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Salad Days: The Mathematics of a Good Vinaigrette

Given the triple-digit temperatures wilting much of Los Angeles and vicinity at the moment, the best thing to make for dinner is a dish that requires little time and less cooking. Preferably none. A salad, perhaps: either a riot of greens tossed into a bowl or an artful composition of ingredients. Whether your tastes run to Flemish still lifes or Jackson Pollock chaos, many salads require little more than a good vinaigrette. Purists can be happy with a pour of fine olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and some Maldon sea salt. A good vinaigrette isn't much more--a few pantry ingredients and some simple kitchen math--and can work remarkable alchemy on an armful of produce from the market or your back yard.

How to dress for dinner
How to dress for dinner
Photo credit: Amy Scattergood

A vinaigrette is a very basic sauce, an emulsion of fat and acid--usually oil and vinegar--that is relatively unstable, depending on the components. The math is a basic ratio, usually of 1 part vinegar to 3 parts oil.

For more on ratios in cooking, see Michael Ruhlman's latest book, Ratio, the premise of which is that much cooking is based on simple codes: the proportion of ingredient x, say, to ingredient y. Ruhlman, the co-author of The French Laundry Cookbook, among many others, discusses vinaigrettes at length (see pp. 177-184).

The only other ingredient that is essential to a vinaigrette is salt, which must be dissolved first in the vinegar before the oil is added. A grind of black pepper, maybe a spoonful of mustard (which helps to emulsify the sauce). Once the equation is there, the variations are limitless.

You can substitute walnut or hazelnut oil for some or part of olive oil, or use peanut oil or a milder oil such as canola if you want to highlight other flavors. Play with vinegars: use balsamic or rice wine vinegar, Jerez or Chinese black vinegar. Or substitute citrus for some or all of the acid component. Add fresh herbs, dried chiles (heat the oil and the chiles first to infuse the flavors), slivers of garlic, lemon peel, Sichuan peppercorns. Once composed, a vinaigrette can last for a week in the refrigerator. If it separates, which it will, just shake it up again before using. Think of those plastic snowy landscape trinkets. Just be sure the lid of your vinaigrette container (canning jars are great) is tightly secured first. It's one thing to articulate your salad like abstract art, quite another to have your kitchen resemble a crime scene.

Basic Vinaigrette

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/3 cup apple cider vinegar

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper or 5 peppercorns

1 clove garlic, cut into thin slices

1 tablespoon coarse-ground mustard

1. Dissolve the salt in the vinegar, then add the rest of the ingredients. Shake to emulsify.

Vinaigrettes, left to right: walnut oil-white wine vinegar-parsley-lemon peel; olive oil-black vinegar-chile-Sichuan peppercorn; basic vinaigrette.


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