How to Make French Vinaigrette

One assumption that I’m going to make about the French is that they’re not afraid to make things au pif, or “by the nose”.

utensils

I don’t know if a precise recipe for sauce vinaigrette actually exists. But if there is, I bet few people follow it very closely. And Romain is no different from his compatriots when it comes to recipes, and rules.

They are both for other people—and don’t apply to him.

adding salt salad basket

Vinaigrette is just one of those things. It’s a few simple ingredients which come together so well, when done right. Anyone can make it: you just pour, stir, marinate, then taste until it’s just right. But the salad dressings in France always taste better to me than elsewhere. So thought I’d follow Romain when he made a true vinaigrette. He was surprised at the idea of measuring anything, so I follow him through the steps, taking a few notes along with way (see Recipe, at the end) and along the way, I learned two French secrets for a great salad dressing.

One is that you must use good Dijon mustard.


Most French people use Maille or Amora, which are easily-available and decent brands. And although the French aren’t known for embracing spicy foods, when it comes to mustard, all bets are off and no one minds using one that’s especially zippy.

mustard

Personally, I’m a fan of Edmond Fallot mustard, which is made from French-grown spices and exactly the right balance of spices for me. My Francophile cousin always brings some back to the states to make a salmon glaze since she says the other mustards just don’t taste the same. Either way, just be sure to find a good Dijon mustard, preferably made in France, and use that.

slicing shallots

The other secret to a great salad dressing is the use of les échalotes. Some Americans aren’t that familiar with shallots, which are the chic cousins of onions. Shallots, when marinated in vinegar, soften and add an attention-grabbing flavor to the dressing because of its slight bite. I wouldn’t dream of making a salad dressing without them. Do try mincing one and adding a bit to your next salad dressing; you’ll be amazed at the difference.

slicing shallots mincing shallots

The first thing Romain does is to mince a small shallot pretty fine. The shallots in America are huge, around the size of a small onion. In France, I prefer the shallots longue, which are narrow and slender. But Romain just uses the regular shallots, so don’t listen to me. Cut it pretty fine. If your knife skills aren’t up to snuff, just run a chef’s knife over the shallot slices a few times after you’ve cut the shallot up and that should do it.

bowl and knife

Next, mix the shallots in a bowl with the vinegar and a decent pincée (pinch) of salt. Sherry or wine vinegar is best, and I’m trying to wean everyone in the world off balsamic vinegar, which is too syrupy for a salad. (You are welcome to post on one of those foodie bulletin boards about how I don’t know what I’m talking about when it comes to vinegar in salads. But try sherry vinegar before you do. If you don’t like it, then you can post away.)

When I moved here, I bought a bottle of sherry vinegar, and when a friend came over she said, “Oooh! That’s so French!” I didn’t know how French I was until that bottle took up residence on my kitchen shelf, but it does make a difference. Romain uses white wine vinegar that his parents have in a crock in their kitchen. Did you know that vinaigre is actually a liason between two words, vin (wine) and aigre (sour). So theoretically, that sweet balsamic doesn’t cut it in the sour department. And believe me, you don’t want argue with the French about their language.

(Remember what happened last time I tried to make up a word? Yikes…)

Let the shallots sit and “pickle” for a few minutes. This can be done a few hours in advance, and that extra time means they’ll mellow even more. Adding the salt now helps to make sure that it dissolves, so do that. And this step is especially important if using coarse or flaky sea salt, as they often do in France.

salt & pepper

Then you want to add some Dijon mustard. As in, mustard from Dijon, France, since we’re being literal.

maille mustard

The word “Dijon” is tossed around a little too-easily these days, and they may as well write “Dijon-style” on the label to be clear. Easily available in France are aforementioned brands like Maille and Amora. When I moved here I bought a jar of Amora at the supermarket and was on the bus home, a woman looked in my bag and said, “Ooooh. That mustard is very, very good, monsieur!” Needless to say, I was as proud as a peacock that I impressed one of the locals after that. Then she elbowed me aside and got off the bus.

