Chef Tim Says...

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Chef Tim Says....

What is a Vinaigrette?

two glass bottles, one containing oil and one containing vinegar

I love a good salad dressing and especially a great vinaigrette. So simple, yet so complex. The rich combination of silky oil with tart vinegar, flavorings and herbs is incomparable.

The traditional vinaigrette, on the one hand, is a simple combination of oil and vinegar. The ratio of oil to vinegar is one of centuries of debate and every chef has their own opinion. Three or four parts of oil to one part vinegar or other acid is the most common.

The flip side of that simple combination is getting the two main ingredients to blend together, because a successful vinaigrette requires that one force oil and water to mix. Since you've been hearing most of your life that they don't, you can see why there's so much discussion.

To get the oil to fully emulsify, it must be well blended with the vinegar by breaking the oil up into the tiniest droplets possible so that it will not separate from the vinegar. The process of properly combining two substances that don't mix well is what gives vinaigrette the luxurious, rich feel in your mouth and distributes the other ingredients to your taste buds. It also helps the dressing cling to the salad greens.

As with a lot of dressings, the oil can add a lot of calories, so you must take care with the amount of oil and portion size. A teaspoon of olive oil contains 45 calories, and I generally target recipes at 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons of oil per serving. My choice is three to one, so for every teaspoon and half of oil, use a half teaspoon of acid such as vinegar or lemon juice. Most vinaigrettes contain another ingredient - mustard is the classic - but anything that adds flavor will work. You can use Dijon mustard but coarse ground mustard works great. Roasted garlic, tomato paste, finely minced shallots or even a little jam all will add flavor and body to your vinaigrette.

The choice of both oil and acid can make a huge difference in the flavor of your dressing. As with all ingredients, the better the quality the tastier your recipe will be. Start with the best quality olive oil, white, balsamic or red wine vinegar. Lime or lemon juice or another citrus, such as orange or grapefruit, as the acid will create completely new flavors. Mixing and matching is easy and that's what great food is all about.

Depending on how tart your acid choice is, adding a bit of sugar, honey or maple syrup can soften your vinaigrette. Go easy at first - 1/8 teaspoon per serving is probably enough.

Lastly, you will want to season your vinaigrette. If the mustard is flavorful enough or the tomato paste already has salt in it, you may not need to add much salt. Pepper is a must in my opinion, and adding fresh herbs will really finish the dressing. Just a bit of fresh chives, parsley, thyme or oregano will really brighten up your salad.

Compared to bottled dressings, there's so much more flavor for you by making your own fresh vinaigrette. Keep the ingredients on hand and make a dressing for your next salad. It's quick and easy and so, so tasty.

Here are a few combinations for you to experiment with:

Olive Balsamic vinegar Dijon or coarse ground mustard Chives, mint, thyme, oregano, basil, parsley, cilantro Salt and pepper
Grapeseed Red wine vinegar Roasted garlic   Maple syrup, honey, sugar
Canola White wine vinegar Sun dried tomato paste, tomato paste   Paprika, cumin, corriander, fennel seed,
Sesame Lemon or lime juice Pesto    
Safflower Fruit juice:
orange, tangerine, grapefuit, apple, cranberry

Eat well, eat healthy, enjoy life!

Timothy S. Harlan, M.D.
Dr. Gourmet