How to make vinaigrette

When you begin to make salad dressings, it's you who should taste and you who should decide just how much acidity you like and what your preferences are as to flavourings and so on. I seem to suffer from some kind of mental handicap with dressings, which roughly means that other people's salad dressings always seem to taste better than my own – my husband's particularly. I have set out my favourite version of vinaigrette, but it's adaptable: you can use red or white wine vinegar, a different mustard or no mustard; if you like it sharper, use a higher ratio of vinegar, and if you want it less sharp use a higher ratio of oil. The following combination is my own personal favourite.

Begin by placing 1 rounded teaspoon of Maldon sea salt (which gives a saltier flavour than ordinary table salt) in a mortar with 1 level teaspoon of whole black peppercorns, and crush them all quite coarsely with the pestle. If you like, you can add a few twists from a pepper mill instead of the peppercorns, but the fragrance of the pepper seems to permeate the dressing more powerfully if it is crushed with the salt.

Then add 1 peeled clove of garlic and, as you begin to crush it and it comes into contact with the salt, it will quickly break down into a purée. For me, garlic is an essential, but make sure it's good quality; firm with a pale creamy flesh (if you hate garlic, by all means leave it out).

Next add 1 rounded teaspoon of mustard powder, or the mustard of your choice, and really work it in, giving it about 20 seconds of circular movements to get it thoroughly blended as this has an emulsifying effect that thickens the dressing and encourages it to coat the salad leaves more effectively.

Now add 1 tablespoon of the vinegar of your choice (balsamic and sherry vinegar combined are my current favourites), and work these in in the same way. Here you can ring the changes to suit your mood or to match whatever the salad is being served with, for example cider vinegar is particularly good in vinaigrette for a potato salad. There are times when vinegar can be dispensed with and the acidic content of a salad dressing can be provided by lemon or lime juice. In fact I would say that if you want to cut the fat in your diet for any reason, lemon and lime juice alone squeezed over salad ingredients give a lovely zest and piquancy of their own. Lime is especially good for oriental dressings, while the combination of lemons and olive oil gives the classic flavours of the Mediterranean to a bowl of very simple salad leaves. The golden rule is never to use malt vinegar: it's great with fish and chips, but don't put it anywhere near a salad – it's far too strong.

Then add 5 tablespoons of oil, again of your choice but my preference is extra virgin olive oil, preferably a good fruity one. Switch to a small whisk, and give everything a really good, thorough whisking. Whisk again before dressing the salad. Once you have a vinaigrette made with the perfect balance of ingredients, you'll find it so superior that you'll never resort to the throw-it-all-together method again, and that's a promise. There are two important principles that I feel should be adhered to. One is, don't make the vinaigrette too far in advance, because once the oil is exposed to the air it loses some of its fragrance. If you want to prepare things ahead, proceed up to the vinegar stage and leave adding the oil till the last minute. Secondly, buy the finest ingredients you can afford. Remember, as mentioned above, personal taste is a factor here, and it is a good idea to try out different oils and vinegars until you find what you personally like, as well as a variety of other ingredients to ring the changes from time to time.

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