Here, you were thinking, “I thought we were making the salad dressing according to Romain?” Well, we are. But since I’m trying to become French, I trying to do better at offering up my opinions, as well as ignoring some of the rules.

mustard glass pouring olive oil

I’ll stop harping about the mustard, but if you come to France, you can usually find it at Monoprix stores, as well as La Grande Épicerie and G. Detou, in Paris. And it’s not expensive. Although the big jar of Amora mustard I bought was inexpensive, and once empty, was intended to be a measuring cup. And it had goofy, wildly-colored vegetables printed all over it.

olive oil jug potager

So Romain adds in the mustard, and mixes it until smooth. Alors, then it’s time to add the olive oil. Another ‘secret’ of salad dressings, in France and elsewhere, is that some sneaky people don’t use olive oil. Or they mix olive oil with a neutral-tasting oil. The first time I saw someone sneak safflower or colza oil into their dressing here, I freaked and wanted to run over and tell her to stop. I’d never made a vinaigrette with anything but olive oil, but as a Parisienne cook told me recently, “It wasn’t until about ten years ago that I ever used olive oil. It was always butter butter butter in our cooking.”

But olive oil has flooded Paris and has even become trendy. What is this world coming to? Although he’s far from trendy, Romain uses olive oil, which his sister brings back from Spain for him.

Then in goes the olive oil, mixing it with a wooden spoon. And next comes the most important step: la dégustation.

tasting

Because I’ve trained Romain in the hyper-hygienic ways of les Americains, of course, he used a different spoon after each tasting. Really he does.

One thing that we do disagree on is drying the lettuce. I use an Oxo salad spinner, which I think does the best job. But if course, Romain wouldn’t be French if he agreed with me—even when he knows I’m right, so he prefers to give his greens a spin en plein air. Still, for us apartment dwellers, I recommend a salad spinner, unless you like cleaning vegetable washing water off the ceiling.

swinging lettuce swinging & drying

The word “foodie” doesn’t exist in French. We’ve tried thinking up a translation and all we could come up with was gastronome, which isn’t quite right. And I’ve been accused of being a foodie (which I don’t think I am), but I do admit to watching someone drain and toss lettuce for a salad and wanting to ask them if they ever considered drying the lettuce so the dressing would cling to it instead of sliding off?

So I don’t care how you dry your lettuce, whether you use one of those newfangled salad spinners, or go traditionelle and use some gras de coude. Get that water off it.

drying lettuce

Once dry, are you ready to go? Pas du tout! At this point, you can add some chopped fines herbes. Chives, chervil, and flat-leaf parsley are all good. To take it in a different direction, you can use tarragon, but with restraint as it’s quite strong.

adding chives lunch table

When it’s all done, mix the vinaigrette into the salad so the leaves are well-coated. And then, à table everyone.

mixing in olive oil vinaigrette

Eh, voilà, a true French vinaigrette, by a true Frenchman.

French vinaigrette

Makes about 1/4 cup (60 ml), enough for one large green salad

Aside from not using balsamic vinegar in salad dressings, another astuce is to use freshly-ground black pepper, which is best added when tossing the salad with the dressing.

  • 1/8 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon sherry or red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 small shallot, peeled and minced (about 1 tablespoon)
  • 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 3T to 4T (45 ml to 60 ml) olive oil

fresh herbs, if desired

1. In a small bowl, mix together the salt, vinegar, and shallot. Let stand for about ten minutes.

2. Mix in the Dijon mustard, then add 3 tablespoons (45 ml) of olive oil. Stir well, then taste. If too sharp, add the additional olive oil and more salt, if necessary. Romain said one needs to add beaucoup de mustard, so feel free to add more as well.

If you wish to add fresh herbs, it’s best to chop and mix them in shortly before serving so they retain their flavor.

Storage: This dressing will keep for about eight hours at room temperature. If you want to make it farther in advance, it’s best to add the shallots closer to serving so they don’t lose their verve.

134 comments

  • You’re my man! I too prefer Fallot mustard, and I am also a big fan of sherry vinegar. That’s by far the kind of vinegar I use the most!

    Btw, I think the light colour in restaurant vinaigrettes is due to them adding water to it in order to save money.

  • Happy Thanksgiving from a Yankee in the Périgord…savored this post on vinaigrette au pif, and – as usual – you cover so much ground in between la salade et la moutarde!

