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Building a Great Salad: How to Make Vinaigrette Salad Dressing

There are two fundamentals to building a great salad: choosing lettuces and ingredients that compliment each other as well as pairing those with a great tasting vinaigrette.

There are two basics to making a great salad: Choosing a variety of lettuces that complement each other and then pairing them with the right vinaigrette.

How to Build a Great Salad

While there is nothing wrong with a single-lettuce salad, there is a reason that mesclun mix has become so wildly popular: The appealing variety of different tastes and texture in each bite. Try pairing crunchy romaine and iceberg with a softer lettuce like Boston, and mix spicy radicchio and arugula with milder leaves like baby spinach or Bibb.

There are also plenty of add-ins that can elevate a salad from a side dish to a meal. Considering the color, texture, and flavor of different ingredients is how you build a great salad.

For sweet, try diced orange segments, pomegranate seeds, kumquat slices, halved red grapes, fresh figs, dried cranberries, candied nuts, or cubes of roasted beets or butternut squash. For crunch, slice up some green apple, celery, fennel, bell pepper, or jicama or toss in some pecans or walnuts. For salty, add capers, olives, or a few anchovy fillets minced in the dressing.

 

How to Make a Vinaigrette

 A good guideline is to start with 1 part vinegar to 2 parts oil. Then taste, taste, taste!

  • Use extra-virgin olive oil as your base, adding small amounts of nut oils (walnut, hazelnut, pistachio, toasted pumpkin seed, toasted sesame seed) only as an occasional flavoring.
  • The acid is the most important flavoring of the vinaigrette, so choose one of your favorites or a  combination of citrus juices (lemon, lime, grapefruit, or orange) or vinegars (red-wine, balsamic, white balsamic, rice, sherry wine, or champagne).
  • To enhance the flavor of a vinaigrette, add one or more of the following: Dijon mustard, finely chopped shallots, a smashed garlic clove, fresh or dried leafy herbs (tarragon, basil, chervil, mint, parsley, or oregano), or a dusting of spice (ground cumin or coriander work well). And don't forget salt and freshly ground pepper!
  • Have a small glass jar designated to make your vinaigrette. While you can follow the emulsifying instructions below, for a quick vinaigrette, just add all ingredients to the jar and shake hard before adding to your salad.

How to Emulsify a Vinaigrette

To avoid making vinaigrette in which the oil and vinegar drift to other ends of the jar, you must emulsify it. Unless the vinaigrette contains mustard or a raw egg yolk (natural emulsifiers), follow the directions below to help keep your vinaigrette more tightly bound. 

  • Mix the vinegar and any other ingredients you are using (except the oil) in a small bowl. Make a "nest" out of a rolled-up kitchen towel formed into a doughnut shape, and then place the bowl with the vinegar in the hole. Measure out your oil into a glass measuring cup, and while whisking the vinegar mixture, slowly (drop by drop, at first) drizzle the oil into the bowl. The slower you drizzle, the tighter the emulsion will be. Towards the end, you may start to add the oil more quickly.

How to Store a Vinaigrette

A freshly made vinaigrette can be stored for at least 5 days in the refrigerator, so don't be afraid to make more than you will need. Simply oil-and-vinegar vinaigrettes (no additional garlic, herbs, etc.) will keep much longer, at least a few weeks.

How to Dress a Salad

Always dress your salad just before serving to prevent the leaves from becoming soggy. Estimate about 1 tablespoon of dressing for every 2 servings, then add more to taste (it is always better to err on the side of under-dressing at first). Season the salad lightly with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper before tossing, then serve immediately.