Let your taste be your guide. “I think it just comes down to, ‘is this yummy?’ ” says Ilene Rosen, who released the cookbook “Saladish” earlier this year. Rosen, who also operates specialty food shop R&D Foods in Brooklyn, has an imaginative approach to dressings that employs everything from marmalade and miso to pumpkin seeds and watercress. As you prepare to blaze your own trail to vinaigrette experimentation, here are the main elements you want to consider:
This is the “backbone of most dressings,” Rosen says, so put some thought into it. The everyday choice is extra-virgin olive oil; choose one you like the taste of and are willing to cook with, whether it’s mild, fruity or more assertive. If you’d rather emphasize other flavors, choose a neutral oil, such as canola, grape seed, safflower or sunflower, Rosen says. Flavored oils, such as toasted sesame, walnut or pumpkin seed, are great, too, but mix them with olive oil or a neutral oil because they can easily go from accent to overwhelming.
If you’re making a vinaigrette, of course your most obvious acid is going to be vinegar. You have a lot to choose from (just stay away from regular distilled white, which is best left for pickling and cleaning). Balsamic (the dark has a more robust flavor than white) is an all-around great choice. “If you have that and a nice olive oil, you’re done,” Rosen says. But try branching out. Cider vinegar is fruity, and sherry vinegar is nutty. Red wine vinegar is assertive (pair it with sturdy bitter greens or vegetables), while white wine vinegar is less assertive (think more delicate greens). If you’re emphasizing Asian flavors, try rice vinegar, which comes unseasoned or seasoned with salt and sugar.
Rosen recommends considering some especially funky vinegars such as Chinese black vinegar and banana vinegar, made with fermented fruit. She also loves walnut vinegar, though you may want to mix flavored vinegars with more traditional varieties to avoid overpowering other ingredients. Instead of or in conjunction with vinegar, citrus juice can also serve as the acid in a dressing.
Emulsifiers help bring a dressing together and keep it from separating. My favorite all-purpose option is Dijon mustard, which is milder than spicy brown or classic yellow but still packs a zesty punch that pairs well with the vinegar and cuts through oil. Honey is another possibility, one to consider if your dressing or salad ingredients are already very acidic or bitter. Sometimes I do a bit of both mustard and honey. You can also use egg yolks, or their derivative, mayonnaise. “Mayonnaise may be the unsung hero of the fridge,” Rosen says. Yogurt (full-fat regular, not Greek) is good, too. Nicolas Jammet, co-founder and co-chief executive of powerhouse salad chain Sweetgreen, says people looking for a vegan emulsifier should try fabanaise, a mayolike product made with aquafaba, or bean liquid. Sweetgreen uses Sir Kensington’s brand. “It’s actually incredible,” he says.
Wild card/other flavors
You can add almost anything you want to your vinaigrette. As Jammet puts it, “How wild do you want to go?” Think about what other types of flavors you want to check off, to either complement or serve as a foil to what’s already in your vinaigrette or what you’re going to be dressing with it. Sweet? Go for maple syrup, jams or preserves or fruit. Funky? Grab some miso, fish sauce or kimchi. Jammet is a big fan of nutritional yeast. If you like smoky flavors, reach for chipotles en adobo, smoked sea salt, smoked paprika or even charred fruits or vegetables. Jammet always likes to add a little heat or spice, too. That can come from chile oil, red pepper flakes, harissa and Sriracha (at home anyway — Sweetgreen stopped using Sriracha in 2016). If you’re after an aromatic or bright pop of flavor, use fresh herbs, one of Rosen’s favorite additions. Finely chop them, muddle them in the bottom of your jar or blend them in, depending on how you’re making the dressing. Garlic and shallots are good. Dried herbs and other pantry spices are at your disposal as well.
Here’s how to make and use a vinaigrette, now that you have an idea of what goes into it.
Start with the classic ratio. The traditional ratio of oil to vinegar is 3 to 1 (i.e. 3 tablespoons oil per 1 tablespoon of vinegar). Both Rosen and Jammet say that’s a good place to start before you begin tweaking, which comes into play once you need to . . .
Think about balance — and taste it. You want balance not only with what’s in your vinaigrette but also with the components of the salad. Is your salad big on bitter greens and tomatoes? Maybe emphasize oil and sweet flavors in your vinaigrette, or make it creamier. If you have a lot of neutral salad elements — cucumber, summer squash, iceberg lettuce — try for something sharper. Taste along the way, adding salt and pepper as needed. Rosen recommends dipping one of your salad components in the dressing to see if the combination works.
Raid your pantry or refrigerator for inspiration. Rosen says vinaigrettes are a perfect way to use up all those ingredients you bought for other recipes and still have hanging around — condiments, especially. Jammet sees them as a way to be thrifty and eco-friendly, too. Try using the tops of whatever produce is in your salad, such as fennel fronds or radish greens.
Mix it up. “For simplicity and ease at home, if you’re not making a large quantity, I think a jar is great,” Rosen says. Put all the ingredients in a glass jar with a lid and shake away. You may be surprised how quickly and evenly it comes together. If you really need to blend ingredients together into a uniform dressing — if you’re pureeing herbs or produce or using thicker ingredients such as miso — go for your blender or food processor. Especially if you’re not too concerned about a perfect emulsion, a good old whisk and bowl can work, too.
Dress the salad at the right time. Homemade dressings should last at least a few days in the refrigerator, Rosen says. (Shake them again if they separate.) If you’re using your vinaigrette on something sturdy or hearty, a grain salad or grilled/roasted vegetables perhaps, you can apply the dressing in advance. This will help the flavors meld, too. More delicate dishes, such as a traditional green salad, should be dressed right before serving to avoid wilting. Rosen’s preferred method of tossing a salad is by hand, while wearing food-safe gloves. “There’s really no other way to get dressing into every bit of a grain or vegetable,” according to her cookbook.
Use vinaigrettes for more than salads. Try different applications for your vinaigrette, as a dip, marinade or sandwich condiment. You could even drizzle it over a cold soup or gazpacho. “There’s kind of a fine line between all of those things,” Rosen says, meaning they’re often interchangeable.
Need a little inspiration? Here are four flavor combinations to consider:
From “Saladish”: 1/2 cup neutral vegetable oil + 5 1/2 tablespoons white miso + 1/4 cup maple syrup + 2 tablespoons rice vinegar + 1 1/2 tablespoons water (combine in food processor or blender)
From “Saladish”: 1/2 cup basil + 2 tablespoons cider vinegar + 2 1/4 teaspoons Dijon mustard + 6 tablespoons neutral vegetable oil + salt and pepper as needed (combine in food processor or blender, streaming in oil after basil and then vinegar and mustard are pulsed)
From our archives: Orange zest + orange juice + mint + sugar + Dijon mustard + sherry vinegar + olive oil
From our archives: Olive oil + red wine vinegar + Dijon mustard + garlic
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