  • Indeed, a fine vinaigrette recipe by a fine Frenchman! If Romain makes his this way, then I shall follow suit. Uh, except I normally always sneak in a teaspoon or two of soy sauce . Eeeek! Hope he still loves me for that!

  • Annalynn: You can get Camargue Fleur de Sel at Sur le Table in the Bay area.

    Love the “recipe”. My sweetie is SO tired of Balsamico – and he grew up in Bologna. He thinks it’s over-used, these days. Granted it does go well with the very bitter salads, but for most salads, a good wine vinegar goes well. I’ll definitely try the shallots next time.

    Great – just finished the Thanksgiving feast and now I’m thinking about how good a salad would taste. TOMORROW. After the spaghetti carbonara I promised my sweetie.

  • wow, i’m so glad i’ve been making it the right way all along! and never knew that. excellent. 100% agreed on use of wine/sherry vinegar vs balsamic.

  • He was surprised at the idea of measuring anything

    My grandmother did not measure, but boy could she cook and bake. She knew how that pie crust should feel. Great to eat at her house, frustrating to write her recipes. But I did master her apple strudel before she died.

    Church lady cookbooks are wonderful in that sense: those women can cook but they don’t know how much they use, so they write recipes like this:

    “Some flour, some sugar, some lard, etc. Mix it up and bake it.”

    If you know the basic principles of baking and cooking, you will thrive. Otherwise, you better stick with something more structured.

  • Made some of this tonight. It was fabulous. Thank you for sharing it!

  • It is funny that I just made a very similar dressing before I read your post. I used a softer mustard since my husband and kids can only take so much kick. I am kicking myself though because I have heaps of fresh chives that I could have tossed in. Next time!! http://caseyangelova.blogspot.com/

  • David, thanks for the great post! The post, the photos and the comments brought back great childhood memories from when my family used to go on summer camping holidays on Corsica (I grew up in Holland).
    That is how we always spun our salad, although our technique was a bit more brazen as our ‘basket’ did not have a top and you had to know just exactly how to stop (proud to say I never lost a salad leaf!). Great memories of sitting next to my dad on camping chairs and making vinaigrette, just like you described it. I think we must have picked up spinning technique and recipe on those travels.
    hmmm…lunch in the shade with salad, Corisican cheeses and charcuterie and some Corsican rosé (from a plastic or glas demijohn), damn, that was the life! Thanks for making me think of all that and making my Sunday work-day in a DC cubicle bareable if only for a moment :)

  • Those salad spinning pics are simply awesome! I have an Oxo in a big (by Paris standards, not US) kitchen, and never use it. Too much hassle. I’m always wrapping my greens in a tea towl and flinging them about on the deck (the ceiling clean-up is a royal pain). But now I’m thinking “all I want for Christmas is one of those wire baskets”! Wonderful dissection of something so impromptu. Molly

  • Hi David:

    For an even better dressing, after mincing the shallots, put them in a clean dish towel and squeeze the bitter juices out. This is a handy trick I learned 30+ years ago from Madeleine Kamman as a student at Modern Gourmet, her professional chef classes. I’ll bet you can skip the “pickling” process and go straight to a sublime salade.

    Roberta

  • Hi David:

    For an even better dressing, after mincing the shallots, put them in a clean dish towel and squeeze the bitter juices out. This is a handy trick I learned 30+ years ago from Madeleine Kamman as a student at Modern Gourmet, her professional chef classes. I’ll bet you can skip the “pickling” process and go straight to a sublime salade.

    Roberta

  • Wonderful post – thank Romain especially for sharing his version of vinaigarette. I was very pleased to see this step-by-step!

    For readers in the States, I found and started using Maille mustard a few years ago when my American friend living in the south of France shared with me her recipe for quiche which called for a teaspoon or so of Dijon to the egg and cream mixture. I started using it and never went back — on sandwiches, in dressings, in baked savory dishes. Love the stuff. It can be easily found in better quality food markets (at least I could in Denver and Dallas, the two cities where I found & bought it). There is nothing like a good Dijon, true! And if you have nasal congestion, eating a small spoon of it works wonders, too, I learned one day. Miracle stuff, I am convinced. I’d try the Amora, but I am working on having a drinking glass set (like the one in the photo up there!), so I have to stick with the Maille for now, lol.

