How to make a great vinaigrette
Why ruin a healthful salad with a dressing of preservatives and chemicals? If there is one culinary resolution everyone should make, it is to make your own salad dressing. Making a great vinaigrette takes only a couple minutes. Home-made dressings taste better and are better for you than most store-bought dressings. Have you read the ingredients on a commercial salad dressing lately? They are typically made with inferior oils and chock full of emulsifiers, artificial flavors and colorings, corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, preservatives and more. And don't get me going on "fat free" dressings. Fat-free dressings are nutritionally the worst because they typically have added sweetners. By adding additive-dense dressings to your beautiful salad fixings you are throwing the baby out with the bath water. Spare the baby and your salad. Take a couple minutes to make delicious and healthful dressings.
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How to make vinaigrette:
Start with great ingredients
Buy good quality oils, vinegars and mustard. At first they may seem expensive, but when you calculate how much dressing a good bottle of olive oil and a good bottle of vinegar can make, you come out ahead financially, and definitely nutritionally.
Store them in cool dark places
Vinegars and most oils can be stored at room temperature. There are a few, like walnut and peanut oil that should be stored in the fridge. If you think your oil may have gone bad, give it the smell test. If it smells bad in the bottle it will taste bad in your salad.
Basic ingredients - fat and acid
The fat in salad dressing is usually from some sort of vegetable oil, but can also include animal fat, like bacon grease for a spinach salad. Look for oils low in saturated fats like olive, canola, walnut and almond oils. Try citrus infused-olive oils. A number of companies make them. I love Stonehouse's California-made Blood orange, Meyer lemon and Persian lime infused olive oils.
Acids include all sorts of vinegars and citrus. In addition to red and white wine vinegars, try Spanish sherry vinegar, balsamic vinegar, champagne vinegar, flavored vinegars, rice wine vinegar or just plain lemon or lime juice.
Additional dressing ingredients include mustard, shallots, garlic, herbs, grated cheese, salt & pepper, and sometimes a bit of sweetener like sugar or honey. Add mustard before you whisk in the fat. If you are not serving within an hour or so, wait to add shallots, garlic, herbs and cheese to the dressing until just before you toss the salad so they stay fresh and don't develop an off or bitter taste.
3:1 is the classic ratio of fat to acid. Some cooks will tell you this proportion is written in stone, but it is not. Even Julia Child prefers a more mellow 5:1. It is a matter of taste and can vary depending on the potency of your vinaigrette and other ingredients. The best rule of thumb is to start with a 3:1 ratio, taste it and add more fat if you feel the dressing is too acid.
Make an emulsion
This means you start with your acid and slowly whisk the fat into the acid so they do not separate. You are actually suspending tiny droplets of oil in the acid. As you whisk, the dressing will become thicker and opaque. You can emulsify by hand with a whisk or if you are making in larger quantities you may want to use a blender or food processor.
For one salad
When making dressing for only one salad, I like to use a 2 cup glass mixing bowl, an 8" mini-whisk and a 1/4 cup Oxo mini angled measuring cup. 1 T acid to 3-4 T fat makes more than enough dressing for a generous salad.
For multiple salads
When making vinaigrette in bulk, spare your deltoids and use a blender or food processor for larger quantities. Put your vinegar in first and then slowly pour the olive oil in through the feed tube while the processor is running. If you are making larger batches of vinaigrette to store in fridge, you may want to wait to add shallots, garlic and herbs until just before you serve, as they will limit the shelf life of the dressing. Just oil and vinegar will keep refrigerated for quite awhile. In general, I would not make more than enough for a couple salads. It is easy to start fresh.
If your dressing begins to separate
Have at it with the whisk or put it in a bottle and shake it. Vinaigrettes are not permanent emulsions and over time will separate into their original fat and acid components.
Don't over dress your salad
You might make a great salad and a great vinaigrette, but if you put too much dressing on your salad you will have a mess. Dress just to lightly moisten your salad ingredients. You want to be able to taste the salad and not just your dressing.