“A lettuce salad’s dressing should not be its nemesis. It should only be what the lettuce needs. Choose the dressing for a lettuce salad based on the lettuce, instead of beginning with a recipe or a bottle of dressing. Delicate butter lettuces and other thin leaves need little. Their dressing should be almost gestural, just a light squeeze of lemon and olive oil. Other lettuces, like oak leaf or young romaine, like basic vinaigrette.”
Tamar Adler, “An Everlasting Meal”
If you shop at the farmers market, a lot of food you bring home will shine brightest if you do very little to it. A splash of a simple, homemade vinaigrette will enhance the flavors of your fresh vegetables without their getting lost under a blob of some smothering ranch dressing. And if you are trying to economize in the kitchen, you can save a lot of money by making your own vinaigrette. (Ken Albala calls bottled salad dressing “one of the worst wastes of your money ever invented. It’s largely composed of water, cheap oils and emulsifiers.”) A good vinaigrette can serve as a dressing for your raw vegetables; a sauce for roasted vegetables, meats or fish; a marinade; or (if you thicken it a bit) a dip for snacks.
The formula is simple. The three basic elements are fat, acid and flavor. Put them in a jar and shake, use a mixer or food processor to blend, or combine everything but the fat before drizzling it in with a whisk. That’s it. It really is that easy. I mix up a fresh batch whenever I need it. I occasionally make a bit too much, but it’ll keep until I can use it up (unless your ingredients are little more than oil and vinegar, it might be wise to store leftovers in the refrigerator).
The universally agreed upon proportions are three parts fat to one part acid, but you might want to experiment some to see how the various flavors please your palate. I have to admit, I rarely use more fat than I do acid when I’m making a dressing for a salad. That’s because I love the crisp, bold taste of a good vinegar or a freshly squeezed lemon; and I usually use olive oil, which has a pretty strong flavor, so it can be overpowering. Or if I can get my hands on an old balsamic vinegar-one that has become so thick with age that it flows like a syrup-and combine that with a sprinkle of crumbled feta or goat cheese and a few grinds of pepper, that’s all I need to dress a fresh salad. So the ratio is a very rough guideline.
You also might adjust the proportions based on the food over which you’ll be pouring the vinaigrette. If it is going to be something fatty, like a cut of meat or some oily fish, you might want to back off on the fat in the vinaigrette a bit. On the other hand, if you’re using a really sharp acid (like lime juice) or something a little lighter or more neutral than olive oil, you might want to add in a little extra fat to reach the proper balance.
So what fats, acids and flavors make up a good vinaigrette? Let’s start with the fats. The classic fat is olive oil, but you could also use walnut oil, hazelnut oil, sesame oil, avocado oil or whatever piques your interest. Other fats to consider are melted butter, bacon drippings, or the warm fat from any meat or poultry that you might be cooking. For a creamier dressing, you could use some crème fraîche, heavy cream, yogurt, sour cream, buttermilk or mayonnaise. A combination of any of the above fats might give your vinaigrette depth. Maybe try reducing the amount of fat while adding a bit of grated cheese.
For the acid, you’re going to find a lot of vinaigrettes made with red and white wine vinegars, but also think about balsamic, apple cider, rice, sherry or champagne vinegars. Other options include vegetable purées (tomatoes, for example) or fruit juices. Citrus goes great in vinaigrettes-you could use lemon, lime, orange or grapefruit juice (also try some zest!). And there are other fruit juices, like apple, that would add a more gentle acidity. A few of the more unusual suggestions I’ve seen include vodka, green tea and fish sauce. And, of course, you can try a mix of acids.
As for flavor, my favorite things to add to a vinaigrette are minced garlic and stone-ground mustard (the kind with the seeds in it). Herbs are another possibility (Michael Ruhlman suggests that the soft-stemmed ones-basil, chives, parsley, mint, cilantro, dill-should be added just before serving, while hard-stemmed herbs-sage, rosemary, oregano, thyme-might be mixed with the acid for an hour or more before blending).
Vegetables can add a lot of flavor to your potion. Just a few possibilities are shallots, onions, peppers, leeks and radishes. Raw minced veggies might impart their flavor better if they’re left to sit in the acid for a little while before you add the fat; but the chopped, roasted versions are fine mixed in straight away.
For a sweeter dressing, add a bit of honey, brown sugar or maple syrup; or spice it up with some curry powder, cumin, cayenne pepper, coriander, pepper flakes, allspice, clove or cinnamon.
Some additional ideas I’ve run across in my research include anchovy paste, other mustards (such as Dijon), ginger, egg yolk and peanut butter.
And, of course, don’t forget the salt and pepper.
You can even mix your vinaigrette on the fly while you’re softening your greens.
What do you like to mix in your vinaigrette?
Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.