You're Not Adding Enough Vinegar to Your Vinaigrette
If you make vinaigrettes from scratch, you can probably rattle off the standard proportions in your sleep, like any mantra: Three parts oil, one part acid, season to taste.
Ben Truesdell, executive chef of Dusek's in Chicago, learned to make vinaigrettes this way while in culinary school. But for the past five or so years, he's blended and preached the inverse: Three parts acid, one part oil, seasoned with sugar, salt and some element of heat.
It's so counterintuitive that he has to personally train every new cook on it—instructing them to add "just a whisper of olive oil," he says.
Truesdell first adopted the inverse dressing method while cooking at Chicago's The Publican, where rich, meat-heavy dishes like porchetta and country-style pork ribs begged for a brightening flavor lift without too much oil. Since then, he's found that an inverse vinaigrette can add balance to all kinds of savory applications without weighing down the other ingredients (we've all had a salad so oily it seemed almost marinated). Truesdell drizzles his inverse vinaigrette over charred ribeye with roasted asparagus, tosses it with roasted potatoes or delicata squash along with sunchokes and stracciatella cheese, and uses it to dress all of Dusek's salads—be they composed of leafy greens, roasted beets, avocados or apples.
What makes the dressing work, he says, is the generous helping of sweetener, which lends the balance and roundness that salt alone can't achieve with so much acidity in the mix.
"Obviously if you drink straight vinegar, it's going to give you that pickle mouth, but salt is pretty astringent too," he says. "You want to add something sweet, so it's not so aggressive on the tongue and so it keeps you coming back. People don't want to admit it, but sugar's the best."
Depending on the time of year, or creative whim, or flavor profile he's after, Truesdell likes to play with the vinaigrette's seasonings, from type of sweetener (sugar, honey or maple syrup) to salt (fish sauce, shiro dashi, mushroom powder). He almost always adds a piquant element: minced garlic and shallots, charred jalapenos, or chile powder bloomed in oil.
Truesdell also changes the vinegars he uses with the seasons; muscatel, white balsamic or apple cider in spring, with lemon juice and zest added in summer. When fall comes in and brings with it cooler temperatures, he leans into richer sherry, red wine, and cider vinegar—for apple salad, natch. And nothing says moody, dark winter like sultry, syrupy balsamic.
"We joke about this, but I'm constantly talking about how vinegars have seasons," Truesdell laughs. "And the thing is, everybody does it naturally. But they always think it sounds crazy the first time they hear it."
Try Truesdell's vinaigrette recipe at home:
makes about 1 ¼ cups
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 shallot or 1/2 a small red onion, minced
3/4 cup red wine vinegar
Zest of 1 lemon
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Add the minced garlic and shallot to a small bowl. Whisk in the vinegar first, to temper the harshness of the alliums. Whisking constantly, add the lemon zest, olive oil, honey, salt and pepper. Taste, and season with additional salt and pepper as desired.