Building a great salad -- Part 3: Vinaigrettes

Once you have all your salad ingredients picked out, you tie them together and provide moisture and bright acidity with a dressing. There are three main types of dressings: vinaigrettes, mayo-based, and dairy-based. We eat salads with vinaigrettes almost exclusively. They're light, bright, and extremely easy to make once you know the principle behind them. Scroll to the bottom for my favorite easy vinaigrette recipe, which makes all of our children clamor for more salad at the dinner table.

The science

Vinaigrettes are made up of two main ingredients: oil and an acid. If you've ever tried to mix oil and water though (acids are basically water for the purposes of mixing with oil) you know that they really don't like each other, and will quickly separate even if you do manage to mix them up. When your vinaigrette breaks up, you end up with an oily layer on top, and a watery layer on the bottom. If it breaks up on your salad, you'll have oily greens and a pool of vinegar at the bottom. Additionally, the oil will wilt your salad greens. 

There are three things you can do to keep your vinaigrette stable: 

1) shake or whisk just before dressing your salad, and serve your salad right away
2) use the correct ratio of oil to acid: the classic French ratio of 3:1 will produce the most stable emulsion
3) add an emulsifying agent: these are additions that will help the oil and water "make friends" and stay mixed up longer. I most commonly use mustard or honey, but there are also other options (see below)

Make your own vinaigrette road map

As long as you follow the basic ratios, there is an endless amount of possible flavorings and combinations to get you started. Think about the following categories to come up with your own new favorite recipe:

Oil (3 parts): You usually want a neutral oil but you can add flavored oils to achieve specific results (substitute up to 1 part of flavored oil, such as walnut or other nut oils, sesame oil, pumpkin seed oil) While most people will reach for canola or vegetable oil for a neutral flavor, I prefer avocado oil -- it has a similar fat profile to olive oil, but tastes very mild, making it both a healthy a delicious option. I buy a gallon jug at a time of Kevala avocado oil on Amazon for the best price, but it's also available in smaller containers at many grocery stores. Olive oil can be used for all 3 parts in the recipe, but some olive oils can be a bit aggressive tasting in large quantities, so I prefer to treat it as a flavored oil, and use 2 parts avocado and one part olive oil when I want the olive oil flavor. 

Acid (1 part): I usually use vinegars such as balsamic or sherry vinegar, but other options include rice, cider, or red or white wine vinegar, or lemon juice. Do note that while vinaigrettes made with vinegar will keep for months in the fridge, ones made with lemon juice will only keep for about a week. The acidity of vinegars varies widely -- if you find that a 3:1 ratio gives you too much vinegar flavor, replace part of the vinegar with water. 

Emulsifier (1/3 part): Mustard, mayonnaise, honey, egg yolk.

Flavorings (optional): minced alliums (shallots, garlic, onion), minced fresh or dried herbs (fresh herbs wilt quickly, add just before use), finely chopped nuts, salt, pepper, and other ground spices.

Our favorite, easy homemade vinaigrette recipe

For making a vinaigrette that all of our children love, I have two secret weapons: one is using avocado oil as described above, the other is fruit infused balsamic vinegar. We really like the Seggiano raspberry vinegar (available at Whole Foods) but there are many excellent options both online and in stores. While mustard makes a stronger emulsion, the children prefer honey so that is usually what I use. I usually make a large batch and keep it in the fridge, then let it stand at room temperature while I make dinner to warm up the oil (it tends to get cloudy) then shake the jar vigorously and dress the salad just before serving. The quantities in parentheses are for a large batch.


Fruit infused balsamic vinaigrette: 1 tbsp (1/4 cup)
Avocado oil: 3 tbsp (3/4 cup)
Honey (or mustard): 1 tsp (1 tbsp + 1 tsp) 

Shake or whisk all ingredients together. This vinaigrette will keep in the fridge for up to 6 months (if you can make it last that long!)

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