In my new cookbook, Make It Easy, I share 8 things that I think every cook should know how to make well—and you might be surprised by the list. It isn’t full of culinary school principles, but rather foods that family cooks tend to make over and over—and when they make them well, it makes a tremendous difference in the whole family’s experience. See, when the foods you serve actually taste good, you make it easy on your family and, in turn, on yourself because cooking every night will be way more rewarding.
One of the things that I think every home cook should know is how to make homemade vinaigrette.
Not only are homemade salad dressings quick and easy to whip up, but once you get the hang of it, they are endlessly adaptable. In fact, my how-to gives tons of ideas that will allow you to make a dressing to fit nearly any meal. Then, take it up a notch and get seasonal, like with these spring salad dressings that Caroline found.
Also in favor of homemade dressing: They can be used beyond just salads. I use the same lime ginger vinaigrette to dress the Salmon Rice Bowl recipe and Cold Soba Noodles (pictured) in my book. Between that and a salad, one batch made on Sunday serves at least 3 meals during the week. Plus, homemade dressings make great marinades that can turn plain grilled or broiled protein into a delicious and just-as-simple meal.
See how fun this is going to be? Let’s get started.
1. How to make a vinaigrette: Start with oil and vinegar
Obvious, right? It may be, though the specifics matter greatly. First off, start with the classic 3:1 ratio of oil to vinegar. You can always adjust from there based on your family’s taste.
Always use a mild oil as your base: I love olive, grapeseed, or vegetable (and, yes, olive oil works in nearly every dressing, even ones with Asian flavors; it can easily be your go-to). If you want to make use of a strongly flavored oil like sesame or walnut, add it as a flavor dash as opposed to using it as your base.
Last, but far from least, the vinegar. I tend to use white wine vinegar for most of my dressings, but red wine vinegar is great for Italian and Greek dressings and rice vinegar is perfect for dressings made with Asian ingredients like ginger and soy sauce. Sherry vinegar is big and bold, and flavored or infused vinegars work in specific flavor combinations; while tasty, these aren’t as flexible for everyday use and should be matched with the salad ingredients.
One last note about the acid in your vinaigrette: You can use lemon or another citrus juice instead of or in combination with vinegar. If using instead of, switch to a 1:1 ratio of oil to lemon juice. If using in combination with vinegar, combine the two acids to get your 3:1 ratio and adjust to taste.
2. How to make a vinaigrette: Add garlic or shallot
When there’s time, adding finely minced garlic or shallot (red onion can work, too, depending on what else is in the salad) makes a big difference. That said, it’s not do-or-die. When I’m in a crazy rush, I’ll skip it to avoid the time it takes to chop and the dressing still comes out better than any store-bought variety.
If you have a few extra minutes, you can even let the minced garlic or shallot sit in the vinegar—and only vinegar—for as few as 5 or as many as 15 minutes before you mix in the rest of the ingredients. This process, called maceration, will mellow their sharpness.
3. How to make a vinaigrette: Don’t forget salt and pepper
Once the garlic or shallot has had a chance to sit, add the oil, salt, and pepper. Don’t skip them. The only exception to this is when also using soy sauce, in which case you should add the salt last, after tasting, since the soy sauce will add salt.
4. How to make a vinaigrette: Time for the add-in’s
With your vinaigrette base all put together, it’s time to add other ingredients—the stuff that gives your homemade dressing character and makes it taste great. Here are some ideas:
* Dijon or another mustard (when I’m making a quick, all-purpose dressing for the week, I add this to my base, and nothing else)
* Dried herbs (e.g., thyme, oregano, or herbes de Provence)
* Fresh herbs of nearly any kind
* Citrus zest
* Grated fresh ginger
* Worcestershire sauce
* A bit of honey, agave nectar, or pure maple syrup
* Olive tapenade
* Minced roasted red peppers
* Miso paste
* Soy sauce
* Greek-style yogurt
5. How to make a vinaigrette: Shake and serve
With everything in your bowl or—even better—in a jar that comes with a lid, whisk, shake or blend your dressing to emulsify. And you’re done. If you don’t want to make dressing night after night, consider shaking up a big jar at the beginning of the week. Make it basic—just oil, vinegar, shallots, mustard, and a touch of honey is my favorite combo—and it’ll go with everything. You can even pour a little out to add extra ingredients like lime zest and ginger if you want to change it up for just one meal.
One last expert tip before leaving you to become a dressing master: The key to a great dressing is to focus on a single flavor palate. For example, sherry wine vinegar pairs well with smoked paprika and a little bit of honey for a Spanish inflection. White wine vinegar pairs well with Dijon mustard, herbs de Provence, and/or olives or capers for an all-purpose French vinaigrette. Red wine vinegar combined with freshly squeezed lemon juice and fresh or dried oregano makes a simple, classic Greek dressing. And rice wine vinegar combined with freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice, miso paste, a dash of sesame oil, soy sauce, and grated fresh ginger makes a great all-purpose Asian-style dressing.
This is an adapted excerpt from my new family cookbook, Make It Easy: 120 Mix-and-Match Recipes to Cook From Scratch with Smart Store-Bought Shortcuts When You Need Them, repringed with permission from Da Capo Lifelong, © 2016. Cold Soba Noodle Salad photo by Naomi McColloch. Make It Easy is available at our affiliate Amazon or your local independent book store.