Vinaigrettes, from Salads to Sauce

Originally Posted: 17 Aug 2009 10:31 PM PDT

As a chef, I’ve always remained conscious of my own style of cooking, the ingredients I use, the technique and cooking methods and the philosophy of coaxing out the best flavors and textures of my product. One of the tenets of my philosophy is a strict adherence to a healthier cuisine. I rarely ever use heavy or whipping cream in my cooking, especially for sauces. Cream has its place finishing soups and is a necessity in the pastry kitchen, but I always felt cream sauces were a bit of a cop out, a lazy way of finishing a dish. I feel the same way about butter sauces (buerre blancs) although a little less so. I still won’t use them on a menu, but I’m not so worried about using them as a nightly feature or on a wine dinner menu. Don’t misunderstand, I love a good cream sauce or light butter sauce at home or while dining in another restaurant, but it’s not something I would choose to limit myself to on my menu.

I would venture to say 99% of all the saucing (wow, that is a word!) I do is purees, reductions, scented oils and vinaigrettes. The flavors are bright and clean, they are better suited to matching the components of the dish without being heavy or overpowering as cream tends to be due to the high fat content and they are healthier. Very little, if any, saturated fats in purees and reductions and the oils and vinaigrettes are made with various vegetable and olive oils which are higher in monounsaturated fats and antioxidants. In addition, the acidity levels add a bright element to the dish and make them easier to pair with wines.

When I first got in to cooking, vinaigrette (from the French vin aigre meaning ’sour wine’) was Italian and came in a bottle you had to shake yourself to create the temporary emulsion while you poured it over your salad. Today vinaigarettes are tremendously versatile and adaptable to virtually any dish due to the amount of specialty vinegars, flavored oils and culinary creativity of home and professional chefs alike. Vinaigrettes don’t necessarily have to be made from vinegar either, fresh lemon or lime juice is acceptable as are products like Verjus, an acidic, unripened grape juice. Vinaigrettes can be made from herbs, purees, juices and cheeses, and anything else you can imagine.

salad

The only real rule for making vinaigrettes lies in the ratio and type of oil you are using to make it. For example, different vinegars have varying degrees of acetic acid, which is what gives the vinegar it’s sour taste (when we speak about the acidity of vinegar, we are referring to the acetic acid as opposed to the pH levels, which is a whole different type of acid altogether). I use ratios of oil to vinegar that have been based on my experience making vinaigrettes, you don’t want a vinaigrette that is too sour nor one that is too oily, there needs to be a balance to attain the rich acidity that brightens up your food. Here is a list of some of the basic ratios I use with specific vinegars:

• Balsamic Vinegar – 3 parts oil to one part vinegar
• Aged Red Wine & Champagne Vinegar – 3 1/2 parts oil to one part vinegar
• Sherry Vinegar – 4 parts oil to one part vinegar
• Rice Wine Vinegar – 2 1/2 parts oil to 1 part vinegar

This may also change depending upon what you are serving with the vinaigrette. Fattier fish like salmon and sturgeon may need a little more acidity to balance the oils. The preparation of the vinaigrette is simple enough that it is easy to quickly adjust the taste with a little more acid or oil.

One of the benefits of using vinaigrettes in a professional kitchen, as well as the obvious health benefits, is the ability to manipulate vinaigrettes to add a stunning visual component to your dish. Traditionally vinaigrettes are what is referred to as a temporary emulsion, two liquids combined through agitation that will only remained combined for a few minutes, then they will separate again, as do oil and vinegar mixtures. This can be used to your advantage while plating, allowing the liquids to separate and flow within each other, creating some drama to your presentation.

The following are three vinaigrettes I have used in professional kitchens, not only on salads, but on steaks, chicken and seafood. As a side note, I never recommend making vinaigrettes solely with olive oil, the flavor can be somewhat overbearing. I prefer to use neutral tasting oils such as corn or canola/rapeseed oil and finishing with a good quality pure or extra virgin olive oil.

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