vinaigrette & salad dressings

Many cooks find salad dressings a little intimidating, I know I did, which is a bit bizarre considering there is no heat involved, and very few ingredients.

In fact, the problems lie in the fact that making a dressing is an art. Thankfully, it's one you can easily master. You just need to keep practising – trying new combinations and measurements, and, just as importantly, keeping a note of what you've used and in what quantities. In time you will come to know instinctively how to dress each salad.


In the meantime, there are some rules you can follow:

Salad dressings are all about sweet and sour. Learn the ratio of sweet to sour that you like best – most oils are slightly sweet in flavour, incidentally. If in doubt, add more sour (usually in the form of vinegar or citrus).

Which oil you use matters. Olive oils cover a range of flavours from the peppery early-season oils to softer late-season ones.

Taste your olive oil. If it is too powerful for your palate, dilute it with rapeseed, rice bran or sunflower oil. Also, be aware that oils can go stale if left in the heat (e.g. by the cooker) or in sunlight.

Make more than you need. You can keep it in the fridge in a sealed jar for ages.

Season carefully. Taste for salt, pepper, sweet and sour. Before you dress the salad dip a leaf into the dressing, and then taste and adjust the flavours if necessary.

If you are using raw garlic in a dressing, it is best to smash it to a paste with a little salt – this breaks it down more than a garlic crusher can. The flavour will spread more evenly through the mix, and you won't get little lumps floating in your dressing.

Basic vinaigrette dressing

This is a classic, and a good base from which to develop newer dressings

3 tbsps extra-virgin olive oil

2 tbsps of vinegar - which, cider or wine, but not balsamic

salt and black pepper

Shake all the ingredients in a tightly lidded container, or whisk together in a small bowl

Allow to stand for about 10 minutes, then shake again just before use

Creamy vinaigrette

To the basic vinaigrette dressing above, add 2-3 tbsps of plain yoghurt

Classic lemon and olive oil

This is a very easy dressing that is useful for strong-flavoured leaf salads, such as rocket. If necessary, you can add a teaspoon of water to this dressing to thin it slightly and give it more delicacy.

1 tbsp lemon juice

3 tbsp olive oil

Salt and black pepper

Whisk together, taste and adjust seasoning.

A French classic

40g mustard (preferably Dijon mustard)

80ml white wine vinegar

350ml rapeseed oil

Sea salt and black pepper

Blitz the mustard and vinegar in a blender. While still running, slowly add the rapeseed oil until you have a fully emulsified dressing. Season carefully.

Red onion and shallot

Use this with roasted beetroot and lentils, topped with goat’s cheese or feta.

1 red onion or shallot

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

2 tsp soft brown sugar

2 tbsp olive oil

Salt and black pepper

Combine the onion, vinegar and sugar, then season. Leave for about an hour. Then add the olive oil and stir well.

Honey and mustard

For those who prefer something sweeter. Also a great dressing to go with avocado halves. Simply whisk it all together and season.

1 garlic clove, crushed

2 tsp Dijon or other mustard

2 tsp honey

3 tbsp white wine vinegar

100ml sunflower oil

Salt and black pepper

Walnut

This is a lovely dressing for French beans. Blanch French beans and runners and add them to the dressing while they are still warm. Finish with finely diced apple, shaved fennel and chopped chives.

100g walnuts

Salt

A pinch of cayenne pepper

A drizzle of olive oil

Mix the walnuts with the other ingredients and bake at 180°C/350°F/Gas 4 for 5 minutes, until lightly toasted. Crush gently and add to the honey and mustard dressing above along with 1 tbsp of walnut oil.

Basil

Best for drizzling over fresh tomatoes, grilled courgettes or a tomato salad.

A bunch of basil

1 garlic clove, crushed

100ml olive oil

A pinch of salt and black pepper

Remove the leaves from the basil and blend with the rest of the ingredients.

Balsamic vinaigrette

It pays, in the taste department at least, to use best quality balsamic vinegar.

3 tbsps olive oil

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

1 tsp garlic paste

1 tsp mustard

Salt and pepper

Whisk together vinegar and mustard. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour in olive oil very slowly, whisking constantly until well combined and creamy.