Vinaigrettes may be made with any type of vinegar and any type of oil, which is why it is impossible to write lucidly about them. The idea, regardless of ingredients, is a balance between tart vinegar and rich oil (and salt and pepper, of course) and as with every type of simple food, you can’t muck about with ingredients—use the good stuff.
But vinaigrettes are no longer about oil, vinegar, and perhaps a little mustard and minced shallot. They’ve evolved. Once found clinging to salad greens only, they now liven up everything from poached asparagus and grilled potatoes to broiled salmon and warm wheatberries. Many chefs (notably Jamie Oliver on his Jamie at Home show) regularly toss flavorful greens in a vinaigrette made with prime olive oil and use that salad to top hot dishes—like a spring pea risotto or lamb skewers off the grill in Jamie’s case—to provide flavor, temperature, and texture counterpoints.
Here are four things you probably didn’t know about this classic salad topper.
1.) Pick the right oil, pick the right vinegar. If dressing milder/sweeter foods—like Boston lettuce or grilled shrimp, you may want milder vinegars, like those made from cider or rice wine and, perhaps, a mild French extra-virgin olive oil like Plaignol. If more assertive greens/foods like endive and watercress are the targets, more assertively flavored oils, like peppery Puglian extra-virgin olive oil and artisinal wine vinegars are in order. (These small-batch vinegars tend to be more acidic but richer in flavor than mass-produced vinegars.) Aged vinegars, as a rule, are mellow with complex flavor, supermarket brands less so. Here’s a tip for taming overly tangy vinegar: Stir a little leftover wine—red or white, depending on the vinegar—into the vinegar before making the vinaigrette.
As for supermarket balsamic vinegars, I have found them excellent, if diluted 3:1 with water, as a means to remove stubborn streaks from windows.
2.) Emulsification is optional. Whisking oil and vinegar in a bowl is the most tenuous kind of emulsion. When I was in culinary school 142 years ago, making “true” emulsified vinaigrette was a rite of passage, like the parallel-parking part of a driver’s test. Since then, I never bother with emulsifying vinaigrette; I don’t see the point. Whisk the vinaigrette again just before dressing what you’re dressing or pour the finished vinaigrette into a jar with a lid and shake the bejesus out of it to re-emulsify it. (The jar method gives you a way to store leftovers, too.) If you feel compelled to emulsify vinaigrette, whisk a fair amount of mustard into the vinegar at the start. Smooth mustards, like Dijon, seem to work better than grainy mustards. That may be because the agents that act as emulsifiers are found in the seed hull and crushing releases more of them.
If you are hell-bent on emulsification: Put the vinegar, salt and pepper (and mustard and/or shallot if you like) in a bowl. Whisk a little to dissolve the salt and draw more bite from the pepper, then whisk in the oil very slowly. The oil and vinegar will appear to have put aside their differences and get along. But, like the rival cheerleader squads in Bring It!, that goodwill won’t last long. Before you know it, they’ll be back in their separate corners.
If you're really going for it, while continuing to whisk, add the oil drop by drop, literally, and hope for the best. Even this type of vinaigrette will eventually separate. My life is rich enough to make this not so much of an issue; I hope yours is, too. To make a more stable emulsification, whisk raw egg yolk into the vinegar and proceed as above. The end result will be less like vinaigrette and more like a very vinegary, thin mayonnaise.
3.) Trade in the olive oil for nut oil. Using all or part nut oil—hazelnut, walnut, or almond are readily available—as the oil in vinaigrette is a perfect way to dress bitter greens. Toasted, coarsely chopped nuts of the same species as the oil make a nice addition. Make walnut oil-Champagne vinegar vinaigrette to dress a salad of endive, toasted walnuts, and roasted and diced golden beets. Or toss frisee, toasted hazelnuts and lardons (slab bacon cut into largish pieces and cooked just until browned, not desiccated) and dress with vinaigrette made with red wine vinegar and some of the rendered bacon fat. (Go ahead; top the whole shebang with a poached egg.) Nut oils are expensive and go south faster than geese in winter. Buy them—nut oils, that is, not geese—in small quantities and use them quickly.
4.) Citrus can hang with oil just as well as vinegar. The word citronette has come into vogue to denote vinaigrette made with citrus juice in place of all or part of the vinegar. It is a logical and perfectly serviceable word, but I can’t make peace with it. It sounds fussy and too much like a poodle name. (“Come, Citronette! Daddy’s made you ouefs en gelee for breakfast!!”) Even though citrus juices may contain more acid than vinegar (up to 8 percent in lime juice), they “feel” less acidic because of the sugar they contain. For that reason, they may need less oil than true vinaigrette. Keep citronettes simple—juice, oil, salt and pepper. A tiny splash of toasted sesame oil wouldn’t hurt. Try these combinations: lemon and lime juice citronette with a fresh fennel salad to accompany grilled salmon; diced mango tossed with grapefruit and orange juice citronette atop a grilled pork chop.
Christopher Styler is a chef, teacher, culinary producer, and author with over 30 years of experience in the food world. Chris is author and co-author of many books including The Desperate Housewives Cookbook , Sylvia's Soul Food , Blue Collar Food , Vegetable Love , Daisy Cooks! , and Rosa’s New Mexican Kitchen . Chris has served as Culinary Producer for nine PBS and Food Network television series, including Daisy Cooks! with Daisy Martinez ; Lidia's Italian Table and Lidia’s Italian American Kitchen ; Julia and Jacques: Cooking at Home ; and America’s Test Kitchen . For full bio, click here.