When it's too hot to cook, salads are best when dressed as lightly as the person assembling them.
Heavy, mayonnaise-based dressings are about as suffocating as a winter coat on a hot day, but vinaigrettes add flavor without overpowering the crisp, cool lettuce and raw ingredients that can fill up your belly without heating up the house.
Like most processed foods, many commercially made vinaigrettes and salad dressings rely heavily on salt and sugar, often in the form of corn syrup, for flavoring. But with just a few ingredients, you can make better tasting and cheaper vinaigrettes at home.
The traditional vinaigrette ratio is 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar, but how much oil and vinegar to use depends entirely on your own taste buds and on what kind of vinegar you're using, says Jeff Conarko, co-owner of Con' Olio Oils & Vinegars at the Arboretum.
Three-to-1 works for cutting down tart, non-aged vinegars that are twice as acidic as the more expensive aged vinegars, such as traditional balsamic and sherry, Conarko says. When making vinaigrettes at home, he prefers to use one part olive oil with one part thick, slightly sweet balsamic vinegar that has been aged at least 12 years.
You can add all the herbs, garlic and lemon juice you want, but if you're using rancid oil or cheap vinegar, your salad will suffer.
Unlike balsamic vinegar, freshness is the key to good olive oil, Conarko says, but because of the Food and Drug Administration's labeling rules, it's hard to know how old even a brand new bottle of olive oil is. "We don't get the good stuff," Conarko says. "In other countries, after a year, they throw in out or sell it to America." (Expiration dates and the words "first press," "cold press," "virgin" and "extra virgin" are also unregulated, although the agency is currently considering enforcing stricter rules.)
When olive oil is fresh, the smoke point is higher (400 degrees compared with 360) and the good-for-you oleic acid and antioxidants are high.
Balsamic vinegar labels can be just as confusing as those on olive oils. Unless the label says "traditional" or "tradizionale," it's likely a knock-off, usually called something along the lines of "balsamic vinegar di modena," which is made with red or white wine vinegar and caramel coloring. (The mid-grade balsamic that isn't as high quality as the traditional but isn't swill will be labeled "condimento" or "condiment.")
There's geographical logic behind the classic combination of balsamic vinegar and olive oil. "Anywhere you can grow grapes, you can grow olives," says Conarko, so it's natural that the two pair well together in a dressing.
If you're using red, white, rice or nonaged sherry vinegar, add a hint of sugar, jam or honey to offset the acid. You also can use juice from lemons, limes or oranges in place of or in addition to vinegar. (Traditional balsamic vinegar is naturally sweet without any added sugar and a glycemic index of zero, which is a welcome change for diabetics who are monitoring their sugar intake.)
You can substitute other oils, including the catch-all "salad oil," which can be any number of nearly tasteless vegetable oils. Specialty oils such as those made from sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, avocados, grape seeds and walnuts can impart a unique flavor on your vinaigrette, but they have an even shorter shelf life than olive oil, so buy in small quantities.
No matter what kind of oil and vinegar you're using, the best way to emulsify the two is with a whisk or in a blender. You can shake the mixture in a jar in a pinch, but the dressing won't be as well mixed. In addition to adding flavor, mustard (any kind but the bright yellow mustard meant for hot dogs) or honey can help keep the vinegar and oil emulsified.
Don't skip the freshly ground pepper and salt, which brings down the acidity of the vinaigrette and enhances the flavor of the oil. Fresh herbs such as basil, tarragon, oregano, marjoram or thyme always impart more flavor than their dried counterparts, and the finer they are chopped, the better distributed the flavor and less intrusive they are on each bite.
Most oil and vinegar mixtures will keep in the fridge for several weeks, unless you've added garlic. (Fresh garlic submerged in olive oil creates an anaerobic environment that can harbor the bacteria that cause botulism, so never store vinaigrettes or flavored olive oils that contain pieces of garlic.) Allow leftover dressing to come to room temperature before tossing with the salad. You also can mix leftover vinaigrette in a pasta salad, with grilled vegetables or use as a marinade for meat.
One of the best ways to add flavor to a vinaigrette is to let infused vinegars and oils do the work for you. Several local companies sell a variety of freshly pressed olive oils and flavored traditional balsamic vinegars. (See box on where to buy.) Most of the infused balsamic vinegars, such as those made with figs, blueberries, cherries, apples and strawberries, are thick and add just a hint of fragrant, fruity sweetness to vinaigrettes, which means you might just skip any additional herbs or seasonings altogether. The infused olive oils, unlike the kind you'd make at home that often spoil within a few weeks, are flavored subtly with ingredients like herbs, lemons and even peppers when pressed.
