How To Make a Basic Vinaigrette

How To Make a Basic Vinaigrette

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Emma Christensen
Feb 10, 2016
(Image credit: Christine Han)

The time has come for you to embrace homemade salad dressing — starting with this vinaigrette. You don't need a recipe, and you don't even really need measuring spoons — all you need is a basic understanding of how oil and vinegar work together. Here is everything you need to know.

(Image credit: Christine Han)

The Basic Vinaigrette Recipe

The most basic formula for making a salad vinaigrette is one part vinegar or other acid mixed with three to four parts oil. For instance, you could use one tablespoon of cider vinegar and three tablespoons of olive oil. Or you could make a big batch of dressing and use 1/4 cup of vinegar mixed with 3/4 cups olive oil. Or use ounces, or milliliters, or the side of a jam jar — this a ratio, so you can use the means of measuring the ingredients that you prefer.

Choosing the Oil

Use a tasty oil to make your vinaigrette — any tasty oil. This can be a fancy extra-virgin olive oil you just picked up at the farmers market, or a mild-flavored one that you really like from Trader Joe's. You can also use walnut oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, or any other oil in your cupboard. It doesn't need to be particularly fancy or expensive – it just needs to be an oil with a flavor you like.

One word of caution: Be careful of using oils with very strong, intense flavors, like some nut oils and extra-virgin olive oils. You might like the flavor of these oils on their own, but they can sometimes overwhelm the delicate flavors in a salad. Try using a strongly flavored oil for half of the oil in the dressing and a more mild oil, like regular olive oil, for the other half.

Choosing the Vinegar

Anything goes for the vinegar, but the same rule applies: Pick something tasty. Cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, rice vinegar, and balsamic vinegar are good to start, as are fresh-squeezed lemon, lime, or other citrus juices. It can also be fun to experiment with interesting new flavors of vinegar that you come across. Again, as long as you enjoy the flavor, it will likely make a good vinaigrette.

Just avoid plain distilled white vinegar. It has a very strong, harsh flavor that isn't generally very good in vinaigrettes.

Seasoning Your Vinaigrette

Oil and vinegar are the base of the vinaigrette, but they need a little help if they're going to really make a salad appetizing. When you're new to making salad dressings at home, try starting out with just adding some simple salt and pepper. Even with just these two seasonings, you'll be surprised at how well they will round out the vinaigrette.

From there, you can start amping up your vinaigrette with all sorts of things. A spoonful of mustard adds a nice tanginess, while miso adds a mellow, salty-sweet flavor. Fresh herbs give vinaigrettes a punch of brightness, and minced garlic or shallots add pungency. If you like a bit of sweetness in your salads, add some honey or agave.

It's hard to go wrong when making a vinaigrette, and you'll learn your own tastes and preferences the more you make them.

(Image credit: Christine Han)

Making Your Vinaigrette

Once you've settled on the ingredients going into your vinaigrette, it's time to whisk everything together. Oil and vinegar will naturally separate into two separate layers, but when we're making a salad, we want them to bind together so they coat a salad evenly and give us a uniform flavor as we're eating.

Forcing oil and vinegar to combine is called an emulsion, and we can do this in one of three ways: whisking the vinaigrette together in a bowl, shaking it together in a jar, or blending it with a blender. None of these will create a stable emulsion — one that doesn't separate back into its component parts (like mayonnaise or hollandaise sauce) — so be sure to use your vinaigrette before it separates back into oil and vinegar. If that happens, simply shake to recombine the vinaigrette before using.

3 Ways to Whisk a Vinaigrette

You can make a vinaigrette by whisking it together in a bowl, shaking it together in a jar, or blending it with a blender. Here's more information about all three:

Whisk with a fork or whisk

  • Best for: Making a single salad for lunch or dinner.
  • What to do: Combine the vinaigrette ingredients in a small bowl or right in the salad bowl. Tilt the bowl and whisk the vinaigrette quickly for a few seconds. First you'll see bubbles of the oil and vinegar break into each other, and then the vinaigrette will become uniform. The vinaigrette will quickly separate back into oil and water, so use it right away.

