Why cover your lively greens with a tired old sauce? With an assortment of oils and vinegars, you can design your own salad dressing recipes to suit yourself.
Remember vinegar and oil? The last two items at the end of a salad bar, neglected and disdained? Two cruets of pale liquid, indistinguishable except that one is sticky to the touch (oh, that's the oil).
No more. In recent years, as more flavorful greens have begun to jostle the iceberg lettuce in our salad bowls, an array of condiments has joined the corn oil and cider vinegar on supermarket shelves: rich, luxurious oils, smooth, mellow vinegars. Combine them, and you have vinaigrette—that ancient and honorable sauce that moved Virgil to poetry, the finest accompaniment to greens yet devised.
At its simplest, vinaigrette is a mixture of oil, vinegar, salt and pepper used to create salad dressing recipes. There's only one rule—use three parts oil to one part vinegar—and a hundred good reasons to break it. With a stock of oils and vinegars on hand, and with a bit of the mad chemist in your heart, you can mix and match enough dressings to see you through a season of salads with little or no repetition.
Vinegars (from the French vin aigre, or “sour wine”) results when an alcoholic liquid—wine, malted grain, cider, distilled alcohol—sours, or is infected with bacteria that convert alcohol to acetic acid. Remarkably varied in strength, flavor and character, they can be used singly or in combination.
Wine vinegars provide the richest store of salad dressings. Although brands differ (a few are harsh), generic red wine vinegars are full-bodied and mellow, able to stand up to the strongest oil. Cabernet Sauvignon vinegar is so good that every salad addict ought to own a bottle. Somewhat gentler than the reds, white wine vinegars are essential additions to the pantry. Chardonnay and champagne vinegars offer faint but perceptible traces of their parents, sherry vinegar is stronger.
Distilled vinegar, probably the most common household variety, tastes strongly of acetic acid and nothing else. Harsh and highly acidic, it is invaluable for pickling, less useful for salads.
Cider vinegar tastes unmistakably of its apples of origin. Its distinctive flavor can overpower all but the strongest oils.
Rice vinegars, brown or white, are light, pleasant and mild, good with delicate greens and quiet oils. The brown variety is sweet, as well.
Balsamic vinegar, a distinguished product of northern Italy, is made from grape must. By law, it must be aged for at least 10 years in a series of wooden kegs. A splendid, rich, red-brown, semisweet vinegar that can be sipped from a spoon, it deserves prominent shelf space.
Herb vinegars are extremely popular, and while they're not new—the Romans drank vinegar and water flavored with mint leaves—they're certainly delicious. Their only drawback is that they predetermine which vinegar will be combined with which herb in tonight's salad, barring the staggering possibility of a personal herb-vinegars collection: red wine with tarragon, white wine with tarragon, white rice with chervil, etc. But if there is a particular type that you're especially fond of, by all means keep a bottle of it on hand.
Widely available, herb vinegars are also simple to make. The basic recipe can be varied at will.
2 cups tightly packed fresh tarragon
2 cups white wine vinegar
Extra sprigs of tarragon
Pack tarragon into a sterilized, dry, heatproof quart jar. In a stainless steel or enamel pan, heat vinegar to simmering and pour it over the tarragon. Let cool, then cover the jar and let stand at room temperature for 2 weeks. To store, strain vinegar off herbs and place in sterilized, dry bottles. Label, or add an herb sprig for identification. Cork or cap bottles tightly, and store in a cool place.
The recipe works equally well with other vinegars (red wine, rice) and with any number of herbs: basil, thyme, mint, dill, chives, oregano, rosemary and others.
Fruit vinegars, so prominent in nouvelle cuisine, are actually revivals. Early New Englanders were fond of "shrub," sweetened wild-raspberry vinegar added to cold water. Today's specialty shops carry raspberry vinegar, or you can brew your own.
1 pint fresh raspberries, or frozen raspberries, thawed
1 quart white wine or rice wine vinegar
Crush raspberries and divide them between two dry, sterilized, heatproof jars. Heat vinegar to simmering, pour over fruit, cover, and let stand 2 weeks. Strain vinegar first through a sieve, then through cheesecloth or a coffee filter. Place in clean bottles and store. (If a sweet vinegar is desired, add 4-6 tablespoons sugar to the vinegar as it heats. Unsweetened vinegars provide more flexibility; sugar can always be added later to the finished product for a specific dish.)
Although raspberry is the best known, other fruit vinegars can be made in similar fashion: blackberry, blueberry, strawberry, red currant, even peach and plum.
These days there are hosts of traditional and off-beat oils to choose from. Like vinegars, they can be used alone or in combination.
Olive oil, the essential, irreplaceable salad oil, is sold in a variety of grades. The finest, extra virgin, comes from the first pressing of the olives, which are cold-pressed (crushed between stones) rather than treated with chemicals or heat to extract the oil. Olive green and wonderfully fragrant, extra-virgin oil is of course the most expensive, but so flavorful that you use less of it. Most extra-virgin oils are imported from Italy or France, with the French products being somewhat lighter in flavor. Virgin olive oil, usually taken from a second pressing, has less flavor and aroma. Pure olive oil is "pure" in the sense that there are no other oils in the bottle. It is extracted from previously pressed olive pulp and pits, usually by means of chemical solvents.
