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Stop Buying Salad Dressings

A Primer on Making Vinaigrettes

I know, it’s about convenience. That’s why we buy pre-bottled salad dressing.

salad dressing

Well that, and for some, creating something that tastes better than what you get in a bottle is a real challenge. I have both. I keep a champagne vinaigrette on hand for convenience. But I also make them all the time. At any given time I may have several jars of remnant vinaigrettes in the fridge.

If you never make your salad dressing, I hope that I can change that for you with this post.  But before I get too far, I am only talking about vinaigrette-style dressings. I have only ventured into the “creamy” once. And it was from a recipe which takes planning, shopping and time.

Blessing and Curse

For as long as I can remember I have been cursed/blessed as the “go-to guy” to make salad dressing at family dinners. I try to come up with something fresh, bright and a perfect match to the rest of the meal. I usually succeed. That is true; I am not boasting. My older sister will ask me what is in it, and my response is often, ‘a little of this and that from whatever I find in the pantry.’ And that is when the teasing starts; not by me, but by her. Woe is her. “I can’t believe you just make this up,” she would say. And then claim she does not have that talent but is always glad she gets to eat what I make.

Recently, at the last brunch with friends, one of my guests loved the salad dressing and asked where I bought it. I told him I made it. And then I proceeded to tell him how I came up with it. When I finished, he suggested that I write it all down in a post so that he could give it a go. So here it is. I hope it gets you thinking about flavor combinations.

The Measurements and Components in a basic vinaigrette: Fat – Acid – Emulsifier

The essential ingredients of a vinaigrette are oil and vinegar or other liquid acid and an emulsifier. Some will say you do not “need” the emulsifier if you use the vinaigrette right away. However, oil and vinegar easily separate and continues to do so even when on your salad. I want the flavors to stay blended, so I always use an emulsifier. While salt and pepper are the only flavor enhancers in a basic vinaigrette, you can add whatever you want.

salad dressing

Below are two examples of a basic vinaigrette.

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 1/2 tablespoons white or red wine vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place all ingredients in a bowl and whisk until emulsified.
Or but all ingredients in a small jar, tightly place the lid on the jar and shake for at least 5-10 seconds.

Or one with garlic

Fresh lemon juice (1 tablespoon)
Dijon mustard (1 teaspoon)
White wine vinegar (1 tablespoon)
1 garlic clove, finely minced.
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil.
Sea salt.
Freshly ground black pepper.

Place all ingredients in a bowl and whisk until emulsified.
Or but all ingredients in a small jar, tightly place the lid on the jar and shake for at least 5-10 seconds.

As you can see here, everyone has their own take on the ratio between the oil (fat) and the vinegar (acid). The “classic” ratio is three parts oil to one part vinegar. Highly acidic vinegar you may use less. A sweet vinegar like a traditional balsamic vinegar (the dark brown kind) you may use more.  For me, it is a personal preference. I use way more vinegar regardless of the type, but that is just me.

Individual Components of a Vinaigrette

The primary components are oil and vinegar and not just any oil or any vinegar. These two ingredients are the foundation of a great vinaigrette. The emulsifier and the flavorings are essential to make sure the dressing complements the meal. So let’s talk about each component on its own first.

The Fat. Olive Oil. Period.Salad Dressing

Yes, In my world olive oil is the only oil to use as the primary fat component in a salad dressing. And it should be a quality oil. I use Lucini “Everyday” Extra Virgin Olive Oil. It is a pricey brand but is worth every penny. The flavor is balanced and fruity with zero bitterness that you get with cheaper brands.

Bottled dressings will use other flavorless oils in their recipes which to me defeats the purpose of a vinaigrette. Take a look at the label; after water, soybean oil or canola oil is the next item listed in the ingredients. And you do know that they are listed in order of volume. So if “flavorless” oil comes before olive oil you are cheating yourself of an incredible flavor.

The AcidSalad Dressing

I either want the acid to be the brightening agent that accentuates flavor or I want it also to provide acid and flavor. Lemon or lime juice are examples of the latter. Brightening acids would include most of my favorite kinds of vinegar. My first choice is either white balsamic or champagne vinegar.  Rice vinegar is my third choice.  Of course traditional balsamic has its time as does apple cider vinegar.  I find those two to be intense, so I may blend with one of my preferred choices. You will find all of the kinds of vinegar below in my pantry.

