How to make vinaigrette salad dressing at home

It’s hard to beat a big, crisp salad in the heat of summer. Although homegrown lettuce might be hard to come by during hot weather, there’s tons of other fresh ingredients you can grow. And if you don’t garden, your local farmer’s market will have tons of gorgeous, fresh vegetables, just waiting to be a no-cook dinner. Summer salads are a big winner. But what about salad dressing? Let me tell you, it is so easy to make salad dressing that once you whip up a batch, you’ll never go back to store-bought. While this is a recipe for balsamic vinaigrette you can use so many other vinegars – more on that below!

Salad with vinaigrette dressing on the side

What goes into vinaigrette?

Glad you asked! The key to a vinaigrette salad dressing that isn’t too runny or too thick is all about the right proportion of ingredients. Like I said, this is a recipe for balsamic vinaigrette but as long as you stick to the proportions, you can use any flavorful or infused vinegar.

In general, you can’t go wrong with the following ratio:

Recipe for balsamic vinaigrette

1/4 cup oil

1/4 cup acid (like balsamic or white wine vinegar)

.5-1 tablespoon of prepared mustard

.5-1 tablespoon of honey or infused syrup

herbs, spices, salt and pepper

These proportions will yield a vinaigrette dressing that’s just the right texture, no matter which oil, vinegar or herbs you use.

Which oil should you use in vinaigrette?

Olive oil is a great choice. It adds a light, fruity flavor but isn’t dominant so there’s room for herbs, spices or vinegars to shine. If you’re using other very strong flavors, a more neutral oil is better. In that case, check out grapeseed or vegetable oil.

What about vinegar? What vinegar is best for a vinaigrette?

There are so many options here and all of them are good. Balsamic and red wine vinegars are both iconic choices for vinaigrette. You can’t go wrong with either. They provide a sweet, complex acidity that balances fruity olive oil beautifully. That’s why I chose to structure this post around a recipe for balsamic vinaigrette – it’s hard to go wrong starting with balsamic.

White wine and champagne vinegars bring a lighter, brighter flavor to the dressing. Rice wine vinegar is sweeter and can add an almost flowery bite to dressing. They’re also great choices if you want a lighter colored dressing.

For a really special dressing, use infused vinegar. I love to steep fresh nasturtiums or chive flowers in white wine vinegar and use that in my dressings.

In addition to vinegar, you can use a little lemon or lime juice. Just be sure the combined acids are still only 1/4 cup.

So how do I pick the right vinegar?

Consider the salad ingredients. Mild greens and vegetables provide a great canvas for a strong, bold vinaigrette. If your salad ingredients are mild, use a heavy hitter like balsamic (and don’t be afraid to add some serious flavor via herbs, spices and alliums). On the other hand, if your salad has more delicate components, like tender greens, one of the lighter vinegars may be better. Adding rich cheeses or lots of fruit to your salad? Pick a vinegar, like balsamic, that will cut through the sweetness or the rich fat.

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I don’t like mustard, do I have to put mustard in vinaigrette?

I’m not the mustard police and I won’t come to your house to make you use it. I personally don’t love mustard and I’m very picky about what kind I use and how I use it. Having said that, the dollop you add to your vinaigrette isn’t going to dominate the party. You likely won’t even taste it. And it does play an important role in the vinaigrette, so include it if you possibly can.

The key is to pick a less aggressive mustard. A Dijon is usually less abrasive than yellow. You can even use honey mustard, though it’s obviously going to make the dressing overall sweeter. The mustard you select needs to be smooth.

So why does vinaigrette need mustard?

Texture. Prepared mustard adds body and structure to the dressing. When the oil and vinegar are combined, they form an emulsion. The mustard keeps that emulsion from separating too quickly. The result is a richly textured dressing that coats every leaf and stays put.

Mustard does obviously add some flavor to the dressing. But it’s main function is structural.

Does honey go in vinaigrette? Why would I want sweeet salad dressing?

Honey does two things for vinaigrette. It adds a little sweetness, which balances the acidity from the lemon juice and vinegar. That makes the dressing well-rounded. It also thickens the dressing and helps keep that emulsion going. If you don’t have honey or don’t want to use honey, substitute simple syrup. Ideally, use an infused syrup to cut the sugary sweetness and boost the overall flavor of your dressing. Agave nectar is another good honey substitute.

recipe for balsamic vinaigrette in food processor

How to season vinaigrette with herbs and spices

A vinaigrette without herbs, spices, salt and pepper would be a little flat, no? At the very least, add a 1/4 teaspoon of salt to the party to help bring out the other flavors.

Dried herbs are a critical component in vinaigrettes. Greek oregano, basil, thyme, tarragon and mint are all classic vinaigrette herbs (though not all together). I’m normally a staunch advocate for fresh herbs, but dried herbs can help flavor vinaigrette without watering it down.

Can you use fresh herbs in vinaigrette?

Yes, absolutely. Try to add only a few leaves and be prepared to add a little extra mustard if the dressing gets too watery. Let the leaves sit for an hour or two before adding, if you can. That allows a bit of water to evaporate and the flavors to concentrate. You can also throw the fresh herbs into a jar with your vinegar and let them infuse for a few hours. Strain the vinegar and add it to the mix. It’s a great way to add herby flavor without extra water.

But you don’t have to stop with herbs. Dried spices like cumin, nutmeg, ground coriander, paprika, or even cayenne or other dried peppers add tremendous flavor. Ground allspice or cloves can bring a sharp, savory note to sweeter dressings. Select one or two (or more) that complement each other and the rest of your ingredients. It only takes a sprinkle and it’s best to add very sparingly and taste your mix.

How to make vinaigrette

If you have a food processor, use it. A blender is a decent second choice. The next best option is a jar that seals tightly. The final option is to whisk everything in a bowl.

Combine oil, vinegar, honey and  mustard. Whiz, blend, shake or whisk until the ingredients combine and form a thick, uniform emulsion. You’ll know the vinaigrette is moving in the right direction because it will thicken and start to have a surface sheen. It can take several minutes for this to happen, so be patient.

When your vinaigrette has formed an emulsion, taste it. Does it seem well–balanced, neither too acidic nor too oily? Then you’re ready to move on. If it seems to skew one way or another, add a drop of oil or vinegar and process it for a few seconds. Taste again and adjust until the balance is to your liking.

At this point, add the seasonings and process briefly to integrate them. Taste and adjust the seasonings if needed.

Note that in a food processor, you can add everything at the beginning and then process for 3-5 minutes. It’s a very efficient way to make an excellent vinaigrette.

Ideally, use the vinaigrette immediately. It will keep for a few hours on the counter or a few weeks in the refrigerator. Depending on how long it sits, though, the emulsion may break down. In that case, you’ll need to shake, stir or whisk it before using.

Recipe for balsamic vinaigrette

You’ve got the building blocks now, I encourage you to start experimenting with different combinations. Here’s is my go-to recipe for balsamic vinaigrette. I use this often and it works on a huge range of salad ingredients.

  • 1/4 extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, less 1 teaspoon
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • .5 tablespoon of Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 teaspoon of kosher salt
  • several grinds of black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon each of dried Greek oregano, dried sweet basil and dried marjoram
  • tiny pinch of ground allspice

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