How the French make a vinaigrette

My mother has made this a version of this French vinaigrette for years and years. She got me hooked on it early and its flavor and simplicity keep me coming back. All the ingredients could easily be on hand in the average house; They have a long shelf life and are not expensive. In fact, there might even some kind of mathematical proof that shows that this basic recipe exists in some form or another in every household in France. I can’t blame them either, it’s so quick and easy to prepare and is excellent on salad. Now that I think of it, I can’t recall ever seeing a bottle of Ranch or Thousand Island in a French person’s home. Not when they have this as the alternative–And I certainly don’t remember anything else other than this being served at my mom’s.

And furthermore, why do some dressings not describe what's in them? What the hell is Thousand Island? Ranch isn't even a descriptive name!

This salad would be ruined by throwing on creamy ranch or something. You want this vinaigrette. Trust me.

Ah, before you even think it, don’t you dare try and say that America has already perfected this and Kraft sells it by the bottle at the grocery store. What you are thinking of is “French Dressing”. That stuff is as French as apple pie and baseball. You aren’t fooling anybody. I’m not even sure what is in that, but I think ketchup is one of the ingredients… and maybe some kind of red or yellow food dye. Look, bottled dressings may have their place (emphasis on may) and I do know you can get pre-made dressings and vinaigrettes in France, but I have never seen the equivalent of American “French Dressing” in the stores there.

The mustrards of France

And they all soundly beat Grey Poupon.

I’m always a fan of good quality ingredients, but here I must really emphasize one ingredient: mustard. A good Dijon mustard is required for this. I always bring some back in my suitcase, usually a brand like Amora which is inexpensive and tasty. Not everyone has the luxury of bringing their own mustard back from France–I know that. It shouldn’t stop you though, some decent brands are available here. Maille is certainly available at most grocery stores. Grey Poupon will even work. If you can find it, get Maille though, it may be the most authentic of the easy to find brands here in the US. Amora may be available in some import or gourmet shops, but any good quality Dijon will suit you well.

The French have a much greater selection of mustard than we do. Good for them, bad for us. Many grocery stores do have quite a bit of mustard, but that “Yellow Mustard” is hardly worth eating. That doesn’t even exist in France. (I once made the mistake once of picking up “French’s Mustard” thinking it would be French… boy was I wrong.) The image to the right here was taken in a grocery store (Carrefour Market) in Paris (a second photo here). You can find more variety at the full size Carrefours and higher quality mustards are not difficult to find in many specialty or gourmet food stores. Thanks for the pic, Alistair.

Mustard for salad

Here is the brand I use.

Now that you have your mustard situation straightened out, you’ll need some vinegar. Red wine vinegar is my first choice. I’d never use balsamic in a French vinaigrette, too sweet and syrupy. It can be good, but it’s not what is needed here.

The rest of the ingredients I’ll be less picky about. Get a small shallot, some decent extra virgin olive oil, a bit of sea salt, and some fresh ground pepper. (Good quality olive oil is important, but I’d rather insist on the mustard here.)

Mince that shallot

chop chop chop chop chop

It’s not quite mix-and-serve though. I’ve found that the vinaigrette improves if you let the ingredients sit together for a while. My mother typically makes this vinaigrette before the meal and just leaves it on the counter until the salad course. The acid from the vinegar seems to mellow the oniony bite of the shallot a bit. If you have enough foresight let the vinegar and shallot macerate for a while before adding the rest of the ingredients. Honestly, I almost always forget to do this. Don’t worry though, no one will complain if you just whip it up moments before eating.

Macerate the shallot

Letting the shallot soak in the vinegar (or even with the rest of the ingredients) seems to take the edge off.

You aren’t limited to just dressing up your leaves with this though. I’ve used variants of this with lentils, chickpeas, and several other things.

Again, as appears to be the tradition in French recipes, I’ve almost never seen actual proportions written out in France. It’s a matter of habit and just tasting the final result. Here are the typical proportions for a salad course for 4 though.
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 small shallot, minced
dash sea salt
dash fresh ground black pepper
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons olive oil

French Vinaigrette

This is what real French dressing looks like.

1. Combine the vinegar, shallot, salt, and pepper in a bowl. Whisk to combine.
2. Whisk in the mustard and olive oil.
3. Give it a taste. Feel free to add more vinegar, mustard, or oil to your liking. I often add a dash more mustard or vinegar. You should see how you like it though.

Note: You can let sit for a while after either step one or two. I’m not sure that it makes much of a difference when you let it sit, but I do find that the shallot is somewhat tamed.
Don’t mix in the salad until you are ready to eat. Mixing too early will cause the leaves to wilt.

Oh, and use decent salad. No iceberg please. Get some mixed greens. Salad de mache is what I used here. Good stuff.

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