Shake in a jam jar

  • Best for: Making a large batch of vinaigrette to use throughout the week.
  • What to do: Combine the vinaigrette ingredients in a jar or other container with a lid. Screw on the lid and shake the jar vigorously for a few seconds until the vinaigrette comes together. Use what you need for your salad, then store the rest in the fridge. The oil and vinegar will separate as it sits, so you'll need to re-shake the vinaigrette every time you use it.

Blend in a blender or with an immersion blender

  • Best for: Making a vinaigrette with solid ingredients, like garlic or fruit; the blender mixes them in completely and makes your vinaigrette very smooth.
  • What to do: Combine the vinaigrette ingredients in a blender or use an immersion blender. Blend until the vinaigrette is smooth and uniformly combined. A blended vinaigrette will still gradually separate back into its layers, so be sure to use the vinaigrette right away.

Tasting and Adjusting Your Vinaigrette

Before you actually use your vinaigrette to dress your salad, be sure to give it a taste. This is your moment to change the ratio of vinegar and oil, add more salt and pepper, or make any other last-minute adjustments.

Since tasting a vinaigrette on its own can give you a skewed idea of its flavor, taste it by dipping the edge of one of the greens into the vinaigrette. This will give you a much better idea of how your vinaigrette will taste with the finished salad.

(Image credit: Christine Han)
(Image credit: Christine Han)

The Best Way to Store a Vinaigrette

Store vinaigrettes in a jar or other container with a tight lid so that it's easy to shake it up again when you need it. If you made a basic vinaigrette with just olive oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper, you can stash it on the counter or in the cupboard for several weeks. If any of the ingredients in your vinaigrette were previously refrigerated or are fresh, like lemon juice or minced shallots, then store it in the refrigerator up to five days.

Measure all ingredients into a bowl, blender, or jar.

How To Make a Basic Vinaigrette

Makes about 1 cup

What You Need

Ingredients
3/4 to 1 cup olive oil, extra-virgin olive oil, or any good-tasting oil
1/4 cup good-tasting vinegar or lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Optional extras (choose 1 or 2, to taste): 1 minced shallot, 1 minced or grated garlic clove, 1/2 to 1 teaspoon grainy mustard, 1 to 2 tablespoons minced herbs, 1 to 2 tablespoons finely grated cheese, 1/2 to 1 teaspoon honey

Equipment
Measuring cups and spoons
Bowl, blender, or jar with lid
Whisk, fork, blender, or immersion blender

Instructions

  1. Measure all ingredients into a bowl, blender, or jar.
  2. Combine the vinaigrette: If using a bowl, use a fork or whisk to rapidly blend the vinaigrette together. If using a jar, top with the lid and shake until the vinaigrette is combined. If using a blender, blend until the vinaigrette is thoroughly combined.
  3. Taste the vinaigrette: Dip a leaf of salad into the vinaigrette and give it a taste; tasting the dressing with the greens gives you a better idea of how the vinaigrette will taste with a salad than if you taste it on its own.
  4. Adjust the taste: Add more olive oil for a more mellow flavor, more vinegar or lemon juice for more tartness, and more of any of the other ingredients to taste. Whisk, shake, or blend to combine.
  5. Use the vinaigrette: For a side salad for 2 to 4, start with a tablespoon of dressing, toss, and continue adding until the greens are evenly coated and look glossy. Serve immediately.
  6. Store the vinaigrette: Transfer leftover vinaigrette to a jar or other container with a lid (if it's not already in a jar). If the vinaigrette contains any fresh ingredients, like lemon juice or minced shallots, store it in the fridge. Vinaigrettes will keep for 3 to 5 days; shake to recombine the vinaigrette before using.
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