Salad dressings seem to be a mystery to many.  I have noticed that there are many a cook, proud of their kitchen prowess, who plop a bottled salad dressing on the table next to a beautifully constructed salad.  It’s a mystery to me why salad dressing is perceived as “too much trouble”.  It especially makes me laugh when health conscious people justify the bottle by claiming that you can’t make low calorie salad dressing at home.  What???!  Firstly, of course you can and secondly, take a look at what the salad dressings contain to keep them mixed, to give them a shelf life and to make them palatable while being cost effective. Unpronounceable crap-chemicals, sugar and salt.  That’s ALL supermarket salad dressings, celebrity or not.  Cheap or expensive.  When you make the dressing it’s controlled by you.  It’s freshly made.  It’s tastier. And it’s chemical free.  Anyone who owns a whisk and a bowl can make great, inventive salad dressings if they learn a few principles.And so this week let’s learn about the simplest of all dressings-simple vinaigrette.

Vinaigrette consists of an oil (like olive) and an acid (like vinegar), mixed together into a temporary emulsion. Making a vinaigrette is like taking a child to the dentist (and many adults for that matter)-they’d rather not.  That’s oil and vinegar-they’d rather not stay mixed-thus it’s called a TEMPORARY emulsion.  Shortly after you stop mixing; it will separate with the oil on the top and the vinegar on the bottom.  The oil will float, much like an oil spill will stay on the top of the water.

So Principle #1: Simple vinaigrette made without chemicals WILL separate upon standing.  But just stirring it up right before service will make it come together again-for a little while anyway. The “magic” ratio of oil to acid is 3:1.  That’s 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar.  Learn this and you never have to look at a vinaigrette recipe again.  You can make a little or a lot.  Is this ratio set in stone?  Nope.  Depending on the acid, you may choose to reduce the amount you add because it is strong (like a really aged balsamic), mix acids (like ½ lime juice and ½ wine vinegar), or add a bit more vinegar because it is mild like rice vinegar.  Experiment.  Because this dressing is basically only 2 ingredients, it’s easy to “fix” an error in proportions.

Principle #2: the basic ratio of oil to vinegar (or acid) is 3:1.  Tasting your dressing is vital.

Principle #3: Use a piece of lettuce or other salad ingredients to take a taste of the dressing.  Tasting it “straight” can’t give you a good benchmark. Now you can add your seasonings.  Really, this can be as simple as a bit of kosher salt and some pepper or a whole gardenful of herbs.  Remember if using dried herbs, they are VERY potent.  Use sparingly and then taste.  A nice addition is finely chopped garlic, shallots or chives.  Make it yours. You can use any oil for vinaigrette-canola, vegetable, sunflower and soybean oil are some of the light, neutral flavored oils you can use.  In this case the oil is for coatability and mouth feel-it doesn’t add a lot of flavor, so your vinegar and seasonings should be very flavorful.  Don’t use oils labeled “light”-they are blends and add nothing to your dressing-or rather things you don’t want.  Be creative.  Try distinctive oils such as avocado, walnut and almond oil.  The possibilities are endless. Obviously, you can use any acid-lemon juice, lime juice, pickle juice and flavored vinegars are just a few.

Think about what you are trying to create.  A berry vinegar on a salad that contains fruit is a logical choice.  A berry vinegar in a dressing for a seafood salad…not so much. The best way to make a salad dressing is with a blender or a small food processor, but you don’t really need them-a bowl and a whisk will do just fine.  Use a stainless steel bowl, glass or china, not an aluminum one, as the acid can react with the aluminum and create an “off” taste.  All ingredients should be at room temperature-it is difficult to make an emulsion with cold ingredients.  Put the acid in the bowl and start to whisk in the oil in a thin steady stream, while whisking constantly.  Add the herbs and other seasonings.  Let it sit for a while to meld the ingredients. Do not refrigerate during the melding time.  You can make the dressing ahead, refrigerate it and bring it to room temperature before using, then whisk to combine, since it will have separated.  But it is ideal to make it a couple of hours before using. So now you know.  Promise me you will never to use bottled dressing again



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