Jan 272013
The simple heart of a vinaigrette- acid and oil

If you’ve been suffering the unbalanced flavors of most store-bought vinaigrette– frequently too sweet, with suspicious ingredient lists, a viscous mouth feel, and way too heavy a hand with the celery seed, (I’m looking at you, red wine vinaigrette from a certain quirky alt-grocery chain), keep reading.

The simple heart of a vinaigrette- acid and oil

The simple heart of a vinaigrette- acid and oil

A vinaigrette is incredibly easy to make, and is based on a simple ratio of acid to oil that you can memorize. (Yes, that’s right– you’ll be able to whip up a vinaigrette any time and anywhere. No salad will go undressed in your presence.) And once you have the basics down, you can customize your signature vinaigrette to your own palate, and/or whip up new ones all the time, based on what you have on hand.

Making a custom vinaigrette to dress a salad or roasted vegetables, or serve as a marinade, is just this easy:

The basics:

  • A bowl
  • A whisk
  • Olive oil
  • Vinegar or citrus juice

If you are lazy:

  • A blender instead of the bowl and whisk

If you want it to hold together for more than a minute:

  • An emulsifier (dijon mustard, honey, or egg yolk)

Kick up the flavor a little more:

  • Salt
  • Freshly-ground black pepper

Go classic:

  • Minced shallot

Customize it:

  • Maple syrup or honey
  • Fresh or roasted garlic
  • Fresh or roasted tomato
  • Minced fresh herbs
  • Minced olives
  • Soy sauce
  • Fresh ginger
  • A different oil (sesame, walnut, hazelnut… the list goes on and on)
  • A different vinegar (a nice Balsamic is always a solid choice; white wine and red wine vinegars are classic; apple cider vinegar is popular for a reason, and champagne and fruit-based vinegars can add a milder, sweeter tang…)
  • A different citrus juice (lemon and lime are tart enough to stand alone; orange and the like may need a boost from a tarter citrus or a complementary vinegar to produce a sufficiently tangy vinaigrette)

The ratio for  a basic vinaigrette is 1 part acid to 3 parts oil. Use a good quality olive oil, (you don’t have to go crazy; just something you like the flavor of), and a vinegar or citrus juice that tastes good to you, and you’re 90% of the way there.

If you want your vinaigrette to hold together, you need to emulsify it, which is to say that you need to get tiny droplets of your oil and acid to stay together, rather than separating as quickly as possible, as is their custom. Dijon mustard, (or really, any mustard– mustard seeds have a coating that contains a compound that helps oil and liquid bond together), honey, and egg yolk all function as emulsifiers, so any of these are commonly whisked into a vinaigrette. (I have a perhaps not-unreasonable fear of salmonella, so I avoid using egg yolk in my own vinaigrette.)

It’s conventional to season your vinaigrette with a bit of salt and pepper. As you saw in the list above, any number of aromatics, herbs, and other flavorful ingredients can be easily added to take your vinaigrette to another level. (And don’t feel bad about pulling out the blender if you’re using additions whose flavor will be more evenly dispersed if pureed, like tomatoes, olives, garlic, or fresh herbs. Really, don’t feel bad about pulling out the blender at all. I’m just attached to my whisk.)

Fail-Safe Vinaigrette, for two


  • 3 tablespoons good olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon good vinegar or citrus juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • pinch of salt
  • pinch of freshly-ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon honey or maple syrup, if using a tart vinegar or citrus juice

Cooking Directions

  1. Grab a mixing bowl and a whisk.
  2. Pour your vinegar or citrus juice into the bowl.
  3. Add the mustard.
  4. Add the honey or maple syrup, if using.
  5. Add the salt and pepper.
  6. Whisking constantly, slowly pour in your olive oil.
  7. Your emulsified vinaigrette will appear before your eyes!
  8. Toss it with a salad or some roasted vegetables, or use it as a marinade.

Next time, for extra credit, try any of the variations I discussed in this post. Experiment with different oils and acids, add some minced aromatics (like shallots or garlic or ginger) or herbs, sub a little soy sauce for the salt, try a bit of a different sweetener. But really– even just this basic, fail-safe recipe will do, as long as you use a good olive oil and a tasty acid. Happy dressing!

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