The first time I cooked sans recipe and produced more than edible results, it felt like growing wings. Kitchen improvisation is so gratifying – unassisted success gives way to new confidence behind the stove, and before you know it, the only things you’ll be needing at meal time are a few scrumptious farmer’s market finds and some creative inspiration.
Still, it’s hard to stray from the safety of tried and true cookbooks on our shelves. Who wants to spend precious time and money on a meal that ends up being scraped into the garbage pail and never spoken of again? Not me. Not you. Which is why it’s best to start small, understanding that successful improv is a lot about understanding flavors that go together, knowing when food could benefit from a little more fat or acid, and figuring out that a bit more salt can make all the difference in the world.
If you want to raise your cooking confidence almost instantly, spend a wee bit of time tonight making homemade vinaigrette. Here’s the rub: you’re not allowed to consult your favorite cookbook or the internet first. All you need to remember is a very simple ratio and a couple of basic tips and you’ll be able to make countless variations and flavor combinations to suit your fancy. Once you master making homemade vinaigrette, you’ll never want to buy the bottled stuff again – it’s that easy.
So about that magic ratio. It’s 3:1. Three parts oil to one part acid/vinegar (feel free to adjust the ratio slightly to suit your taste buds, should you feel you need more/less of either component). So easy, right? That’s all you need to throw together the most basic of vinaigrettes. Of course, you’ll need to jazz things up a bit, which is where you can start to improv and have a little fun. You choose the type of oil, the type of acid, flavor boosters, and an emulsifier. What’s an emulsifier? I’m glad you asked. Emulsifiers are what stabilize your vinaigrette – meaning, they’ll keep the oil and vinegar mixed together when they would otherwise separate. There are a few different popular emulsifiers – they all accomplish the same thing, so it’s really just a matter of taste and preference. We’ll get to your choices in a second. Of course, you can always skip the emulsifier, but then your vinaigrette will separate and you’ll need to vigorously shake it up before each use. You’ll also find that emulsified dressing clings more evenly to your salad. Oh, and there’s something really satisfying and impressively chef-like about producing an emulsified dressing for your dinner companions to enjoy. For these reasons, I think it’s worth the extra step.
To assemble your vinaigrette, choose an acid and combine it with an emulsifier and a couple tablespoons of your flavor boosters of choice by whisking together until combined. At that point, slowly add in your oil by simultaneously streaming the oil into the bowl while vigorously whisking the mixture (don’t be afraid to whisk hard – as Ice Cube once said, “You can do it, put your back into it”). In order to do this, you’ll need to secure the bowl so it won’t wobble too much during the mixing process – this can be done by either having someone hold the bowl steady for you, or by using bowls with a rubber/non-slip bottom, or finally by placing the bowl atop a wet dishrag ring (wet the dishrag, wring it dry, form a ring with the dishrag and place the bowl on top).
Here’s a handy guide to get you started, but please don’t feel confined by this list (it is by no means exhaustive)…if you want to try a certain herb or citrus or whatever that isn’t on here, go at it!
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Red Wine Vinegar
Sherry Wine Vinegar
Lemon Juice (freshly squeezed…bonus points if you can score some Meyer Lemons!)
Lime Juice (freshly squeezed)
Orange Juice (freshly squeezed – no Tropicana, please)
Grapefruit Juice (freshly squeezed)
Dijon Mustard (a spoonful should do)
Raw Egg Yolk (use at your own discretion – it’s in a classic Caesar, and happens to be a favorite salad ingredient of Ina Garten…as always, seek out organic, small farm eggs)
Salt & Pepper (always!)
Minced Fresh Herbs (try Parsley, Cilantro, Tarragon, Basil, Oregano, Thyme, Chives)
Minced Sundried Tomatoes
Minced canned Chipotle Peppers (can be found in the Latin section of market)
Shoyu/Tamari (Soy Sauce)