Vegetable oils, derived from a variety of sources, are neutral oils that allow the flavor of the vinegar to shine through relatively unaltered. They're also useful in combination with strong-flavored oils that need to be toned down.
Sesame oils are delightful products that in fact taste like toasted sesame seeds. The light variety is good by itself or in combination with a vegetable oil; the dark, with its rich, warm flavor, is far too strong to use alone but warms up other oils.
Nut oils are splendid additions to the pantry. Almond, hazelnut, walnut—all bring a fine, nutty flavor to the salad bowl. Strong, authoritative oils, they frequently benefit from combination with others. Once opened, they must be refrigerated, or they will turn rancid. Health food stores often carry nut oils when supermarkets don't.
Homemade nut-flavored oil doesn't have the impact of oil actually extracted from nutmeats, but it's very pleasant and no trouble to make.
1 cup unblanched whole walnuts, hazelnuts (filberts) or almonds
2 cups vegetable oil
In a blender or food processor, process nuts until very finely chopped. With machine on low speed, slowly add ½ cup of the oil. Place mixture in saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, 15-20 minutes. Remove from heat and cool slightly. Add remaining oil and store in a tightly covered jar or bottle 1-2 weeks. Before using, strain oil through a piece of fine cloth or a coffee filter, place in clean bottle, cover, and store in refrigerator.
Dijon mustard helps thicken and stabilize a vinaigrette. In small amounts, it doesn't make the dressing taste mustardy, but adds a savory, spicy depth.
Citrus —the juice of lemons or limes, or even oranges or grapefuit if you're in the mood—can replace all or part of the vinegar, with excellent results. Citrus imparts a clean, fresh taste.
Herbs, fresh snipped or dried, have enlivened many a vinaigrette. The choices are legion, but the most common are parsley, garlic, chives, tarragon, basil, oregano, dill, mint and thyme.
Cream —heavy cream, sour cream, yogurt, créme fraîche—can add substance to a salad dressing, useful if the meal otherwise seems too light.
Salad dressings provide the widest possible latitude for creativity. But there are some suggestions that even a mad chemist can benefit from.
Vary the proportions to suit yourself. The traditional three-to-one ratio of oil to vinegar pleases many people much of the time, so it's a good rule of thumb to start from. But tastes vary. The "correct" proportions will depend on how acid you like your dressings, the relative strengths of the particular oil and vinegar, the pungency of the citrus and mustard (if you're using them) and so on. Four parts oil, or two, or one may be your preference. Whatever your individual base line, taste the dressing when it's made, and adjust it if necessary.
Dry the greens. Oil and water are legendary antagonists. If the greens are wet, the water will repel and dilute the dressing, resulting in a watery-tasting salad.
Nobody loves a soggy salad. Either make the dressing in a separate container and add it to the greens at the last minute; or make the dressing in the salad bowl, layer the greens on top, then toss just before serving.
Don't overdress. The dressing should coat the greens, not drown them. If there's a puddle of dressing left in the bottom of the bowl, try using less.
Think balance. Ideally, the oil and the vinegar will complement each other, the greens they cover, and the rest of the meal. Again, tastes are highly individual, but as an initial guideline, match strength with strength: a robust vinegar with a powerful oil, a delicate vinegar with a milder oil. Strong, bitter greens call for an assertive vinaigrette, milder lettuce for a gentler sauce. Even texture makes a difference: Firm, crunchy leaves can stand up to a heavier dressing than can more delicate greens.
In preparing the dressing (which takes two or three minutes), it helps to work in the following order:
1) Whisk together the vinegar, salt, pepper and mustard
2) Gradually whisk in the oil
3) Stir in the cream
4) Stir in the herbs. (If you're not using some of these ingredients, simply omit them from the sequence.)
Although most people end up working from no recipe at all, some suggested combinations are usually helpful to start with. The following "recipes" are given in tablespoons, but you might want to start with teaspoons in the same relative proportions. For one or two dinner salads, one teaspoon of vinegar plus three teaspoons of oil will suffice. (Although salt and freshly ground pepper are not listed, they should be added to taste.)
The possible combinations of oils and vinegars are not actually limitless. But they're numerous enough to keep your sense of adventure green and growing this summer.
Some Salad Dressing Recipe Permutations
• 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, 3 tablespoons walnut oil, ½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
• 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar, 3 tablespoons light sesame oil
• 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon lemon juice, ½ teaspoon Dijon mustard, 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 tablespoon raspberry vinegar, 2 tablespoons walnut oil, 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
• 2 teaspoons raspberry vinegar, 1 teaspoon lemon juice, ½ teaspoon Dijon mustard, 1 tablespoon walnut oil, 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
• 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar, 3 tablespoons hazelnut oil
• 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar, l-½ tablespoons hazelnut oil, l-½ tablespoons vegetable oil, 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
• 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar, teaspoon Dijon mustard, 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, 3 tablespoons heavy cream, 2 tablespoons snipped chives
• 1 tablespoon champagne vinegar, 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
• 1 tablespoon raspberry vinegar, 3 tablespoons light sesame oil
• 1 tablespoon raspberry vinegar, 1 tablespoon olive oil, ½ teaspoon créme fraîche
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