Back when I was a wee ‘un, just old enough to be a help in the kitchen rather than an underfoot pest, the very first thing my mother taught me to do was make salad dressing. More specifically, she handed me a bottle of olive oil, a bottle of vinegar, and a spoonful of mustard, and said, “Mix these, please.” So I did, and the rest is…well, you know.
Making vinaigrette was my introduction to home cooking, and it’s still one of my favorite things to do. Homemade vinaigrettes are mind-bogglingly quick, impossible to screw up, and way more flavorful than anything that comes from a bottle. Salads are also a fantastic way to practice being creative in the kitchen. I could write volumes about this stuff. In fact, I’m about to, so bear with me.
Over the years, I’ve managed to astonish family and friends with simple (and simply dressed) salads. The trick is to throw certain preconceived notions out the window:
- Salads don’t have to include greens. Witness the classic Greek salad, built around fresh tomatoes and cucumbers. Almost any vegetable can be the base for a salad, from bell peppers to carrots, celery to radishes, broccoli to cauliflower, and even more unusual options like kohlrabi. And then there are always the picnic-table staples, carrot salad and coleslaw.
- Salads don’t have to have just vegetables. Of course, there’s pasta salad, egg salad, tuna salad, chicken salad… But even your basic greens and veggies are natural dance partners for fresh and dried fruits, nuts, cheese, or even cooked eggs and meat. Add diced apples, toasted almonds, and blue cheese to a simple spinach salad (you’ll thank me later). Winter salads take well to pomegranate seeds and citrus segments; in the summer, stone fruits like peaches, nectarines and mangos make excellent additions to salads and salsas.
- Salads don’t have to be served at room temperature. You probably don’t want to just throw your chicken Caesar in the microwave, but mixing temperatures in a salad is a great way to make your meal feel fancy. Adding a warm ingredient, like roasted squash or a just-poached egg, to cold greens will wilt the greens just slightly, adding a whole new texture and flavor dimension. Trust me, it’s fantastic.
As far as dressings go, the basic vinaigrette requires three major players:
- Oil. My go-to for most dressings is olive oil, but you could use just about oil you like. You could probably even swap in other (liquid) fats–I’ve seen salads dressed with rendered bacon fat–but that’s not really my cup of tea.
- Vinegar or citrus juice. There are overwhelmingly many vinegar varieties to choose from, but I always have three different bottles on hand: balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar (or apple cider vinegar) and unseasoned rice vinegar. They’re all incredibly versatile, beyond the humble salad–red wine vinegar makes a great marinade, for example, and rice vinegar is perfect for seasoning stir-fries. If you don’t like vinegar, orange or lemon juice also works beautifully.
- Emulsifiers.You could make a perfectly reasonable dressing with just oil and vinegar. But on their own, the two tend to get along–well, like oil and water. An emulsifier is any substance that will mix in between the oil and vinegar molecules, binding them together and creating a smooth dressing that doesn’t separate. Mustard is a classic, but honey is also common.
The classic French vinaigrette is 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar. (I’m an absolute vinegar fiend, so I’ll sometimes up the proportions just a tad.) From there, the possibilities are, quite literally, endless. Below are some of the variations I’ve thought of; these measurements are, as always, totally approximate.
I’ve taken my mother’s basic vinaigrette and run with it. I encourage you to do the same.
Classic Balsamic Vinaigrette
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix all ingredients vigorously until thoroughly combined. (I usually do this in a glass measuring cup, beating the heck out of it with a fork; you could also use a whisk, or do what my mom does and shake all the ingredients in an empty spice jar.) Serving suggestion: in the summer, use it to dress a salad of mixed greens, sliced strawberries, and feta cheese. DIVINE.
Zoe’s Signature Triple Vinaigrette: Use 1 tsp each balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar and rice vinegar. A great all-purpose dressing; my boyfriend asks me to make this all the time. (No, I’m not kidding.)
Generically Asian Vinaigrette: Use equal parts peanut oil and sesame oil, rice vinegar, and honey instead of mustard. Add 1/2 tsp ground ginger, a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds, and maybe a splash of soy sauce. A dab of miso paste or wasabi would not be amiss. Hello, Chinese chicken salad.
Honey Mustard Dressing: For the same amount of oil, use 2 tsp rice vinegar, 1 tbsp Dijon mustard, and 1 tsp honey. This should be a thick, almost spoonable dressing, spicier and sweeter than a vinaigrette. A fabulous change of pace.