Lessons in Living a French Life

Bringing a touch of French culture to everyday life

Your Weekly Voilà: The Secret to Making the Perfect French Vinaigrette

"The perfect vinaigrette is so easy to make that I see no reason whatsoever for bottled dressings." - Julia Child
I couldn't agree more with Ms. Child. Salads are an important part of the French diet and they always taste so deliciously fresh and flavorful. While the type of greens are important, it is how you dress the salad that makes or breaks the taste. Preparing your own vinaigrette is so crazy simple. Begin with the basic French recipe and then make it your own "house dressing." From mild shallots to pungent garlic, the addition of fresh chives or parsley, the type of oil you use depending on the season, you'll discover what works best for your taste buds.

Now, if you are looking for a recipe for that orange-red American "French" dressing, you are not going to find it here. Nope. What I have for you today are a few family variations on the classic French vinaigrette. All are easy peasy to make and will take a simple green salad to new heights. 

My cousin makes her salad dressing fresh each time right in the bowl. She then adds the greens, gently tosses, and serves. I often prepare my dressing in a small jar that I keep on hand in the refrigerator to use over the next few days. Just shake and pour. Easy for my boys to add a quick dressing to their salads.

There are two secrets of a good vinaigrette. First, embrace the beauty of quality ingredients. This is so often the case in any French cooking. Since there are just a few simple things coming together in a bowl, each one needs to be special in order for it to taste delicious together. The herbs must be fresh. The mustard can't come from a yellow plastic bottle. The oil must be of excellent flavor.

Second secret: Once you have your quality ingredients, you need to find the right combination of oil to vinegar. My aunt argues that if you are drinking a good wine with your meal, you do not want the salad - which is served with the meal or at end - to be too acidic. It will spoil the wine. You're looking for the taste of the oil with just a hint of acidity. This simple instruction changed my world.

No one in my French family measures when they make their dressing. They use the same spoon for decades to create their vinaigrette right into the bowl they are serving the salad. They know that spoon. They know just how much oil and vinegar to use with that spoon. Every time, the salad is perfect. I decided to quantify the amounts and share my basic French vinaigrette recipe with a few family variations to change it up as you desire.

But before we whisk anything, let's look at the 3 main ingredients:

Oil: This is a sensitive subject with my French family. The question of which oil to use for vinaigrettes can cause major debate. Olive oil or not olive oil? One member says, "Jamais" or never use olive oil. True, olive oil gives your dressing a distinct flavor. Some argue it over powers the other ingredients and covers up a delicate freshly picked green salad. I get that. Before the olive oil trend hit Paris about 10 years ago, most French people used a quality vegetable oil for their vinaigrettes. Now, you are seeing more dressings being made with organic, quality olive oils. I will use olive oil when I am making a salad to follow a pasta dish. But more often than not, I tend toward a classic French sunflower oil from the Gers region of southwest France for my spring and summer salads. I also adore walnut oil from Normandy for my fall and winter salads. Try several options and see what you prefer. No matter what, make sure the oil you use is the best you can afford. You will taste the difference.

Vinegar: You will find on the kitchen counters of my older French relatives, a crock of white wine vinegar used for their vinaigrettes. The taste is amazing. (I'll do a future Voilà on how to make your own apple or wine vinegars. They are really easy to do.) Alas, most of us are left to what we can purchase in the store. My favorite is any quality apple cider vinegar made in Normandy, France. You'll find it in speciality stores. You can also look for the brand Maille french vinegars as well. They are worth the price. An easy find is Braggs Apple Cider Vinegar with the "mother" or culture included. Sherry vinegars are also very "french." Balsamic vinegars? Not so much. They are considered too sweet for a green salad. Save your quality balsamic vinegar to top a dish of fresh strawberries. Or if you want it on a salad, it is the only ingredient you need to add. Finally, stay away from cheap white vinegars. They do no favors for a salade vert.

Mustard: Another "zippy" topic. Which kind to use? For me, as long as it is not your processed, full of sugar and chemicals, coming out of a yellow bottle mustard, you are on the right track. Here taste is what matters most. After visiting a wonderful family mustard factory in Beaune, Burgundy last year, I fell in love with Edmund Fallot mustard. They have been making moutard since 1840 and they have the recipe down pat. You can taste dozens of varieties. I love the traditional "Burgundy" mustard that is made from seed grown in the region and combined with white Burgundy wine. It is a product deeply rooted in Burgundian soil. I taste the difference compared to its northern counterpart, Dijon mustard. It's a personal preference. It will be difficult to find true Burgundy mustard outside of France, so opt for a quality Dijon variety.

1 T. wine vinegar
3-4 T. oil
1/2 t. mustard
1 T. finely minced shallot
1/8 t. coarse salt
Freshly-ground pepper to taste
Note: Julia Child always added freshly squeezed lemon juice to her vinaigrette. Use the above recipe and add 1/2 t. or so. Adjust to taste.
  1. Wash and dry the salad greens.
  2. If possible, use shallots. They have a delicious flavor and don't overpower the dressing as can be the case with onions. No French pantry is without a basket of shallots. 
  3. In the bowl you are going to serve the salad, let the minced shallots sit in the coarse salt for 5 minutes or so. It helps to mellow their flavor. Also, since coarse salt is most often used in France, it allows the salt to dissolve completely.
  4. Add the mustard, vinegar, and lemon if you are using, to the shallots and salt and whisk together.
  5. Slowly add the oil and whisk until the dressing is emulsified.
  6. Add the lettuce, freshly ground pepper, and gently toss just before serving.
You might want to add finely chopped herbs to your salad. Chives, chervil, and flat-leaf parsley are all good options. For a different flavor, use French tarragon, but with restraint for it is quite strong. Add the herbs just before you dress the leaves so to preserve their flavor.

The use of garlic in vinaigrettes is more common in southern France. In Alsace, it just isn't done. Sometimes, I do want a subtle taste of garlic in my green salad. I take a piece of fresh garlic and rub it around the inside of the bowl just before preparing the dressing. If you want more garlic, by all means, add a finely minced clove or two.

For my aunt's recipe: Use quality walnut oil blended with apple cider vinegar. Leave out the mustard. Remember, be careful with the amount of vinegar you use. You want to taste the delicate walnut oil and not the acid of the vinegar. It is a dance between the two ingredients. Get it right and you'll never make another salad dressing. I promise. 

There's a time and place for full meal salads. Usually, I don't care so much for croutons, broccoli, eggs, cheese, or "fixins" fighting for attention on my salade vert. Even tomatoes and carrots have been given the boot unless I am making a specific tomato or carrot salad. I like a basic green salad made from spring greens with a bit of snappy arugula, or homegrown leaf lettuce. For me, it is all about showcasing the dressing.

Making my own vinaigrette is just another way that I have incorporated simple French tasks into my daily life. You might find that it's a habit that works for you too.

Spring is around the corner. Time to start those lettuce seeds and hunt for really good vinaigrette ingredients. 

À bientôt mon amie,

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I have added new vintage treasures dedicated to the art of serving breakfast to Le Shop this month. I have egg cups, tea and coffee sets, and simple finds to make starting your day that much more special. I look for things that are both beautiful and useful. Objects that are made to last, carry a story, and will bring joy to your home. Click here if you would like to see details of the Henrich & Co. Bavarian Breakfast set.
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