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The first in a series of pieces covering some kitchen basics meant to demonstrate easy ways to ramp up flavor & freshness, save money, work safer/smarter or teach some pro kitchen tips. These posts are less focused on recipes, although like this one some will contain one/a few, but more about improving general kitchen ninja skills. 

I used to be a Ranch girl, I can admit that, but I discovered many, many moons ago that there is really and sincerely nothing so awesome about ranch dressing that makes it worth the absolutely ridiculous calorie count that is associated with it. I just googled it because I don’t even have a bottle here. 140 calories for 2 Tablespoons; thats about half of what you would use on a side salad ~ that’s and ounce. Yeah. Thankfully vinaigrettes are a more than adequate substitute for utilitarian ranch unless you’re dipping pizza crusts…but that’s totally different.

I have always found it curious that people don’t pay more attention to things like salad dressing. I know, seems insignificant, but it isn’t. The ingredient list for a basic vinaigrette salad dressing is minimal, the equipment needed is a container with a lid, the time is less than 3 minutes, even if you use top of the line ingredients it is still cheaper to make than buy the commercial equivalent and has no weird sciencey ingredients. We will spend so much time obsessing about the freshest, organically grown greens and vegetables, the perfect tangy goat cheese and all-natural, free-range chicken only to then cover them with some processed dressing with half the flavor it should have because of what they had to do to it to make it look pretty in a bottle. What?

Short Related Rant – THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A FAT FREE VINAIGRETTE. It is not possible. By its very definition a vinaigrette is at least half oil. Oil is fat. You cannot have a fat free fat. Look at that ingredient list next time, it is a science experiment in a bottle. There is no way that is better to consume than a simple vinaigrette made with extra virgin olive oil. NO. WAY. Just no.

I hate to even call a vinaigrette a salad dressing. Seems almost insulting. Yes, primarily it’s drizzled on greens, but a good balsamic vinaigrette on fresh mozz & ripe tomato, red wine vinaigrette tossed with some feta & cucumbers to go on a sandwich or as a super quicky chicken marinade for a last minute dinner…any place you want to add an acidic and flavorful boom, vinaigrettes are an easy go-to.

Vinaigrettes are, by definition, a temporary emulsion of an acid and a vinegar. The general ratio for a vinaigrette is 1 part acid, usually vinegar, to 2 parts oil. Most commercially available vinaigrettes add binding agents to them to make the emulsions less temporary – corn syrup, egg products, thickeners and other words I do not understand along with shelf stabilizers & preservatives. They also really have no business, or purpose, in my vinaigrette. My preferred method of holding a vinaigrette together, if I want it to, is dijon mustard. It serves the dual purpose of adding flavor and also allows the vinegar to bind with the oil longer than a few minutes. I do this mainly for vinaigrettes that I am going to use in a marinade type situation and I want it all to moosh together; for salads I just shake it before I use it. I have not yet found a solid reason to use any kind of egg, pasteurized or otherwise, in a vinaigrette I’ve made at home, mostly because the addition of the yolk doesn’t add anything making it worth the hassle. For some specialty dressings it is necessary, but not here.

Flavorings for vinaigrettes are far too numerous to be listed. So many acids, so many oils, so many seasonings…limitless. This is where the ratio part comes in. When making a vinaigrette you want, classically, 1 part acid to 2 parts oil. Personally I prefer more acid, less oil, and mix mine much, much closer to 1 to 1 ratio. The only other “rule” to a good vinaigrette is salt. Yes. Salt or a salt-like substitute (soy sauce). One of those things that you wouldn’t know is in there but, in its final carnation, would taste flat without it. No one likes flat.

I don’t usually use fresh herbs in my everyday vinaigrettes; I store them at room temperature so fresh herbs could get funky. There is absolutely nothing wrong with dried spices & herbs in vinaigrettes. They have to sit in a very acidic solution and actually work better for development of long term flavor. The blend of spices that you buy for $1 a packet at the store in those dressing packs? You probably already have everything you need to make a better one in your spice cupboard. If I make a fresh herb vinaigrette is for a specific use, I use dried for the stuff I have around for everyday eats.

I tend to buy the better vinegars – you do get what you pay for in that area. I keep balsamic, red wine, cider, rice wine, malt, raspberry, distilled. I don’t really use the distilled for cooking, it’s for cleaning the espresso machine.

