Vinaigrettes 101

27 Jan

Making vinaigrettes is definitely a skill you want to have in your culinary arsenal.  Whether it’s for throwing together a salad for which a store-bought dressing just won’t do (sometimes there’s not just a perfect flavor in the store – so this way you can customize your own!), or creating a nice vinaigrette sauce for fish or other meals, it’s a good skill to have.  Making your own dressings is simple, yet impressive.  Additionally, you can make them how you want them – without high fructose corn syrup or preservatives (not that there’s anything wrong with those, I am a Food Scientist after all, but sometimes it’s just nice to have things all-natural and homemade).  Plus, homemade dressings can be healthier (you control the amount of oil and sugar) and taste better (homemade balsamic vinaigrette is just so much better in my opinion!).

There are just a few basic principles to keep in mind:

(1) the basic components: fat (oil), acid (vinegar) and an emulsifier (optional)

(2) the ratios of these components


Typically, a ratio of 2 parts oil to 1 part acid is a good starting point.  Sometimes the ratio can be 1:1 (when using a weaker acid, like citrus juice) or even 3 or 4:1 (for very strong vinegars).  It’s up to you!  Just go by taste and consider what the dressing will be on – can it stand up to a strong vinegar or is it better if it’s toned down a bit?  I tend to like a 2:1 ratio (because I like a good vinegar tang and then there is less total fat and calories than a 3:1 ratio).


  • Oils: Extra virgin olive oil, grape seed oil, walnut oil…
  • Dairy: Yogurt, buttermilk, cream…  I’m not going to go into detail on how to make your own cream dressings – I’ll save that for another day
  • Other: Avocado (to supplement the above oils)


  • Vinegars:  Red wine, white wine, rice wine, balsamic, cider, Sherry or Champagne vinegar…
  • Citrus: Fresh squeezed lemon, lime or orange juice…

Emulsifier (or in non-Food Science terms, the component that can make the oil and vinegar come together and stay together – since naturally the oil and vinegar tend to separate)

  • Eggs: raw egg yolks (which I don’t condone) or pasteurized egg products (like Egg Beaters)
  • Mustard: Dijon, whole grain, spicy brown, honey…

Eggs and mustard both help to emulsify dressings because they contain amphiphilic molecules that interact with both water and oil (so they bridge the gap between the two and help hold them together, in very simplified terms!).  Vinaigrettes can also be pretty successfully emulsified by the use of a blender or food processor, without adding mustard or eggs – the force of a blender breaks up the fat into smaller droplets – which will make a fairly stable dressing that won’t separate as fast as one that was just whisked together.


  • Onion/garlic/shallots: finely minced or even grated on a microplane
  • Seasonings: herbs (finely minced), spices, and definitely salt and pepper!
  • Sweetener: sugar or honey can really help complete a vinaigrette
  • Water: water can successfully be added to a dressing in small amounts to thin and to reduce calories
  • Hot sauce/cayenne pepper/red pepper flakes – something spicy, in a small amount can give a dressing a nice zing

To blend:

  • Whisk: The most traditional method.  Mix the vinegar, emulsifier and all other “extras” in a bowl, then slowly stream in the oil as you whisk the dressing vigorously in one direction.
  • Shake:  The quick-and-dirty method.  Place all the ingredients in a Tupperware or jar with a secure lid and shake until combined.
  • Blender/food processor:  If you want a more stable dressing, using the high speed of a blender or food processor will make a better emulsion (so it won’t separate as easily as the first two methods).  Like with whisking, add everything except the oil to the blender, turn it on, then slowly stream in the oil through the opening at the top of the blender or processor.  Using a hand-held immersion blender also works well.

Whether you want a more creamy, emulsified vinaigrette is up to you.  If you are tossing a salad with the dressing in advance, it won’t matter as much if it separates, compared to serving the dressing in a bottle on the table, where you may want the dressing to appear consistent and uniform for appearance sake.

Recipe for a Basic Vinaigrette

Yield: 1 cup, Time: 5 min

The cast of characters:

  • 1/4 cup vinegar of your choice (or 1/3 cup citrus juice) – in this example I used balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Fresh ground pepper
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard (optional)
  • 1/2 teaspoon honey (or sugar, optional)
  • 1 dash Tabasco (optional)
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, grated or finely minced (or 2 teaspoons minced shallot)
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil


Whisk:  Add first 8 ingredients to a bowl.  Whisk continuously while slowly streaming in the olive oil.

Shake:  Add all ingredients to a container (jar or Tupperware with a tight-fitting lid), cover, and shake until well combined.

Blender:  Add first 7 ingredients to the blender (not the shallots, if using – add after blending).  While the blender is running, slowly stream in the oil.

I shook mine:

With any dressing and method, taste and adjust the seasonings and ratio of oil/vinegar to your taste (ideally, dip a piece of lettuce in the dressing to see how the final product will taste).  Add more salt, sugar or pepper if needed.  Vinaigrettes like this can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days.

4 Responses to “Vinaigrettes 101”

  1. Christine Morris January 27, 2012 at 11:15 am #

    I make my own salad dressings a lot! And adding this to my vinaigrette arsenal will be priceless! I can’t wait to try your suggested recipe with a dash of Tabasco for a kick! Keep up the good work! Also, one of my favorite “emulsifiers” is a flavored jam of your choice.

    • Amy January 27, 2012 at 12:07 pm #

      Good thinking with the jam!

  2. Lindsay January 27, 2012 at 12:54 pm #

    I like the classic mix of olive oil and balsamic vinegar… makes me think I’m back in Rome!

  3. Maureen January 28, 2012 at 1:42 pm #

    Great hints ! I never thought of honey. I love my freshly made balsalmic. Your additions will be great. I also use a balsamic vinagrete with an extra part of citrus juice as a quick marinade.

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