The Basics of Vinaigrette


I have recently returned from camping on the beach with my family. Though we slept in tents and ate what we could fit in a couple of coolers, we managed to enjoy some yummy fresh vegetables.  It was a nice contrast to the modern primitive experience preferred by my children, which is a solid diet of anything that can be held over a fire with a stick.  Probably the most notable meal this week was a giant salad dressed with fresh vinaigrette.  Something magical happens when you get the right balance of oil, vinegar and a few other tasty ingredients. We  had a mixture of canola oil, lemons, dark cherry balsamic vinegar, loads of fresh garlic, salt and pepper in our "beach camping" vinaigrette. What you can create, however, is truly up to what flavors you prefer. There is nothing new about salad, but your dressing can be fresh and creative with each meal.

Here are the basics and a few suggestions:

Oil and Acid: If you ever wondered why you had to study ratios and proportions in school, the answer is to be able to make a really nice vinaigrette!  Three parts oil, one part acid.  That's the magical ratio.  Though your taste might prefer a little more acid on certain foods, it's a good place to start.  You can explore different flavors in the types of oils you choose, like olive, grapeseed, avocaco, etc.  Whole Foods has a simple guide to oils that might be helpful:

Vinegar and citrus fruits like lemons and limes are obvious acids to balance the oils in your dressing.  But you can also use wine, beer, fruit juices, fresh tomato, or combine vinegar with the others for more complex flavor.  "Vinegar" is a generic term, but there are hundreds of aged, infused, flavored and specialty vinegars that are delicious.

Aromatics: Although the oils and vinegar's you choose can dominate the flavor of your dressing, the use of aromatic vegetables and fruits can also shape the overtones of your creation.  Any type of onion, fresh herbs, shallots, garlic, lemongrass, fennel, ginger root, celery, root vegetables (like beets and carrots), or fruits and berries can be used cooked or raw.  If they are processed in a blender you can create a more even texture and the flavors will infuse more evenly into the oil and vinegar or juices. If you choose to mince or chop the aromatics, you will have nice bursts of flavor.

Seasonings: Salt and pepper will obviously do the trick, but a well-stocked spice cabinet will put on a show.  It is possible to create a "muddy" dressing where there are too many flavors, but the use of flavorful spices are important in rounding out a good vinaigrette.  A teaspoon of mustard (whole grain French, Dijon, or English) is a staple in many vinaigrette's. Also, a dash of spicy paprika or cayenne is nice.  But there is no need to stop there. Dried spices and herbs can take you around the world in terms of flavor, and are easy to collect and store.

Mixing and blending: My favorite method is to shake the ingredients in a jar with a lid.  It's low-tech and easy to clean, while extras can stay in the jar for later.  Depending on the desired consistency of your dressing, however, you may want to use a food processor or blender, or perhaps just a whisk and bowl.