I am the kind of person who buys a bottle of salad dressing, uses it once and then forgets about it in a jumble of other condiments until well after the expiration date. I suspect I’m not alone.
Even when I have a bottle of dressing socked away, I am much more tempted to just whip up a quick vinaigrette myself. That way, I never have to worry about being stuck with too much, and I can make it exactly the way I want. Plus, it’s a great way to use up the extras of all those other ingredients languishing in the fridge.
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 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. Or 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.
The most obvious acid is vinegar. You have many 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 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.
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. 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.
Wild card/other flavors
You can add almost anything you want to your vinaigrette. 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. 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.
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).
▪ Think about balance – and taste it. 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.
▪ 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. “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. If you need to blend ingredients 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. If you’re not too concerned about a perfect emulsion, a 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 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.
▪ 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.
Flavors to consider
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 The Washington Post archives: Orange zest + orange juice + mint + sugar + Dijon mustard + sherry vinegar + olive oil
▪ From The Washington Post archives: Olive oil + red wine vinegar + Dijon mustard + garlic