I’m not a food snob or anything. I’m not one of those jerks who walk up to a food truck and pester the fellow in the window about whether or not this comes from that or if whatnot was cooked with such and such. I take my food at face value and come to my own conclusions for the most part. Do I appreciate when a place uses sustainable, ethical, organic, or otherwise morally enhanced ingredients? Of course I do. Do I make an effort to avoid eating overly processed garbage food, or support evil, Monsanto loving corporate chains? Sure! But, I don’t have a bug up my butt about it.
Something I do have a bug up my butt about is the way that most home cooks are told to make vinaigrette. I know I’m not breaking any political boundaries by setting this right, but dammit, I am passionate about emulsion. It’s a beautiful, amazing act of chemistry and it is SO EASY to create. Emulsion is the key difference between a watery, over or under flavored bowl of weird that your friend serves you at a dinner party and the house dressing at your favorite restaurant. There is no great secret to creating an emulsion, just a ratio and the order in which you combine the ingredients.
Photo by Love Well Whip Well on Flickr
You could totally just take the recipe/ratio and run with it, or you could be a total geek like me and ask yourself, “How exactly does an emulsion work? What the heck is going on there?”. The answer to that question will not only help you make better dressings, it will
Water, and water based ingredients, like vinegar, fruit juice, etc. have molecules that only like to bond with other water based molecules. Fats and oils, whether they are animal or vegetable based are similarly limited. They too only bond with other fat molecules. This is where emulsifiers come in. Ingredients that can grab on to both water and fat molecules are emulsifiers. The most commonly used in vinaigrettes are mustard, ketchup, and egg yolks. When an emulsion is acheived, the emulsifier grabs on to both sets of molecules, allowing the oil to disperse into the water, creating the thick, gooey texture that is present in great salad dressings and vinaigrette marinades and sauces. Something fascinating that I recently learned from Ratio by Michael Ruhlman (a killer book for the food geek, by the way) is that most emulsions break due to a lack of water, rather than a lack of emulsifer. If the oil molecules are not supplied with enough water to disperse into, they puddle together, leaving the texture of the mixture thin, greasy, and flat.
Anyway, here is how to make an emulsion, and thus a great vinaigrette. I’ll use a basic balsamic vinaigrette as an example.
How to Make Vinaigrette
- Start out with a small portion (2 teaspoons) of emulsifier, in this case, ketchup
- Add 1 part water based liquid (1 ounce) , in this case, balsamic vinegar
- Whisk together
- While whisking continuosly, slowly drizzle in 3 parts oil or fat (3 ounces), in this case, olive oil
- Season to taste with salt, pepper, sugar, herbs, spices, or sweeteners (like honey or syrups)
Seriously, that is it! How easy is that? Why home magazines leave this information out of their recipes I can not explain. Yes, you CAN put these same ingredients into a jar all together and shake, but why would you want to eat a salad covered in a drippy mess when you could have created something velvety and glorious just as easily? The greatest thing about this base recipe is that you can also put almost any ingredients in place of these, follow the same technique, and make about a million different types of unique and amazing vinaigrettes.
Try using sesame oil with rice vinegar, mustard and grapefruit juice, or try using almond oil with mayo, cranberry juice, and red wine vinegar. I love making a base of vegetable oil, mayo, and white vinegar, than adding whatever fresh herbs I have on hand. Try replacing part of the water phase with juice, milk, or tea. Get creative with your combinations, add wasabi powder, fresh ginger, pureed nuts, seeds, veggies, fruits, or berries. The possibilities are endless. Endless and tasty, and way better than anything you’ll find in a Martha Stewart mag.
Here is a great step by step photo by My French Cuisine on Flickr. I’d sure like to dip my salad greens in that bowl. Eh heh heh.