A note about balsamic vinegars ~ there are two kind of balsamic – the kind you make dressings out of and the kind you want to drink – aged. Aged balsamic is used as a finishing vinegar in sauces and things like that, it is nearly drinkable it is so delicious, but actually kind of awful in a vinaigrette, it’s too rich. It is also expensive. Don’t buy the really expensive stuff for vinaigrette making.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil is also my default oil for most vinaigrettes. Any kind of vegetable oil will do, my personal preference is the EVOO, it tastes good. The main reason I store at room temperature – EVOO hardens when it is cold, other vegetable oils will not. A vinaigrette will not go bad stored out, too much acid, but fridge space is a premium at my house and they happily get bumped to the counter where my olive oil stays liquid.

I have cruets that I bought forever ago I use to make these up, I think they came with those 4 Seasons dressing pack things ironically enough. If you have one they are great for mixing and for serving, but any kind of container with a secure fitting lid will do. You can also mix in a bowl with a whisk if you are using a binding agent, but it really isn’t necessary, you just need to be able to shake without taking a vinaigrette bath. Flip-top bottles are also awesome for this. You can make, serve & store in them and they are more interesting than cruets. Now I need to find some bottles….

Red Wine Vinaigrette  recipe will yield almost 2 cups

Little secret about the Olive Garden salad everyone raves about so much – it has NOTHING to do with the salad. That is the average iceberg w carrot & cabbage salad mix used by everyone and their mother. The croutons are the bought in gigantic cases and covered in powdered “italian flavoring” dust, the same ones you see on grocery shelves. The vegetables are cheap, canned black olives & jarred pepperoncini, the parm cheese a cheap domestic. What makes it crave-able? The dressing. They use a close to 1 to 1 ratio of a decent red wine vinegar and neutral oil – if I had to guess I’d say an 80/20 veg olive oil blend. Acid stimulates the appetite, wakes the taste buds up, for some reason makes the totally soggy lettuce acceptable. Or maybe that’s those damn breadsticks.

I do not make this with any binder, but if you wanted it to hold together 2 tsp of dijon mustard is all you need to add, same procedure.

  • 1/2 cup Red Wine Vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp Granulated Garlic
  • 1 tsp Dried Oregano or Basil
  • healthy amount Fresh Ground Black Pepper
  • healthy pinch Salt
  • 2/3 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Put everything in a container, secure the lid, shake the hell out of it.

Balsamic Vinaigrette recipe yields about 2 cups

There are people & places that make this dressing all sorts of complicated, adding minced shallot, fresh herbs, sugar…nonsense. The whole point of a good balsamic vinaigrette is the balsamic vinegar, not to see how much crap you can add to it to change the flavor. I also do not bind this one, but if you want to it is again 2 tsp dijon mustard. In my opinion this vinaigrette is best with a good olive oil, not another vegetable oil.

  • 3/4 cup Balsamic Vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp Salt
  • healthy amount Fresh Gound Black Pepper
  • 1 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Put everything in a container, secure lid, shake the hell out of it.

Sesame Lime Vinaigrette yield about 1.5 cups

This might be one of my favorites. I make it different every time, but soy sauce makes my mouth happy. This one is a very basic sesame vinaigrette that is good as a dressing or marinade – don’t think lettuce, think noodle-vegetable-rice salads or a great grill mop or sauce for lettuce wraps. You can also add a ton of stuff to dress this up – julienne scallion, fresh cilantro, fresh ginger, crushed peanuts – it is ridiculously flexible and adaptive to your tastes and pantry.

  • 2 tsp Dijon Mustard
  • 1/4 cup Soy Sauce
  • 1/2 cup Rice Wine Vinegar
  • juice of a Lime
  • 1/2 tsp Powdered Ginger
  • 1 Tbsp Toasted Sesame Seeds
  • 1 cup Sesame Oil

Put it all in a container, secure a lid, shake the hell out of it.

Now do me a favor. Stop spending all that money to buy what you can make ever so much better in next to no time in your own kitchen. And play around – vinaigrettes are all about the ratio of acid to oil, as long as that remains in check the flavorings are only limited by your pantry & imagination.