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Here's the Way to Make the Perfect Vinaigrette

James Beard on making your own dressing and beefing up your salad game

James Beard

October 18, 2019

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James Beard's Beef Salad Parisienne photo and styling Judy Kim
Photo and food styling: Judy Kim

In his iconic tome, Beard on Food, which was first published in 1974, our namesake wrote prolific prose on a vast landscape of culinary topics, from a lesson in chicken anatomy to a sandwich manifesto to a foolproof formula for the perfect salad dressing, which we share with you today. Humorous, erudite, and timeless, this collection of essays remains an indispensable resource for the home cook. Stay tuned for more! 

Beard on Food: Why Call It French Dressing?

One of the great misnomers in our gastronomic world is “French dressing.” It’s not French, it’s not Italian, it’s not English, it’s not American—it’s simply a universal mixture of oil, vinegar, and seasonings for salad. Not only is French dressing a misnomer; in many of its manifestations it is a misconception. Some French dressings take on a ghastly red hue, and others look as if someone had spilled the parsley bin into them. Some have great milky streaks of poor cheese in them, while yet others reek of garlic powder.

What we are really talking about is a vinaigrette sauce, and a true vinaigrette is as simple as one, two, three. First, good oil, preferably olive, that is very rich and fruity. Second, good vinegar or lemon juice, but usually vinegar, and that should be either a fine cider vinegar or an excellent red or white wine vinegar. Third, salt and pepper. There is your basic vinaigrette sauce for salad.

Now there’s much to be said for proportions in a vinaigrette. You often get one so acidic with vinegar you can barely manage to choke down the greens. Other times it will be drowned with a very fruity oil, and that is all you taste. Neither is right. There should be a balance. After years of experimenting, I find that for the most part I want 3 to 4 parts of oil to 1 part of vinegar.

To make a Vinaigrette Sauce to dress a salad for four, I take 6 tablespoons of very fruity olive oil and 1 1/2 tablespoons of vinegar, 1 teaspoon of salt and about 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. I blend that together and taste to see whether I want an additional dollop of vinegar in it or not. 

This basic dressing needs no ketchup or Worcestershire sauce or anything else to enhance it, save perhaps one of the few permissible things that do vary a dressing. Garlic, for instance. This should be a fresh clove, and it should be crushed and either rubbed into the salt for the dressing or into a little nubbin of dry bread (called a chapon) which is then popped into the salad bowl. Personally, I don’t like wooden salad bowls, only those of glass or china, so I never rub my bowl with garlic as many people do.

You can also impale the crushed garlic clove on a toothpick, put it in the dressing, and remove it before you toss the salad, unless you like to eat garlic—it’s very good if you don’t mind carrying around a little garlic breath with you afterward.

There are times when mustard—either dry mustard or the rather hot French-style Dijon mustard that you serve with meat—goes into a vinaigrette sauce. Adjust the amount of mustard to the type of salad. Celery salad, for instance, will take more mustard than a green salad.

Then herbs. I find those that are most agreeable for salads are tarragon, chervil, parsley, chives, and, if you are using tomatoes in your salad, basil. These are the outstanding salad herbs and should be used to your own discretion, either chopped fresh herbs or the dried herbs, crushed well in your hand. There is one other herb that goes very nicely with certain salads, notably cucumber and sometimes tomato, and that is dill. While tarragon is universal, dill is rather limited as a regular salad herb, but it does have its place. Mind you, I don’t think you should have a bouquet of herbs in a salad. One, with the possible exception of some parsley as an addition, is ample.

Vinaigrette sauce for salad is so quickly made that there is no need to concoct great jars of it, shake it like mad, and keep it in the refrigerator, as some people do. It only gets stale and tastes unpleasant, especially if there is garlic in it.

The possibilities of a vinaigrette don’t end with salad. Marinate cold cooked vegetables in it for a first course, or use leftover beef and make Beef Salad Parisienne for a luncheon or supper main dish. Cut 2 pounds lean cold boiled or pot-roasted beef into slices and then into bite-size squares or strips. Combine on salad greens in a bowl or deep platter with 6 boiled, sliced potatoes, 1/2 pound cooked green beans, 1 peeled, sliced cucumber, 4 peeled tomatoes, cut in sixths, 2 cups celery, finely sliced, and 1 sliced green pepper. Dress with 2/3 cup vinaigrette heavily flavored with 1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon or 1 teaspoon dried tarragon and 2 tablespoons chopped parsley. Garnish with 6 halved hard-boiled eggs, 1 red onion, sliced, and a dozen cornichons (small sour pickles), and serve to six.

Get James Beard's recipe for Beef Salad Parisienne.

Read more essays from Beard on Food.