When you find a version that you like on lettuce all by itself, you’ve found your vinaigrette nirvana.
I confess. In a pinch, I still buy ranch dressing and “doctor” it up with chopped dill, a LOT of freshly ground black pepper, and a little milk to thin it. But that is the ONLY salad dressing I buy. I make my own Caesar dressing, and always, always make my own vinaigrettes.
Actually, I’ve been making my own salad dressings for so long that I don’t measure anything anymore, and I’m absolutely fearless about trying new combinations although I certainly wasn’t at first. I used to say salads are hard. How do you know what lettuce is going to go with what vegetables or fruits, and what if the vinaigrette I make clashes with the ingredients I put in the salad? And don’t salads have to be “composed” to be good?
Right now, in my pantry there are no fewer than nine different oils and thirteen different vinegars with which I can play. But for me it all started with learning how to make a really good balsamic vinaigrette, and yes, when I first started making this, I measured every time. So that’s what I’m gonna teach you how to do.
Basic Balsamic Vinaigrette
Source: Suzette Jacobs
Serving size: enough dressing for one large green salad to serve 6 – 8
¼ tsp. kosher salt
¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 and ½ tsp. Grey Poupon mustard
1 and ½ TBS. Balsamic vinegar
1 TBS. lemon juice or other milder vinegar
3 TBS. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Find yourself a jar with a lid or a taller container with a lid (my immersion blender came with one, and that’s what I use). The lid is important as you are going to shake this dressing to mix it.
Put all the ingredients into your jar, adding olive oil last. Shake. (Scroll down for photos).
Now watch the dressing as it runs down the side of the jar. You know the old wine term, “legs”? How someone who knows wine will watch the wine run down the side of a glass after taking a sip of it? If it takes a while, if it leaves trails, then it has “legs.”
You want your vinaigrette to have legs like Sophia Loren. Or like Julie Newmar.
It should take a good long while to run down the sides of your jar, yet not be so viscous that it isn’t liquid. If your vinaigrette doesn’t have legs, then it hasn’t fully emulsified. Don’t be intimidated: emulsify just means that the ingredients hang together even though they want to separate. It may need a bit more mustard, a bit more oil. But go sparingly on any adjustments, and taste first. Grab a lettuce leaf, dunk the end of the leaf, and taste. You’ll know if it needs more mustard. You’ll know if it needs more oil. And if all you taste is oil – well, something’s gone really wrong, and you need more of both vinegar and mustard to make it emulsify or hang together and show you those legs.
I started to add milder vinegars or lemon because my then pre-teen son needed a milder version of the vinaigrette when he was learning to like salads. It is an acquired taste, and I wanted to encourage him to acquire it. So I deliberately kept trying to make milder versions of vinaigrettes to appeal to his palate too. You can soften this recipe to your liking by using milder mustards and milder vinegar or citrus, working with your own palate and the needs of your family. When you find a version that you like on lettuce all by itself, you’ve found your vinaigrette nirvana. If you like it in a totally stripped down salad, you will probably like it in more composed salads too.
For example, fig-infused white balsamic vinegar is a knockout for a field greens salad with blue cheese, cherry tomatoes, and slivered almonds – it’s that old fruit and cheese marriage happening there, but it’s very subtle. Another example: if I want to do my own take on a niçoise salad, I might add white champagne vinegar and chopped tarragon to the vinaigrette for mixed greens, tuna, chopped hard boiled egg and green beans. I might even flip the ratio and have the champagne vinegar be the primary vinegar, adding balsamic as a token “second” vinegar. Experiment. Key your vinegar(s) to the salad ingredients.
You don’t have to use the second, milder vinegar or lemon juice to make this dressing. You can simply up the ratio of balsamic vinegar. I add lemon juice or another, milder vinegar like fig-infused white balsamic vinegar, or red wine vinegar, or even champagne vinegar to soften the bite of the dressing a bit and to accent other flavors of the salad.
And finally, I think there’s virtue in the simple one-kind-of-lettuce salad, when placed in a small portion next to other, more complex dishes. Salads don’t always have to have everything but the kitchen sink, or be overworked with so many ingredients that you forget your eating greens.
I’ll post more vinaigrette variations and combinations in future blogs. Just think of all the space you’ll save in the refrigerator door once you are free from store-bought salad dressings!