Start Here: Vinaigrette
I don’t like vinegar. Presenting a bowl of beautiful homegrown lettuces to me as a child, my parents would dress the simple salad with just oil and vinegar, and all my 6-year-old tongue could taste was bitter leaves with sour liquid. It created a lifelong aversion.
So when I started to learn to cook in home kitchens in France, I was dismayed when my chef teacher rolled out the first menu of the course, and item no. 1 was a fresh market salad with vinaigrette. We grabbed a spoon from the silverware drawer (no precise measurements here) and poured about three spoonfuls of olive oil into a bowl, followed by a big spoonful of the loathsome sour stuff. The two liquids pooled apart like, well, oil and water. To help them emulsify—that is, blend together—he winked at us and dropped an unmeasured amount of dijon mustard right in the bowl. We then whisked like the dickens, and the whole thing blended together into a lovely cloudy yellow soup.
“C’est fini?” I asked—is that it? No, not quite. But at this point, I had already learned everything I would ever need to know to build any dressing I would ever want. More importantly, I had been given a canvas on which to play, through which to learn my tastes and preferences and have a bit of low-stakes fun in the kitchen.
Start where I did. Whisk together a spoonful of any vinegar with 2-3 spoonfuls of olive oil. Help them blend together by glopping in some mustard. Now dip a finger in and taste what you’ve got. Too sour? Add more oil, or sweeten it up a bit with some honey or molasses. Or make a note, and try a different vinegar next time. (I’ve learned that sweet tangy balsamic vinegar lacks the astringent echo of those hated childhood salads that white wine vinegar brings.) You probably want to add some salt, maybe some black pepper. Now start to play. Why not add some heat? Red pepper flakes or sambal olek are a great way to make your salad more interesting. Unless I’m baking dessert, I add garlic to everything, so reach for some garlic powder and give it a few shakes. Feeling adventurous and want to add some funk? Add a shake of fish sauce or Worcestershire for complexity.
Dip a finger in and taste, play around, and taste again. It’s salad dressing. You can’t screw it up, but you can learn a lot from it.
2 parts oil + 1 part vinegar + …
Toasted sesame oil
White wine vinegar
Red wine vinegar
Red pepper flakes
Jam or jelly