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Cooking One on One

Cooking One on One

By John Ash

Published 2004

Everyone knows what a vinaigrette is, but you may not realize how much this simple little sauce has evolved since the days in which it was relegated to splashing on some greens for a salad. Today vinaigrette has become one of the most important flavor-makers around. You’ll find it used not only tossed with salad greens but also as a sauce for meats, fish, vegetables, and even desserts. The great joy of vinaigrettes is that they are easily and quickly made and can bring brightness, flavor, and interest to very simply cooked foods. When I don’t have a lot of time to cook, whisking together a fast vinaigrette to top a grilled or broiled piece of fish, chicken, or vegetable is not only delicious but also healthy. If I make enough to save some, I can have a different meal the next night with even less effort.

As the name suggests, a vinaigrette is a mixture that usually includes vinegar for flavor. Traditionally, it is made by whisking together vinegar and oil until the mixture is slightly thickened, or emulsified. Emulsions are basically combinations of fat (in this case, the oil) and water (vinegar is 95 percent water), beaten together to form a thickened, relatively homogeneous mass. Examples of other emulsion sauces are mayonnaise and the hollandaise family, in which fats like egg yolks, butter, and oil are blended with watery acids like lemon juice to make a smooth sauce.

Unlike mayonnaise, a vinaigrette is an “unstable” emulsion. This only means that it will not stay emulsified for very long. If you make your vinaigrette ahead, you may have to whisk or blend it again at serving time. When you use a blender or food processor to make a vinaigrette, it will be thicker and stay emulsified longer than the same version whisked by hand. (If you want to learn more about emulsions and indeed the whole fascinating world of the science of food and cooking I recommend Harold McGee’s book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen and Shirley Corriher’s more recent book Cookwise.)

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