Making sauces is one of my favorite parts of cooking, and my favorite kind of sauce is a vinaigrette. Making a vinaigrette is so incredibly easy, you almost always have the ingredients on hand, and, once you get the hang of it, you don’t need a recipe. You can get creative with fresh herbs, different vinegars and citrus juices, and even different oils. And while most of my vinaigrettes are destined for salads, I use them on all kinds of other dishes as well: grilled fish, seared steak, steamed green beans, boiled potatoes—just about everything but dessert…although I do like a citrus vinaigrette on fruit salad.
The method is as easy as one-to-three
The classic formula for a vinaigrette is one part vinegar to three parts oil. I use this as my starting point and then taste and add a bit more of whatever it takes to make a dressing that’s very bright and tangy but not so sharp that it takes your breath away. It’s important to remember, however, that you’ll be using just a small amount of it and putting it on something fairly mild, so the sauce itself should be very full flavored.
Something to always keep in mind is the freshness of your oil. Oils can go rancid more quickly that you might think, and even a vegetable oil that seems so “shelf-stable” can oxidize over time. Whenever I open a new bottle of any kind of oil, I sample a small spoonful so I have a memory of how it tastes when it’s fresh. Then every time I use it, I taste it again to be sure it’s still in top condition. If you have open bottles of oil that have been on the shelf for more than a few months, I’d say toss them and start fresh before making your next vinaigrette.
The method for making a vinaigrette involves a process called emulsification, which is simply the act of getting oil and water (or vinegar) to mix. There are a number of ways to do the mixing (see below), but all of them benefit from a “bridge” ingredient that helps emulsify. Both salt and eggs act as emulsifiers, but the handiest—and tastiest —emulsifier for a vinaigrette is mustard. A small amount of mustard (I use Dijon) binds a vinaigrette and helps it stay that way—creamy and thickened—and the half-teaspoon that I call for in most of my recipes doesn’t really add a mustardy flavor. If your sauce does lose its emulsification and separates into layers of oil and vinegar, don’t worry about it—just mix it up again right before serving.
Mixing it up
Use whatever tool is most comfortable for you. I used to reach for my whisk, but ever since my sister gave me an Aerolatte (right) for my morning coffee, I’ve been using it for vinaigrettes—it’s fun and fast. Blenders are good for large quantities; food processors can work in a pinch. Simply shaking the ingredients in a jar with a tight-fitting lid will also produce beautifully blended vinaigrettes.
There are a couple of tools on the market that are especially helpful with making vinaigrettes. Tabletools.com carries the Caffe Froth Turbo Deluxe, a sort of mini-immersion blender, which, in addition to doing a wonderful job foaming up coffee, also emulsifies vinaigrettes. Tabletools.com also carries the Aerolatte Milk Frother, which similarly whips together vinaigrettes. The BonJour Salad Chef, available from Kitchenkapers.com, is the next level in vinaigrette gadgetry, with a carafe to hold both the vinaigrette and the tiny blender.