The French term "vinaigrette" tends to make something which is beautifully simple sound unnecessarily complex. In its most basic form, a vinaigrette is nothing more than a mixture of oil and vinegar. It is the oldest taste combination, a fat balanced with an acid. Oils, because they are liquid at room temperature, provide the palate with a supple mouth feel and act as an excellent flavor carrier for other ingredients. To "cut" the fat, adding another taste sensation and stopping the oil from coating the palate is the task of an acid, typically vinegar. In short the only real "secret' to preparing a good vinaigrette, or dish based on a vinaigrette, is to achieve a balance in fat, acid and other seasonings.
Proportion In most cases the time honored ratio of 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar by volume achieves the balance we're seeking. There are a few factors which will require altering these proportions. Most important is the vinegar itself. Vinegar's get their taste from acetic acid, which is traditionally produced in a second fermentation of wine or cider. The acidity of commercially produced vinegars is diluted to consistently produce a product with 5% acid. Natural fermentation of most wine vinegars produces 6 - 7% acid. The difference between the mass produced and naturally fermented vinegars represents a 20 - 40% increase in the level of acidity. Most chefs, rather than dilute a good quality vinegar with water, will adjust the ratio of oil to vinegar, using 4 or 5 parts oil to 1 part vinegar. The other thing to consider about the basic vinaigrette mixture is how it will be used. As dressing for a simple salad of various greens the traditional ratio serves well. But as a dressing for a compound salad or a marinade, proportions may need to be adjusted. Consider the ingredients with which a simple vinaigrette is being mixed. If they are high in fat, starch or water content a heavier dose of acid might be needed. To be certain, check the balance of seasoning of not only the vinaigrette, but the finished product as well.
Emulsion A basic mixture of oil, vinegar and flavorings is referred to as a "simple vinaigrette". A simple vinaigrette due to the nature of oil and vinegar isn't expected to stay blended very long. Therefore, its important to mix a simple vinaigrette immediately before serving. The culinary solution to separating oil and vinegar is to emulsify the vinaigrette with egg or egg yolks. This is the essence of making mayonnaise. Oil is formed into tiny droplets by gradually adding it to the other ingredients while whipping. These tiny droplets are suspended in the water contained in the vinegar and egg. Lecithin in the yolks keeps these suspended droplets of oil and water from separating. Mustard is a common ingredient in many vinaigrettes since compounds found in mustard seed also aid in maintaining an emulsion. Traditionally, the egg product used in mayonnaise and other emulsified dressings was not cooked. This presents a sanitation problem today. Commercial foodservice is prohibited from serving uncooked eggs and therefore the use of pasteurized egg products is standard. Even with pasteurized eggs or yolks, care should be take to keep emulsified vinaigrettes refrigerated and used in a timely manner.
Flavoring The flavor of a vinaigrette comes from one of three possible sources: the vinegar, the oil and / or added ingredients. White distilled vinegar is a neutral flavored acid ingredient intended for pickling or for when you wish the flavor of your vinaigrette to come from other ingredients. Virtually any other vinegar will be a flavor contributor, and the choices are myriad. Wine vinegars are made from practically any grape varietal and in every wine region of the world. Cider vinegar, probably the most popular fruit vinegar, is only the beginning. Berries, stone fruits, tropical fruits and any others that have a significant acid content can be fermented or macerated to create a flavorful vinegar. Grains are also a source of vinegar, rice and malt vinegars being the most popular. Aging of any type of vinegar, especially in wood, adds a roundness and complexity of flavor exemplified by the world famous balsamic vinegar produced in Modena, Italy. Oils are somewhat less likely to be a flavor ingredient since so many culinary oils are produced for their neutral flavor. Among this group are: corn oil, soy bean oil, cottonseed oil, safflower oil and canola oil. On the other hand, there are many high quality, high flavor oils to choose from. Olive oil is probably the most prominent oil in this high flavor category. Because of its growing popularity as a key ingredient in a healthy diet, chefs have more types of olive oil available to them than ever before. The spectrum of style and intensity of flavors of olive oils is immense. Beyond olive oil is a range of nut and seed oils including the traditionally popular walnut and hazelnut oils, the Asian favorite sesame oil, and exotic macadamia and avocado oils. Ingredients added to vinaigrettes tend to get full use of their flavor, especially herbs and spices. The acidity of the vinaigrette tends to break down cellulose in herbs and vegetables thus releasing their flavors. The oil in a vinaigrette is an excellent flavor carrier, especially with the fat soluble compounds found in many foods. Here are two classical vinaigrettes. One simple vinaigrette and one emulsified. Both are excellent bases for further experimentation.
Sherry & Walnut Vinaigrette
2 TBS. finely diced shallots 1/4 c. sherry (xeres) vinegar 1/2 c. walnut oil 1/2 c. salad oil to taste salt to taste freshly ground black pepper - Mix all ingredients well.
Dijon Mustard Vinaigrette
1c. egg yolks, pasteurized 1/2 c. Dijon mustard 3 1/2 c. salad oil 3/4 c. red wine vinegar to taste salt to taste white pepper as needed water
1. Combine yolks mustard and vinegar in mixing bowl. 2. Add oil in a thin stream to emulsify. 3. Adjust seasoning, thin with water if necessary.