Have you ever found yourself standing in the aisle at your local grocer staring at the array of vinegars available today? It seems like not too long ago the only vinegar available was white distilled, red wine and apple cider. Today, the selection is endless and I often find myself pondering which vinegar I should use in my vinaigrette: Red wine, champagne, tarragon, pino noir… How does one decide?
Well first, I need to back up a little. You may be asking yourself “Make vinaigrette? Why would I do that when I can buy a bottle at the local mega mart?” Making vinaigrette from scratch is easy and tastes better than anything you can buy in a bottle. Plus, there won’t be any strange, unidentifiable, suspended pieces of mystery spice in your dressing.
You will, however, need a few pantry staples to whip up a fabulous vinaigrette at home. Let’s start with the vinegar.
Personally, I have a well stocked pantry which includes upwards of 20 bottles of vinegar from basic red wine to fig balsamic. However, you do not need this many vinegars. I’m just a bit eccentric when it comes to certain things.
If you are new to vinegars, I have a few basic essentials:
Basic Vinegar Essentials:
· Red Wine – For traditional light vinaigrettes
· Balsamic – (my personal favorite) For a slightly sweeter vinaigrette
· Rice Wine – For Asian dressings
· Apple Cider - For traditional vinaigrettes and perfect for potato salad
Note: See my expanded vinegar selection within The Essentials.
In addition to vinegar, there are just a few additional pantry ingredients needed and then you’ll be on your way to vinaigrette magic.
Other Pantry Essentials:
· Dijon Mustard (must be Dijon… no yellow mustard here)
· Extra Virgin Olive Oil
· Garlic or Shallot (no garlic powder, no prepared garlic and no green onion substitutions will be allowed)
· Kosher Salt (ABSOLUTELY no table salt. Fleur de sel would be good as well, but should be saved as a finishing salt for meat, poultry and fish… in my view)
· Fresh Cracked Black Pepper (No pre-ground pepper here)
Once you have amassed your ingredients, grab a large bowl (please no plastic bowls since plastic tends to retain flavors and smells) and a large balloon whisk. Yes, you are going to mix this by hand and not in a food processor or blender; we’re making vinaigrette, not mayonnaise.
Finely chop your garlic or shallot and add it to the bowl. Add your vinegar selection to the bowl with the garlic or shallot, the mustard and salt and pepper. Give this a whisk to combine. It’s important that you add salt and pepper at this stage otherwise the salt may not thoroughly dissolve in the oil.
Slowly stream in your olive oil and mix until the vinaigrette begins to emulsify. Once you see the mixture coming together, you can speed up the stream of oil but not by much. Once you have added all the oil, and the mixture is emulsified, taste it for seasoning.
Note: When tasting your vinaigrette, use a leafy green to do this, not a spoon and definitely not your finger. Tasting the vinaigrette with a leafy green will allow you to taste the vinaigrette on the salad and give you an accurate measure of seasoning. A spoon will not do this and using your finger is just tacky. Not to mention very unhygienic (I don’t care how long you washed your hands for).
If additional seasoning is needed, add at this time and whisk again. Or, wait until you toss with your greens and add salt at that time. I have no personal preference here. But DO NOT over salt.
Toss with your favorite spring greens (Notice I didn’t mention Iceberg or Romaine? That’s for another time and another salad) and serve with a couple grinds of black pepper. I like lots of pepper so I usually go a little overboard. Delicious!
Once you become comfortable with making vinaigrette, and feel ready to venture past the basics, go out and try other vinegars. There are so many great ones out there and the selection is limitless.
Most vinaigrettes start out with the same ingredients. However, changing things up a little by adding different vinegars, juices, spices and oils will take a single recipe and expand your vinaigrette repertoire immensely.
The next time you’re at the local mega mart, I hope you pass the pre-made “dressings” and opt for a fantastic bottle of vinegar instead (Berkeley Bowl has a superb selection.) What’s for dinner? Mixed spring greens with a Champagne Vinaigrette.