2 Tbsp. high-quality olive oil
1 Tbsp. traditional balsamic vinegar (or more to taste. If using red or white wine, rice or other nonaged vinegar, reduce to 2 tsp-3 tsp.)
pinch sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. fresh basil, oregano, tarragon, thyme or marjoram, minced (optional)
squeeze lemon juice (optional)
In a small bowl, whisk together olive oil and vinegar. Add salt, pepper and herbs and lemon juice, if using. Toss with salad and serve. Makes enough dressing to coat a large bowl of salad that will serve four to five people.
- Addie Broyles
French Green Bean Salad
1 lb. green beans
2 Tbsp. lemon balsamic vinegar
2 Tbsp. chipotle olive oil
zest of 1 lemon
In a saucepan with a vegetable steamer, steam green beans for two to three minutes and place in ice water to cool. Drain. In a small bowl, whisk together balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Mix into beans and add lemon zest and salt, to taste.
- Jeff Conarko, co-owner of Con' Olio Oils & Vinegars
Tomato and Avocado Salad
2 large ripe tomatoes, sliced
1 large avocado, sliced
2 Tbsp. cilantro onion olive oil
2 Tbsp. jalapeño balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped (optional)
Arrange sliced tomatoes and sliced avocado on a platter. In a small bowl, whisk together olive oil and vinegar. Drizzle over tomatoes and avocados and top with cilantro, if using.
- Jeff Conarko, co-owner of Con' Olio Oils & Vinegars
Not homemade, but made close to home
Here are a few locally made salad dressings.
SASS - Based in Austin. $4.99 for 12 ounces in balsamic, sesame garlic, bleu cheese, creamy miso, smoky ranch, calamata feta, caesar, tamari vinaigrette, wasabi ginger and lemon song. www.freshdressings.com
Isabella Rae's - Based in Austin. $4.99 for 12 ounces in flavors such as sesame, roasted garlic ranch.
Mother's Cafe - Based in Austin. $4.79 for 12 ounces in cashew tamari, a signature dressing at the Duval Road restaurant.
Harriet's All Natural - Based in Austin. $3.49 for 12 ounces in Caesar, Italian low fat, Texas Ranch, honey mustard and zesty cilantro. www.harriets-original.com
Brianna's - Based in Brenham. $3.49 for 12 ounces in blue cheese, red wine, Italian, Texas ranch, honey mustard, chipotle cheddar, poppy seed, French vinaigrette and blush wine vinaigrette. www.briannassaladdressing.com
Fischer & Wieser - Based in Fredericksburg. $8.49 for 12 ounces in roasted raspberry chipotle, spicy coriander and lime, citrus, herb and truffle oil, sweet corn and shallots, creamy garlic and chile, Asian sesame and Southwestern tomato and herb. www.jelly.com
Start vinaigrettes with fresh local oil
Texas Hill Country Olive Co.
Located on Fitzhugh Road near Dripping Springs, Texas Hill Country Olive Co. grows and presses organic olives and recently started selling infused traditional balsamic vinegars at Faraday's Kitchen Store, Farm to Market Grocery, Mandola's Italian Market and the Cedar Park, Georgetown and Dripping Springs farmers markets. www.texashillcountryoliveco.com
Texas Olive Ranch
Texas Olive Ranch, based near Carrizo Springs in South Texas, sells some of the most widely available olive oils and vinegars, including several infused varieties such a sweet basil olive oil and pomegranate balsamic vinegar. Look for their products at Central Market, H-E-B, Thom's Market, Greenling Organic Delivery and Wheatsville Co-op. www.texasoliveranch.com
First Texas Olive Oil Co.
For nearly 10 years, First Texas Olive Oil has pressed olive oils from six varieties of olive trees grown on a ranch in Wimberley. The company also sells traditional balsamic vinegars, including a fig vanilla flavor, at the ranch, 3101 Mount Sharp Road. www.texasoliveoil.com
Con' Olio Oils & Vinegars
Con' Olio, located in the Arboretum in North Austin, carries one of the biggest selections of olive oils and vinegars in the area. The oils, many of which are infused with flavors including truffle, Persian lime and wild mushroom, are imported from Europe, Australia, South America and California but co-owner Jeff Conarko says he hopes to carry olive oil from First Texas Olive Oil Co. in Wimberley later this year. In addition to unflavored 12- and 18-year traditional balsamic vinegars, you'll find infused vinegars ranging from black currant and dark chocolate to honey ginger and cinnamon pear. www.conolios.com