On its own, a plate of arugula is just lettuce. But dressed with a homemade balsamic vinaigrette, it transforms into something truly special.
Even if it’s the only cooking skill you master, learning how to whip up your own salad dressings from scratch is worth the time. A well-balanced vinaigrette can elevate any combination of fresh vegetables, lettuce, and whatever else is in your fridge to gourmet status—and your dinner companions will never know it only took you two minutes to make.
Follow these simple guidelines for everything from a sesame dressing to red wine vinaigrette. Once you learn the basic technique, you’re set—say goodbye to sad salads forever!
No matter what vinaigrette you’re making, stick to a ratio of 1 part vinegar to 3 parts oil. If you prefer a tangier dressing, up the ratio to 1:2. Though we’re specifically talking about vinaigrette here, the same ratio will work with any acid—lemon juice is particularly nice. Those two basics are really all you need.
The next step is the most crucial. Ever eaten a salad seemingly coated in pure olive oil, only to find a puddle of balsamic vinegar at the bottom? That’s what happens when a dressing isn’t properly emulsified.
To combine two things that don’t naturally mix—in this case, oil and vinegar—you need to create an emulsion. To do it, combine the two star ingredients in a small bowl, and whisk, whisk, whisk until your vinaigrette appears thick and creamy. Or seal it in a glass jar and shake vigorously. You’ll know you’ve mixed thoroughly enough when tiny drops of the oil become suspended in the vinegar.
No matter how well you mix, however, the two will eventually separate. That’s where emulsifiers known as surfactants come in. Surfactants—mustard, honey, mayonnaise, and egg yolks all work—and play well with both oil and vinegar, helping to marry the two into a homogenous vinaigrette. You only need a tiny bit to do the job—just add a teaspoon to the oil-vinegar mix and blend.
Now that you’ve mastered the basics, it’s time to have some fun with flavor. As long as you stick to the standard ratio, you can add anything you want: think spices, fresh herbs, jam, chopped nuts, and more.
Follow your personal preferences, tasting as you go. Get started with these five classic combinations, and then see where your tastebuds take you.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho
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