The original French dressing
One of my first culinary shocks when I moved to the USA was ordering “French dressing” for my salad and getting a tomato-base sweet dressing… That’s how I learned that the classic French vinaigrette I grew up with was not what Americans called French dressing…
I actually didn’t know any other salad dressing until my first trip out of France to Germany. At our house, my Mom always kept a bottle of home made vinaigrette in the kitchen (she even went through a phase where she was making her own vinegar from red wine leftovers…). But my Grandmother who lived with us had her special bottle as she liked hers more acidic than my Mom’s. I was often in charge of making it for her as I shared her taste and her bottle!
The beauty of vinaigrette is that you can not only adjust the level of acidity by adding more vinegar or more oil, but you can play with an infinity of flavors by substituting another vinegar (white wine, champagne, balsamic, apple cider…) or lemon juice, and another oil (avocado, walnut, hazelnut, grapeseed, truffle flavored olive oil…).
My basic recipe for Classic French vinaigrette is one that I keep coming back to. The ratio is 1 part vinegar + 2 parts oil. The mustard helps create a smooth stable emulsion that will actually remain emulsified for days. It has a nice punch of acidity and a little bit goes a long way to flavor your salad.
A good first cold pressed extra virgin olive oil is where it starts. You can experiment with more or less pungent ones, but I confess I only keep one kind in my pantry, Partanna extra virgin olive oil, made with 100% Sicilian olives. It is versatile and goes from dressings to cooking without a problem.
For some guides on how to buy olive oil, check out these articles:
Also, the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) conducts the nation’s largest and most complete olive oil testing and certification program. They purchase olive oil from supermarkets in the USA and Canada and test multiple times per year for adherence to the standards set by the International Olive Council (IOC). For a list of certified olive oils check out this link https://www.aboutoliveoil.org/certified-olive-oil-list. Note that they do not test all brands, so your oil may be perfectly great but not certified.
I personally like Sherry vinegar as it has a complex rounded acidity. Watch out, this has nothing to do with “Sherry cooking wine” which is a cheap wine that has been flavored and colored to mimic true Sherry. If you can’t find Sherry vinegar, start with red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar.
What makes this vinaigrette interesting is a combination of traditional Dijon mustard and an old style whole grain mustard. You can of course use just one or the other. The traditional Dijon is what creates a nice emulsion though. The grains are more for visual effect and an extra “bite”. I am partial to Maille mustard myself but Grey Poupon is a very nice choice as well.
You can also experiment adding finely diced shallots, garlic, dried basil, oregano… You can of course add fresh herbs but in that case it won’t keep as long.
Have fun and let me know what’s your favorite combination!
Classic French vinaigrette
- Place mustard, salt, pepper and vinegar in a bowl. Whisk to dissolve mustard and salt.
- Slowly whisk in olive oil into an emulsion.