greens and the balsamic dressing is best with assertive greens.
- The recipe can be doubled or tripled; just make sure to use a larger bowl.
- For a hint of garlic flavor, rub the inside of the salad bowl with a clove of garlic before adding the lettuce.
- Grated orange or lime zest can be used instead of lemon zest. Lime juice works on its own as the sole acid in the recipe; orange juice needs a stronger partner—a shot of sherry vinegar is nice.
- Spices can be used in place of herbs but you will need far less. A pinch of curry powder goes a long way. Seeds (poppy or sesame) are another option for finishing the dressing.
You can use red wine, white wine, or champagne vinegar here; however, it is important to use high-quality ingredients. Use about 2 tablespoons of this dressing per 4 cups greens, serving two.
- 1 tablespoon wine vinegar
- 1½ teaspoons minced shallot
- ½ teaspoon regular or light mayonnaise
- ½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
- Salt and pepper
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Combine vinegar, shallot, mayonnaise, mustard, ⅛ teaspoon salt, and pepper to taste in small bowl. Whisk until mixture is milky in appearance and no lumps of mayonnaise remain.
- Place oil in small measuring cup so that it is easy to pour. Whisking constantly, very slowly drizzle oil into vinegar mixture. If pools of oil gather on surface as you whisk, stop addition of oil and whisk mixture well to combine, then resume whisking in oil in slow stream. Vinaigrette should be glossy and lightly thickened, with no pools of oil on its surface. (Vinaigrette can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks. Rewhisk before using.)
Substitute fresh lemon juice for vinegar, omit shallot, and add ¼ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest and pinch of sugar along with salt and pepper.
Substitute balsamic vinegar for wine vinegar, increase mustard to 2 teaspoons, and add ½ teaspoon chopped fresh thyme along with salt and pepper.
Substitute 1½ tablespoons roasted walnut oil and 1½ tablespoons regular olive oil for extra-virgin olive oil.
Add 1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley or chives and ½ teaspoon minced fresh thyme, tarragon, marjoram, or oregano to vinaigrette just before using.
A Better Way to Dress a Salad
Most cooks, even good ones, don’t do a very good job when it comes to dressing a salad. There are two key things you must get right—cleaning (especially drying) the greens and coating the greens evenly but lightly. Many a salad suffers from soggy, overdressed greens. A salad spinner is essential.
1). Fill salad spinner bowl with cool water, add greens, and gently swish them around. Let grit settle to bottom of bowl, then lift greens out and drain water. Repeat until greens no longer release any dirt.
2). Dry greens, stopping several times to dump out excess moisture.
3). Blot greens dry on paper towels. (Even the best salad spinner won’t remove all the water.) To refrigerate greens for several days, roll them in paper towels and slip towels inside large plastic bag.
4). Tear greens into bite-size pieces when ready to make salad. You need 2 cups of greens per serving. Place greens in wide bowl with plenty of room for tossing.
5). Rewhisk dressing if made in advance and then drizzle small amount over greens. Figure on 1 tablespoon of dressing per serving of greens but add less than this amount to start.
6). Toss greens with tongs or 2 large forks or spoons, taste, and add more dressing if needed. (Until greens have been well tossed it’s impossible to judge whether they need more dressing. You can always add more, but there’s no fix for an overdressed salad.)
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