Food & Drink Well dressed

A simple formula for vinaigrette

It doesn’t take a delicate palate to recognize a poorly executed vinaigrette: Everyone has experienced the tongue-curling acidity of excess vinegar. Yet not enough vinegar and the dressing sits heavy and bland on its object.

I’ve always admired the spontaneity of my mother’s vinaigrette. Often as simple as a few herbs tossed unmeasured in a bowl of oil and vinegar and whisked up with a fork, her vinaigrettes are balanced and effortlessly well-suited to whatever they adorn. Many a time I wasted good oil and vinegar trying to mimic her nonchalance, some flavor imbalance — too sharp — causing me to add more of one or the other until my bowl runneth over — too dull. Frustration finally led me to look at some recipes, God forbid, and I discovered the formula: one part vinegar to three parts oil.

One could simply add a pinch of salt and pepper and be done with vinaigrette right there, but this is where the story really begins; once you have the formula, the variations are endless.

If you are dressing a delicate butter lettuce, try a soft champagne or white-wine vinegar, or even Meyer lemon juice, with a lighter oil, such as grape seed. If you are working with heavier greens, red wine or sherry vinegar with a stronger, fruitier olive oil works well. Bitter endive and radicchio hold up nicely under the strong flavors of a balsamic and walnut-oil vinaigrette.

For variation, throw in fresh herbs — I usually use three at a time of basil, thyme, sweet marjoram, chervil, chives, parsley, tarragon, dill, oregano, fennel, mint, or cilantro — and spices, garlic, or shallots. Cumin and sherry vinaigrette makes a warm, pleasantly bitter, savory dressing for a white-bean salad.

If all this choice is too much, start with the classic vinaigrette, which combines red-wine vinegar, olive oil, Dijon mustard, and salt and pepper. In a bowl (any will do, but a medium-size, wide, Stainless Steel bowl makes it easier to whisk), whisk together two tablespoons of red-wine vinegar and two teaspoons of Dijon mustard with a pinch of salt and pepper, then gradually whisk in six tablespoons of olive oil until the vinaigrette is blended and thick.

There will be times when the formula fails you; for example an exceptionally tart lemon may require an extra tablespoon of oil. A perfect case in point is this recipe, developed by my husband; it uses less oil because the honey balances the acidity of the apple-cider vinegar.

William’s vinaigrette

1/3 c apple vinegar
3 T honey
1/2 t sea salt
1 clove fresh garlic, minced
1/4 t fresh ground pepper
2/3 c olive oil

Combine all the ingredients in a jar and shake to blend. Depending on how much salad you eat, this recipe should yield enough vinaigrette for several salads.

By Susan Pagani


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