There are some groceries that you should probably stop buying and make at home instead. Pancake mix, for one, is easy to craft using pantry staples, while stock is super easy to make using food scraps. But there’s one item you may still be buying that you should start making at home: salad dressing.
There are countless ways to make salad dressing, but one of the simplest and most versatile bases to start with is a vinaigrette. Once you have the basic vinaigrette structure down, the ways you can customize it and tailor it to your tastes are seemingly endless. Here’s everything you need to know about making your own vinaigrette salad dressing, plus three vinaigrette recipes to get you started.
What do you need to make vinaigrette?
The traditional base recipe for a vinaigrette couldn’t be any more, well, basic. It’s simply three parts oil and one part vinegar mixed together.
You can use whichever oil you have on hand, though neutral oils like safflower, canola or soybean oil are the classics. The first way to punch up your vinaigrette is to use extra virgin olive oil. It adds richness and, depending on your olive oil, a slightly fruity or pleasantly grassy flavor that is much more satisfying than “salad oils.” You can also experiment with other oil options, like walnut, avocado and pumpkin seed.
Vinegar-wise, you can also use what you have on hand or whatever you enjoy. Balsamic, red wine, sherry, Champagne, apple cider and rice wine vinegars are all good choices. To amp up your dressing, use high-quality vinegar, which will be thicker and more flavorful than store-brand vinegar. While we love budget-friendly options, vinegar is one of those ingredients worth splurging on.
Though the classic ratio is three-to-one, if you like your vinaigrette with a little more zip, you can easily go for a two-to-one ratio or move all the way down to a one-to-one ratio for a super robust, zesty dressing.
What is an emulsifier?
Oil and vinegar … don’t mix. The process of getting these two liquids to combine is called emulsifying, which sounds intimidating but is super simple. The first thing you need to add to your dressing is an emulsifier, which is essentially an ingredient that will bind to both water — in this case the vinegar — and oil.
Dijon mustard is an easy go-to emulsifier, but other things that work well include egg yolk (like in a traditional Caesar salad dressing), honey or tomato paste. The emulsifier you choose will depend on what flavor profile you’re looking to build.
How to add easy flavor to your vinaigrette
Simple oil, vinegar and mustard will taste just fine on a salad if that’s all you have on hand. But you can add a few simple ingredients to quickly elevate your vinaigrette.
Simple as it sounds, the first thing to add to your vinaigrette is salt and freshly ground pepper. Just a dash or two of each per serving will take your dressing to the next level.
Regardless of the type of vinegar you use, a clove of minced garlic or 1/2 tablespoon of minced shallot per serving can add dimensions of flavor and are ingredients you likely have in your kitchen.
When it comes to vinaigrette seasonings, the possibilities are endless, and it’s fun to play around with combinations and flavors. Consider a good squirt of lemon juice, loads of balsamic vinegar and a spoonful of shallots as a simple combo. If you want an Italian vibe, add oregano, basil and parsley. Want to bring some Asian-inspired flavors to the table? Swap the mustard for honey, supplement your vegetable oil with sesame oil and mix in some soy sauce, garlic and ginger. Making a Mexican-inspired taco salad? Trade the vinegar for lime juice, then add fresh cilantro, garlic, a touch of honey and maybe a dash or two of red pepper flakes.
How to mix a vinaigrette
Once you have your oil, vinegar, emulsifier and seasonings all picked out, it’s time to mix that vinaigrette! You can use a few methods to ensure that your dressing doesn’t separate, which would leave you with a bland salad on top and vinegar-soaked lettuce on the bottom.
The easiest way to combine a vinaigrette is to use a whisk. Simply add all of your ingredients in a bowl (we like to use a glass measuring cup) and whisk it quickly for 10 or so seconds, until you see bubbles forming in the vinegar and oil as they combine. This method is best for one or two salads that will be consumed right away, as the emulsification doesn’t last incredibly long.
If you’re making dressing for the whole week and have a glass jar handy, you can use it to shake all your ingredients. Just be sure to really shake it well. If the ingredients have separated when you go to use it, give it another good shake. And if the fats have solidified in the fridge, just set it on the counter or zap it for a few seconds in the microwave to loosen things up before shaking to re-combine.
If you’re making a big batch of dressing or are using a lot of fresh ingredients in your vinaigrette (like herbs, garlic, ginger, shallots or scallions), it may be best to use an immersion blender, food processor or blender to break up those herbs and get a good mix. First, add your emulsifier (that’s the mustard, honey, tomato paste, etc.) and seasonings in the blender or food processor. Then, add your vinegar in and blend. While your machine is still running, add the oil until well-combined.
Now that you know the basics, it’s time to come up with your own combo — or better yet, try out one of our favorite vinaigrette recipes to get you started.
Balsamic vinegar is a bold, thick and ridiculously flavorful base for marinades and dressings. This classic balsamic vinaigrette uses shallots for an extra boost. It’s best used on salads with hearty ingredients, like an arugula salad with grilled steak, roasted Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes.
If you have olive oil, red wine vinegar and a few spices, you have Italian dressing. This recipe also mixes in some mustard and lemon juice for body and brightness. Channel your inner Olive Garden and use this dressing on a side salad with pepperoncini, olives, red onion, cherry tomatoes, seasoned croutons and plenty of Parm.
Ginger packs a huge punch. While it’s a great addition to any vinaigrette, we use it here as a base for an Asian-inspired dressing, which also has ample amounts of sesame oil, garlic and scallions. We like it in a tofu bowl with mushrooms, peas, broccoli and fried rice or quinoa. And adding this vinaigrette to anything is one of the best ways to use leftovers.