Vinaigrette consists of oil, salt and acid (vinegar or citrus juice, usually). There’s a bit more to it, of course – but not much. As in life, it all comes down to balance, which for chef Raymond Blanc means a 3:1 ratio of extra-virgin olive oil to wine vinegar (or balsamic “for a sweeter flavour”). “I often use a tablespoon of water to thin down the oiliness, so the leaves aren’t over-coated,” adds Blanc, whose latest book, Simply Raymond, Recipes From Home was published last week. “You can add a little magic with fresh herbs such as chervil, coriander or tarragon, or walnut oil.”
Molly Baz, author of Cook This Book, however, works to a 2:1 fat-to-acid ratio. More is more when it comes to the latter, Baz says, so she mixes red-wine, white-wine and rice vinegar, or sherry and champagne vinegar and lemon juice, to add “layers of flavour”. For a simple green salad, she makes a “shallot-y vinaigrette”, whisking half a chopped shallot with one and a half teaspoons of dijon mustard, a half-teaspoon of honey, a quarter-teaspoon of coarse sea salt, black pepper and two tablespoons of vinegar, then slowly add four tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, until emulsified. And don’t forget to salt your greens, too, “so the entire salad is seasoned through and through”.
As for Hilary’s bitterness issue, Baz suspects she might be being heavy-handed with the vinegar, and suggests adding a teaspoon of honey or maple syrup, or a pinch of sugar, which will “do wonders for tying the flavours together”. Over-seasoning could also be the culprit, Blanc says – “Remember, you can always add, not take away” – or even the oil itself.
“I find that bitterness comes through with olive oil,” says Laura Jackson, chef/co-owner of London’s Towpath Cafe, which is why she favours a neutral oil (sunflower or vegetable) for her dijon dressing. “I want the other flavours to be king.” A bitter leaf salad is, however, the exception to Jackson’s rule: “Use lemon juice and a really good-quality olive oil for that.” Whichever way you go, though, make sure you “taste the vinaigrette with each element that’s in the salad to see if it’s right”.
Variety is, of course, the spice of life, so it’s sensible to have a few more dressings in your arsenal. That could include a lemony tahini number to drizzle over roast aubergine and courgettes. Chef Gill Meller whisks two tablespoons each of tahini and yoghurt with half a crushed garlic clove, the juice and zest of a lemon, two teaspoons of runny honey and three tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil. For the perfect picnic fare, AKA sweet potato salad (with avocado, feta and watercress), Jane Baxter, co-owner of Wild Artichokes in Kingsbridge, Devon, combines a finely chopped shallot and red chilli, two tablespoons of chopped piquillo pepper, the juice of half a lime, a tablespoon of rice vinegar, maple syrup, chopped fresh mint and coriander, and three tablespoons of sunflower oil.
Finally, bookmark Meera Sodha’s dressing for a Thai-style tomato and courgette salad for this summer. Blend three roughly chopped bird’s eye chillies and garlic cloves, three and a half tablespoons of soy sauce, the juice of three limes, two tablespoons of rapeseed oil and one and a half teaspoons of palm sugar, then pour over squished cherry tomato halves. Top with julienned courgettes and Thai basil, toss and you’re all dressed up.