Monday, June 17, 2013


Most of the time, vinaigrette in restaurants sucks. The only time the CC has seen it perfectly made was, ironically, in a Japanese soba joint.

Just let that seep in for about six seconds.

This is about the most iconic of sauces. It's so easy to make that you'd have to spend energy, effort and earnestness to screw it up. Six-year olds do it with panache (and instruction.)

Let's start at the very beginning - a decidedly good place to start.

Vinaigrette is an emulsion of oil and acid to which are added salt, possibly other spices, and possibly an emulsifier.

Oil and water are immiscible. They will never mix because all oils are non-polar molecules and water is polar in nature. Hence in order to get them to mix, you need to provide energy in some form. That's what the whisking is all about. You are injecting energy into the system which translates into kinetic energy for the molecules which then thrash about like crazy and go nuts like teenagers in a mosh pit which is what an emulsion really is.

(And yes, in case you were wondering, the CC's mind does actually think like that.)

If you leave an emulsion by itself, over time, it will separate out into its components. This is because through Brownian motion the molecules are joshing about all the time and the polar molecules seek out other polar ones and the nobody cares too much about the non-polar ones which aggregate by default.

(Insert standard high-school prom joke here.)

Which brings us to:

An emulsifier is an agent that helps stabilize the emulsion. There are various mechanisms by which it works and the CC knows that if he talks about kinetic stability, what little audience there is would vanish like teenage kids when the cops show up so let's just say there are two main emulsifiers that you need to know about — mustard and egg yolks.

Vinaigrette is basically O/W or (O + S)/W if you really want to go down the rabbit hole.

(And yes, in case you are wondering, the CC went down that particular rabbit hole a long time ago.)

Now that we've gotten that out of the way.

There's a standard formula for vinaigrette. We have a few thousand years of experience on this subject collectively so it's a well-oiled (sic) and well-understood problem. Except that the restaurants missed the memo.

The broad formula is straightforward: 3 parts oil to 1 part acid by volume, salt to taste.

Do not deviate from this unless you really know what you are doing.

The variations occur along three different dimensions:
  1. Different kinds of acid:
    • Vinegars
      • White wine vinegar
      • Red wine vinegar
      • Champagne vinegar
      • Sherry vinegar
      • Balsamic vinegar
      • Fruit vinegars
        • Apple
        • Cherry
        • (the list is endless)
      • (the list is endless)
    • Juices of tart fruits
      • Lemon
      • Lime
      • Seville orange
      • (the list is endless)
    • Other souring agents.
  2. Different kinds of oil:
    • Olive oil
    • Walnut oil
    • Hazelnut oil
    • Almond oil
    • (the list is endless)
  3. Spices
    • Pepper
    • Mustard
    • Shallots
    • Herbs
      • Rosemary
      • Sage
      • (the list is endless)
    • Cheese (yep! being treated like a spice)
    • (the list is endless)
There are three meta-rules that need to be respected:
  1. [ Law of Awesomeness ] Both the vinegar and the oil need to be superb. (Idea is simple: the sauce is naked so you need to have fragrant stuff.)
  2. [ Law of Cheapness ] If you have an overpowering ingredient (e.g. balsamic vinegar, mustard, rosemary, etc.) then use ingredients that are excellent but are inexpensive.
  3. [ Law of Simplicity ] At best one or two ingredients need to shine. Everything else needs to be in the background.
That's all there is to it. Why this is so hard is beyond the CC.

(We haven't talked about the salad but the CC promises to remedy that in a few posts.)

The CC will close with a classic French vinaigrette.


1 shallot
2 tbsp red-wine vinegar
6 tbsp olive oil (use your absolute best!)
1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
pinch of salt
large pinch of pepper



Dice the shallots really fine. Chop the herbs really fine if you are using.

Mix everything together and whisk like the devil. If you are making larger amounts, you can just put it in a jar and shake it like a castanet player.

Incidentally, a food processor does the job superbly. This is one of those rare cases where it may even be superior to the traditional ways.

† Why some enterprising chef has not taken the myriad (and endless!) souring agents of Filipino cuisine and not turned them into amazing vinaigrettes is beyond the CC. One surmises that most chefs are not intellectual in nature.

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