Technique: How to make a simple vinaigrette
Apr 18, 2012, Updated Jan 09, 2023
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Knowing how to make a simple vinaigrette is key to a great salad, every time.
There is perhaps no more classic technique in a Lebanese kitchen than dressing the salata with a squeeze of the lemon and pour of the oil directly on the salad. Try as we might, none of my siblings or I have been quite able to replicate my mom’s touch: the oil, then a lemon, cut in half and juiced right over the bowl, with the seeds caught in her fingers (there is always a stray seed though, and inevitably that seed lands in my mouth. It’s a bitter bite and I always curse the lemon seeds). No matter how much salad Mom makes, it all gets eaten, and then the juice at the bottom of the bowl gets sopped up with pita bread. So, huge salad bowls are on the shelves of her kitchens and put to use for every meal that’s made at home. There have been a lot of those over the years, and I can’t help but wonder how many salads my mother has made in her lifetime. It’s got to be somewhere in the 20,000 range.
What I learned in my mother’s kitchen and what I learned in culinary school about making dressing are two different things. At Tante Marie’s, our dressings were made in a jar, with shallots as the basis along with any one of an array of vinegars and pungent olive oil. At home, it is almost always lemon and most often vegetable oil rather than olive oil, which Mom considers too strong for salad. I tend to agree and often use canola oil for my dressings.
I’ve settled into my own salad dressing routine, which is neither the direct-to-leaf route nor the jar shaking route. I like to whisk together my few simple ingredients with a small whisk, in a small bowl, until the mixture is fully emulsified. That’s just a fancy way of saying: that which does not mix (oil/vinegar) is forced by a little whisk to combine, at least temporarily, until it can get poured on the salad just before it is eaten.
A balanced vinaigrette is made of 3 parts oil to 1 part acid (aka, vinegar or lemon juice). That essential rule of thumb produces a great result every time. But I always taste by dipping a leaf of lettuce in my dressing to see if it needs adjusting before I dress the salad. For me, the ideal dressing is a mix of olive oil (3 parts) and lemon juice (1 part), seasoned with salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Rice vinegar is also excellent, ranking right up there with lemon for me. The garlic powder is one of those flavors that can’t be replicated with fresh garlic—it’s almost a nutty flavor, a toasty garlic flavor, and it’s easier on the palate than raw garlic. One tough-minded New York literary agent who read a few of my recipes once, including one for fattoush salad, saw my ingredients listing garlic powder and practically ran me out of the city. Who uses garlic powder!, she said. Very Midwestern, she said. I look forward to having you over to try it sometime, I said with a smile. That was my Dale-Carnegie-How-To-Win-Friends-And–Influence-People response.
You’ve likely got everything you need to make a delicious dressing for our fattoush salad. It’s wonderful with sumac and pomegranate molasses. Also traditional in Lebanese salata: crushed dried mint. And, if garlic powder is not on your shelf, consider treating yourself to some even if you don’t live here in the beautiful Midwest. It will add a delicious dimension to your salads from here on out.