Champagne Vinegar
White Balsamic Vinegar
Balsamic Vinegar
Rice Vinegar
Apple Cider Vinegar
Red Wine Vinegar

Fresh Squeezed Lemon Juice
Fresh Squeezed Lime Juice

The Emulsifier

Salad Dressing Salad Dressing

Salad Dressing
Agave Nectar

An emulsifier acts as a coating agent that surrounds the oil making it easier for the oil and vinegar to cozy up to one another. Over time there can be some separation but nothing that a quick whisk or shake can’t handle.

Dijon Mustard is the original emulsifier in vinaigrettes and is my preferred choice. I rarely if ever use dry mustard or yellow mustard because they have such a strong flavor that masks everything else. I have never used mayonnaise or miso, but they are options. I have used egg yolks when making a Ceasar Salad. Finally, I use honey or agave when I need a sweetener as well as an emulsifier. Many times I will use Dijon mustard and agave nectar.

Dijon Mustard
Dry Mustard (much spicier and stronger flavor)
Yellow Mustard (much stronger flavor)
Egg Yolks
Agave Nectar
Miso (Soybean Paste)

An emulsifying agent can absorb and hold liquid of varying weights (oil and vinegar). The more you whisk or shake these three ingredients, the more emulsified it becomes.

Flavor Enhancement

Flavor enhancers have the job of pulling the salad’s flavors into the rest of the meal.

Orange Marmalade or other jams (not jelly)
Apple Cider or other fruit juices (will act as a sweetener) – use half as much to start as you did vinegar
Chopped Shallots
Minced Garlic or Garlic Powder
Onion Powder
Sesame Oil – Why is this not a “fat”?  Technically, it is, but sesame oil has a robust flavor, and if you only used sesame oil it would overwhelm your salad. So use just enough to impart flavor but not overwhelm.

Other Spices/Herbs – turmeric, paprika, fennel seed, cumin, curry powder, and others all are possibilities.

If you are a “measurer” then by all means measure and record what you do.

A note about herbs: Dried herbs in a vinaigrette can initially make it taste bitter. They need time in the mix to break down enough to impart the oils that are locked inside. Since a homemade dressing is generally used right away, I suggest using fresh herbs as a component of the salad and not in the dressing. Basil, Oregano, Dill, Cilantro, and Italian Parsley all add great flavor to a green salad.

A note about garlic: Fresh Garlic can be overpowering, so I will usually use garlic powder. If that is still too strong of a flavor, use fresh chopped shallots. They are in the same family as onion and garlic but milder than both of their cousins.

Salad Dressing: Complementing the Meal.

When I am creating a dressing, I am thinking about the flavors of all of the other components of the meal in addition to the specific components of the salad. A salad can be just greens as long as the dressing is in balance with and complementary to the rest of the meal.

At the brunch, I was serving the Brioche Breakfast Casserole, Homemade Hashbrowns, and breakfast link sausage. All of these items had sweetened savory flavors, so in addition to the acid (white balsamic vinegar), I was also thinking about a complement to that sweetness. I have no idea why, but I grabbed the real maple syrup and off I went. It worked beautifully. I guess because it is a flavor that is commonly associated with brunch foods.

So the brunch dressing included: olive oil, white balsamic vinegar, dijon mustard, real maple syrup, salt, pepper, onion powder, and garlic powder.

Start simple, then take more risks as your confidence builds

The most important thing you can do when making a vinaigrette is to taste your creation frequently.  Keep a pile of greens nearby to dip and taste.

For your first attempt, make one of the basic vinaigrettes above. Next time swap out the type of vinegar. Each time you make a dressing switch something up. Eventually, you will be going crazy. Continue to use your tongue to tell you what to add. As long as it appeals to you, then you are on the right track. Finally, do not over-dress the salad. Add a little and toss. Taste. Add a bit more. Taste. Until it is just right.

What is the worst that can happen? You pour it down the drain and pull out that bottle of Kraft or Wish-bone in the fridge.

For this post, I made a Tart Cherry Vinaigrette

note the separation of olive oil and vinegar
added about a 1/4 inch of tart cherry juice and a dollop of Dijon mustard
I added salt and pepper. After shaking it up, I tasted it. It was way too acidic.
So I added more cherry juice and a squeeze of agave nectar to sweeten.  Perfect! I will use on a salad with dried cherries, almonds, and goat cheese.

Thanks to rawpixel on Unsplash for the use of their image.


Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

If you make your own, I would love it if you would share it in the comments section.

That is all for now.



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