Sometimes, you just need a salad dressing. I hate buying salad dressing because it’s expensive (for what it is), it comes with way too much dressing for my needs, and it’s usually full of sugar or other weird ingredients. I’ve known for a while that making vinaigrette was really simple. I usually just wing it and it often comes out a bit too sour, so in the spirit of this blog, I decided to do a bit of research on the RATIOS, and came up with a base recipe that can be adapted in a variety of ways to make exactly the dressing you want.
Many many many people on the internet can tell you how to make vinaigrette. I used The Kitchn’s instructions as my base ratio of 1 part vinegar to 3 parts oil. This ratio can be modified a bit to taste – I ended up increasing the vinegar to 1.5 parts because I like my dressing pretty sour. But in addition to helping maintain flavor BALANCE, this ratio is also crucial because vinaigrette is an emulsion <here comes the science:>, a type of colloid where tiny droplets of one liquid (vinegar) are evenly suspended in another
liquid (oil). This suspension looks very opaque because the many droplets scatter the light so it can’t pass through. The liquids remain separated in droplets because the vinegar (like water and alcohol) is polar (it has separated electrical charge) while the oil (like gasoline) is non-polar (it has even electrical charge). Polar liquids can mix with other polar liquids, while non-polar liquids can mix with other non-polar liquids. “Oil and vinegar” is literally the classic example of polarity and conveys the fundamental inability of two things to mix. (But philosophically, in cooking, oil and vinegar come together to make something beautiful, and greater than the sum of the parts. Perhaps a lesson in the value of working with those who are different than us?)
Beyond this ratio, vinaigrettes can be customized in myriad ways, as I describe below:
Vinegar/Sour – The vinegar you choose plays the largest part in the flavor profile of your vinaigrette.
- Red and white wine or champagne vinegars are very sour but otherwise very neutral – they will go with most salads, but often trend towards Italian or French flavors.
- Balsamic vinegar is a much stronger flavor – it trends very sweet, fruity, and caramel-y and naturally compliments Italian flavors.
- Rice vinegar is used in a lot of Asian dishes, and vinaigrettes made with rice vinegar immediately invoke those flavors. It is less acidic and a bit sweeter than white wine vinegar.
- Sherry vinegar is a bit of a wild-card. Made in Spain, it’s well-rounded. Slightly sweet, slightly acidic, I think it goes great with umami flavors like cheese, mushrooms, and caramelized onions.
- Citrus juice can be used as an alternative to vinegar in a vinaigrette. It is also polar and sour, so it will easily replace the vinegar in the emulsification. You might use lemon or lime juice in addition to vinegar, or when the vinaigrette has a lot of other herbs and spring flavors that will compliment the citrus well.
- Other vinegars: There seems to be almost an infinite supply of specialty vinegars available today. Rest assured that if it is vinegar, it will work in a vinaigrette at this ratio. Go crazy!
Oil – The oil is the largest component of the vinaigrette, so it’s important that you choose a good one. Additionally, because vinaigrette is not cooked, the quality of the oil is not diminished at all in the final product. Unfortunately, I am still learning about different oil flavor profiles, so my recommendations will largely be based on word of mouth (ie the internet). I do know that oils are extremely varied and can go bad quickly, so don’t buy too much at once. You (and I) should consider buying a small amount of a few different oils and tasting them plain. Or visiting one of those “olive oil stores” that seem to exist in every major city and doing a taste test. You might be surprised at the different flavors you can detect.
- Olive oil: When in doubt, using a good-quality extra virgin olive oil in your vinaigrette will probably not lead you astray. Olive oil is fruity and bitter, sometimes spicy, but should not taste rancid. Of the brands that are usually available in my supermarket, I have recently been only buying California Olive Ranch, as multiple websites (such as the New York Magazine and Good Housekeeping) give it high marks.
- Canola, vegetable, or grapeseed oil: All of these are cheaper and have a more neutral flavor than olive oil, in case you want other ingredients to really shine. Particularly good to dilute stronger flavored oils.
- Toasted sesame oil: I think this has a pretty strong sesame flavor. I wouldn’t use it as the only oil in a vinaigrette, but in addition to a neutral oil like grapeseed, it would definitely add an Asian flair to the dressing.
- Nut oil: Walnut, pistachio, and other nut oils have very nice nutty flavors, and, like sesame oil, should be used in addition to a more neutral oil.
- Avocado oil: I hear it’s good for vinaigrettes, but I have yet to try it!
- Coconut oil: Don’t use coconut oil in vinaigrettes because it is solid at room temperature.
Sweet – Sugar is not a required ingredient for vinaigrettes, but you may find that it balances out some of the acidity and adds an additional flavor component. You can use a small amount of white or brown sugar, honey, molasses, or even fruit jam. Just make sure it completely dissolves in the vinegar before adding the oil.
Spice – An unexpected spicy flavor can really add an unexpected note and take your vinaigrette to the next level. Chopped shallot or garlic are my preference, but you could add a bit of chili pepper, or dried spices such as allspice or nutmeg. And every vinaigrette should be finished with plenty of salt and pepper!
Herbs – For a really fresh vinaigrette, you can add almost any herb (maybe not rosemary?) as long as it’s chopped small enough. Plus it looks beautiful!
Emulsifier – With enough elbow grease, your vinaigrette should come together no problem. But if you’re having trouble, or you want it to remain emulsified a bit longer, mustard (Dijon is my preference) is a great emulsifier. It has both polar and non-polar parts, meaning that it works well with both oil and vinegar, bringing the whole party together. (Dish soap is also an emulsifier, which is why it is so good at cleaning grease off your pans!)
Pomegranate Molasses Vinaigrette
- 1.5 Tbsp white wine vinegar
- 3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 small garlic clove, smashed
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- 1.5 tsp pomegranate molasses
- 1.5 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp pepper
- In a screw top container (tupperware, Mason jar, old jelly jar), stir together everything except the oil until fully combined and all sugars are dissolved.
- Lightly whisk while streaming in the oil.
- Screw on the top and shake shake shake until you can’t see distinct layers of the oil and vinegar. It should be opaque and surprisingly thick.
- Dip in a leaf of lettuce to taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.
- You can store this in the fridge and shake it up again to re-emulsify before serving. Note that the oil will likely solidify and need to be warmed before shaking (no preservatives here!). Also, the garlic will get more pungent as it sits, so remove before refrigerating if you’re worried.
- I tossed this dressing with baby spinach, dried cranberries, and sliced almonds. Don’t use too much dressing! The leaves should be just coated.
This is great and so easy! Just loses a star because it’s not that original. I am excited to try other combinations in the future.