Technique: How to make a simple vinaigrette
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.
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Sweet sister, speak for yourself!
I have to protest a bit on your comment above that none of the siblings have been able to replicate Mom’s salad dressing. My dressing has gotten its share of affirmative nods from Mom that I’ve mastered the technique, so long as I tame my pepper grinder.
Well fine then. But in my book too much pepper means you don’t have Mom’s touch….
Now Now Girls!
Reminds me of my sister!
We always got to her….favorite story is when she was raising her “Easter Chicken”, the ones that are bought as colored chicks that you cage and try to raise to maturity. Well one Sunday we were being served chicken by mother and my sister asked “where did this chicken come from”. My brother answered “it’s snookims” (the name my sister had given to her personal chick). My sister got upset, left the table and may have not eaten chicken since.
Good job on calling out the food snob.
Thank you, sir!
thanks for a quick and easy dressing recipe! I like garlic powder and garlic salt… it adds a bit of “midwestern” umami
Midwestern umami!! That’s brilliant!!
How much garlic powder? I’m very much looking forward to making this! Maybe even tonight!!!
Hi! It’s 1/4 teaspoon for 3 tablespoons oil/1 tablespoon lemon juice. A little more might be good, depending on your taste and how potent the lemon flavor is. I’ll enjoy thinking of you and Dave eating this salad tonight in Germany!!!
Thank you for this, Maureen! Love your stories that come with the recipes. So warm, I feel like I’m in the kitchen with you. And thank you for explaining “emulsify”. I am kitchen-phobic because of words like that and “blanch”. But I’m getting over it. Making this today. I’ll let you how it turns out.
Oh, and nice handling of the garlic snob. We live on garlic powder and garlic salt. So sue us! Haha
I am loving your website! I have just started to cook more and I wanted to try Lebanese (I really should have watched Mom and Dad in the kitchen, unfortunately too late). My salad dressing just never comes out right but I can’t wait to try your way! Thank you!! Ps when I get advanced, kibbeh will be next lol
Hello and thank you! Enjoy the dressing…and the kibbeh (you can do it!)!
I am new to your blog, have gone through several old postings, and always get a warm sentimental feeling when reading the stories about your family. I, too, come from a Lebanese family on my father’s side which I was extremely close to.
I grew up, in Michigan, living across the street from my grandmother who was an incredible cook. I see so many similarities in the stories you tell. My grandmother made her salad dressing similar to your mother’s by using a splash of oil, fresh squeezed lemon and nana she would send me out to freshly pick from the side of the house where it grew for years. My attempts at such a seemingly simple task never produced the same results either, even though I made that same salad with her hundreds of times. And I too, would always soak up the last remaining drops of dressing from the bowl with Syrian bread.
My grandmother passed away several years ago. Your stories about family warm my heart and remind me of her and simpler times. I’m looking forward to trying your recipes.
You are a kindred spirit, Linda! Thanks so much for sharing your beautiful memories, which are so familiar and lovely!
Once I found myself without any lemons. (The 500 I had bought at Costco were all used up, or shared with neighbors, if you can believe that.)
Then I remembered how my mom always used vinegar in her salad dressing, and of course, now the trend is to ingest
at least a little vinegar every day for good health (Sorry, I forget what organ it enhances.) So I had 2–not one–jars of
organic vinegar from, yes, Costco. What to do with a gallon of vinegar when you only need a tablespoon per day?
So I’ve begun to imitate Mom’s old recipe and it’s fine. I’m telling you all of this, in case you might run out of lemons someday, and save you a dash to the grocery store. ( Costco is a 5 min. drive from our neighborhood to explain to you why I have to buy a couple dozen lemons at a time from CC instead of driving 2 miles to Krogers.) Feel free to edit this Maureen.
I love it Aunt Anne! I’m a big fan of vinegar too, and can hardly make a salad without my rice vinegar anymore. The flavor is always so clean and bright.