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Salad Dressing Series -- Basic Vinaigrette

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I have never bought a salad dressing in my life. Whenever I'm at the grocery store I am amazed at the variety on offer at astronomical prices. Many of them contain lots of preservatives to keep them looking wonderful on that shelf for the untold numbers of days, weeks, or even months it may take to end up in your shopping basket -- and your fridge. The sodium and sugar contents alone should have you re-thinking your purchase, especially when you learn how easy it is to make a salad dressing.

Whether it is an Italian, a Ranch or even a Caesar dressing, every one of those bottles lined up on the grocery shelf contain three main ingredients, and mastering the technique of combining them and adding any other flavorings is a snap. Better still, making one at home will cost you a fraction of what you'd pay at the store. And the bonus? You get to control everything that goes in there. Way healthier, way cheaper and way more tasty. How can you go wrong?

So what are the three stars in this show? An emulsifier (think Dijon mustard), an acid (think red wine vinegar) and oil (such as extra virgin olive). Simple, yet true. The key is to make sure the emulsifier gets the oil and the vinegar to blend, which, because they are polar opposites, they don't like to do. All you need to do is close your eyes and remember a dressing that 'separated' in its vessel. The oil, non polar and less dense, was sitting on top of the polar -- and heavier -- vinegar. Whether you poured it or ladled it onto your salad, all you got was oil and a faint taste of vinegar. Yuck.

Now don't roll your eyes and think "she's talking polar opposites and it sounds too complicated". Just read on and you'll see it's not a hard thing to accomplish.

Here's what you'll need to try a basic vinaigrette:

1 Large Bowl -- don't make the mistake of using something small. You'll need elbow room to whisk.

1 Whisk

1 TBSP Dijon Mustard

3 TBSP Red Wine Vinegar

9 TBSP Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Pinch of Salt and Freshly Ground Black Pepper

Now place the mustard in the bowl and add in the vinegar, salt and pepper. Give it a good mix with your whisk, making sure you've smoothed out any lumps.

While whisking, add a couple of drops of oil and blend thoroughly. You need to do this slowly to get the emulsification to 'catch'. Now add in a few more drops, whisking all the time. After a few of these drop-adding steps, you should feel the dressing start to thicken which means the magic has happened and you can begin to pour the oil in a little more aggressively. Just don't forget to keep whisking. If you aren't patient at the beginning, and you dump all your oil in at once you'll never be able to obtain an emulsification, no matter how long your poor arm tries. The result will be a dressing with an oil slick on the top that is unappealing and hard to work with.

The basic ratio for a vinaigrette is 1 part emulsifier, 3 parts acid and 9 parts oil. However -- and this is important -- you need to trust your palette! Depending on the acid you've selected, you may not need to use all the oil. I usually taste the dressing when I've used about 1/2 of the oil -- and I taste it with a lettuce leaf, which is exactly how you'll enjoy it on the plate. Tasting it with a spoon does not give you a realistic impression. In some cases you will find that the dressing tastes wonderful as it is and you can pour the remaining oil back into its bottle for another use.

Now does that sound hard? It really isn't. Give it a try, and then play around with different ingredients to make a flavored vinaigrette to your liking. Some ideas are listed below, or experiment on your own to make an affordable, delicious and healthy dressing you'll be delighted to eat. Oh, and I always make plenty, because it will keep in a glass jar in your fridge for at least a week (longer if you haven't used egg yolk or added anything perishable like garlic or shallot). Bon appetit!

Emulsifiers:

Dijon Mustard
Egg Yolk
Miso Paste or Honey
Crushed Fruit

Acids:

Wine Vinegar
Rice Vinegar
Lemon or Lime Juice
Balsamic Vinegar

Oils:

Olive Oil
Rice Bran Oil
Walnut Oil
Canola Oil

Aromatics:

Shallots
Onions
Garlic
Herbs

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