A good vinaigrette should punch your tongue with a potent combination of salty, sweet, and acidic flavours. Err too much in one direction or another, and your salad will suffer. Making a great tasting vinaigrette isn’t hard, however, and using the template above (and below) can help you nail it every time.
You’re probably using too much oil
As my esteemed colleague A.A. Newton has pointed out before, most vinaigrette recipes call for too much oil and not enough acid. Newton remedies this by halving the oil in any and every vinaigrette recipe she encounters, but that strategy only works with existing recipes.
If you want to make your own, unique, bespoke vinaigrette, it’s best to start with a ratio of one part vinegar and one part oil, rather than the oft recommended one part vinegar to three parts oil. This may seem like acid overkill, but keep in mind that a good vinaigrette should be too intense to enjoy on its own. It’s a dressing, not a gazpacho. Half a cup of dressing is plenty for a family-sized salad, so start with 1/4 cup oil and 1/4 cup acid.
For the oil, you can use something with flavour, like olive or hazelnut; or you can use a more neutral option like grape seed, avocado, or canola, and really let the other ingredients shine. If you want to get really crazy, you can mix oils — like toasted sesame and grape seed to stretch the flavour of the former — just make sure you don’t exceed the 1:1 oil-to-acid ratio.
For acid, pretty much any vinegar will work, though I would avoid straight-up white vinegar. If you want a really tart dressing, you can add a tablespoon of white vinegar and three tablespoons of something else, but I am not joking when I tell you it’s really tart. Lemon and lime juice are also quite lovely, particularly when paired with honey.
You must use some mustard
A good mustard adds flavour to your vinaigrette, and — more importantly — it is the key to a stable, emulsified dressing. Without it, your oil and vinegar will separate from each other in mere moments, no matter how hard you shake. (Shake in a jar for the best results.) Mustards with a lot of mucilage emulsify the best, so choose a Dijon or another whole-grain option to maximise its stabilizing effects. A tablespoon will do the trick.
You need to sweeten, sweetie
A little sugar makes everything taste better, and salads are not exempt from this scientific fact. Liquid sweeteners go into solution the fastest, so choose a syrup. I’ve sweetened vinaigrettes with maple syrup, agave syrup, simple syrup, and honey, and all are pretty equally delicious. A tablespoon is all you need.
Add salt and other seasonings
Salt doesn’t just make things taste salty, it makes things taste good, and you need 1/4 teaspoon of it to make your vinaigrette sing. You could stop here and you you’ll have a perfectly delicious dressing, but I know many of you will not (and why should you). For other dry seasonings — like cumin, chilli powder, garlic powder, white pepper, etc. — start with 1/4 teaspoon and add more as needed to taste. For fresh herbs and alliums (like garlic and shallots), add them minced, 1 teaspoon at a time, until you reach your desired level of potency, keeping in mind the flavours with intensify as they sit in the dressing.
Finish with a dash of common sense!
It might be tempting to pick the most flavorful option for each category, but remember that this is all about balance, and choosing one or two flavours to highlight with keep things from getting muddied. If you have a super-flavourful infused vinegar, consider using a bland oil. If you want to showcase the Meyer lemon, perhaps forgo the garlic.
Also, check the ingredients of your vinegars for any additives, and maybe give them a taste with a piece of bread if you’re unsure of their flavour profile. Seasoned rice vinegar, as the name suggests, comes pre-seasoned with salt and sugar, so you may not need the usual amount of salt. Luckily, it is very easy to taste as you go when making a vinaigrette, so add any ingredients you’re unfamiliar with a little bit at a time, shake it all up, then taste and adjust as needed.