The first rule of vinaigrette is this: know your own taste. You can always alter the recipe to suit other people, but it really helps if you start off by knowing what you yourself like best.
The classic vinaigrette recipe calls for 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar or lemon juice. Jacques Pepin likes his less astringent than that; he likes 4 parts of oil to every 1 of vinegar. My own tastes run in the opposite direction: I like my salads snarky, with a bit of bite, and I prefer 2 parts of oil to 1 part vinegar.
Understand emulsification. Oil and vinegar, as everyone knows, don’t mix. You can force them to do so by shaking or mixing them violently, but they’ll eventually part ways. But you can compel them to make friends through by introducing an intermediary. Garlic and mustard make very good ambassadors, but there are other foods which work equally well: blue cheese, catsup, a touch of miso, and of course egg yolk, which is perhaps too good an emulsifier for vinaigrette—it will make your dressing seem more solid than liquid.
Consider the quality of your oil. The best olive oil is always the newest pressing, and the 2012 olive oil will soon be coming on the market. If you can get your hands on just-pressed oil, you need very little else. It has a lovely fruitiness that dissipates in about a month, but during that month it’s so good I’m tempted to just pour it, naked, right over the greens. The rest of the year, I’ll alternate the spiciness of Tuscan olive oil (which kind of catches in the back of your throat), with the smoothness of some of the French ones, or the complexity of the latest offerings from California.
Taste your way through vinegars. There are so many, and each adds a different character to your dressing. Balsamic adds sweetness, sherry vinegar adds a lovely nuttiness, rice wine vinegar contributes delicacy. My own favorite vinegar is a red wine vinegar that’s been aged in oak, which gives it depth and complexity. But most often I’ll mix vinegars, to get a flavor that suits the greens going into the salad, and suits my taste on that particular day.
Consider other acids. Lemon is a classic vinegar substitute, but you could also use orange juice, grapefruit juice or verjus, which is made from the tart juice of unripe grapes.
Don’t forget shallots. Shallots have an almost magical effect on salad dressing, contributing both power and sweetness. They’re at their best when allowed to luxuriate in the vinegar all by themselves before you introduce them to the olive oil.
Make your dressing fresh. Yes, you can make enough to last for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator. But it takes no more than a minute to whip up a dressing that has the vibrant freshness of ingredients that are meeting for the very first time.
Here are two totally different versions of salad dressing; one classic shallot vinaigrette and a classic blue cheese dressing (it’s great on Iceberg), that requires neither great oil nor great vinegar.
Makes 1¼ cup
4 tablespoons vinegar (I like 2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon of sherry vinegar and 1 of balsamic)
1 pinch salt
1/3 - 2/3 cup excellent olive oil
Infuse vinegar with shallot: Peel the shallots, dice them very finely and mix with the vinegar and salt for about half an hour.
Combine: Whisk in the olive oil.
Blue Cheese Dressing
Makes 2/3 cup
¼ clove garlic, minced
¼ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
¼ cup blue cheese
2 tablespoons red or white vinegar
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Mash garlic: Mash together the garlic, salt and pepper in a small bowl with the back of a spoon until it becomes a paste. (I like to use the side of a knife on a work surface, pressing hard and smearing the garlic with the edge of the blade.)
Add blue cheese and then vinegar: Add the blue cheese and smear together with the garlic. Add the vinegar and mash and stir all the ingredients together with the spoon until well combined.
Add oil: Add the olive oil and whisk or stir together until it’s emulsified. If you like your dressing with chunks of blue cheese, add a bit more blue cheese crumbles.