    I really liked Sabine and Linda’s comments up there, too — Sabine’s about the horror of Grey Poupon and white vinegar (lol — that makes me giggle because, yeah, I can see how that would be pretty horrible!), and Linda’s here:

    When I first made dinner for my French husband I was making a salad and I asked him if he wanted French salad dressing. He asked, “What’s that?” and I pulled out a bottle of that orange stuff we use in the States. He said, “Why don’t you let me make it?”

    I love the diplomatic “Why don’t you let me….” Hee hee!

    Ohhhh, how we change when we finally encounter good food. I kind of feel like Eliza Doolittle some days, with Paris being my Henry Higgins.

  • Sadly, the Maille mustard sold here in the U.S. is made in CANADA! Particularly the regular “Dijon-style” mustard and the old-fashioned mustard. Given that Maille is owned by Unilever, it does not surprise me.

  • hey david, how about adding some spoonful of water to the vinaigrette? I can remember to have it seen at some French family but can’t recall it anymore what the reason was – maybe for the variation with balsamic vinaigre to lighten it up…? thx!

  • Off to pick up some shallots — I usually use green onions/scallions but shallots keep better so will be a much-welcome change! Lovely post, David …

  • I’ve asked a woodworker over at Etsy.com if he could reproduce the salt and pepper box. I’ll post a link when he has something out there.

  • just looking at this makes me drool!!

    I have a question that may or may not make me seem stupid- what is a shallot? I live in China, and I have to be honest that I have never heard of a vegetable called shallot until your website… I saw on wikipedia that they are used to make those tiny oil chips (which we have), but the thing is that in chinese, that chip thing is called onion. And also from your photos they look the same…

    (….So, are shallots and onions the same thing? )

  • crushed, salted shallots macerated in sherry vinegar have been the secret to my vinaigrette for years. Glad to see I am not alone in my obsession. And I hate balsamic in dressings. But you can skip the mustard altogether if you want a more Italian flavor.

  • I read your post with delight! My French husband has already educated me on many of these important salad techniques, after he admitted to his confusion about why I put the oil and vinegar bottles on the table to be used as “self serve” (which I already thought was an improvement of the pre-made bottled dressings!). I have discovered a hidden talent in him…making perfect and unique dressings. I have bid goodbye to the American tradition of tossing a bit of everything in a salad, and now prefer the simple approach. Just a few quality ingredients topped off with a perfect dressing to accent those flavors. And I love the tradition of tossing the salad at the table. I am still working on perfecting my own skills at making salad dressings. Your post will be most helpful!

  • I hate the term foodie so with a friend tried to come up with something better. Not sure if it translates properly but we went with: Mangeur, or Manguese pour les femmes. The idea – of course – is that it is about eating the food, not just the food.

  • Wow, thanks, David. This is an excellent recipe! I just made it using sherry vinegar and Edmond Fallot dijon mustard, which I was able to find at Wine Library in Millburn, NJ. The mustard cost ~ $2.50 for 7.4 oz. The dressing is perfectly balanced; I will be using this for a long, long time. Do you recommend making some in advance and storing it in the fridge?

  • I dry my greens the way my mother did- rinse them, and then roll them in paper towels, slide the roll into a plastic bag, and put in the crisper. They dry nicely, and stay crisp.
    I also make my vinaigrette by letting the shallots pickle in the vinegar and salt first. It really makes all the difference. Now I’m going to go after the sherry vinegar and the good mustard…thanks, what a great post!

  • 2009.XII.18
    Good day, Mr. Lebovitz:

    As a number of your others readers, I too coveted the provincial salt and pepper cellar in the photographs embellishing your French Vinaigrette page. I am blessed to have at my disposal, a most competent traditional New England woodworker who has supplied my kitchens both in New York and Italy with splendid cooking tools which he hand fashioned to my specifications. Upon seeing the condiment cellar, I immediately sent him copies of the images and he has done me the favour of agreeing to replicate the object. I can guess the dimensions of the piece however I wondered if you had seen the object itself and, if so, would kindly offer you opinion regarding its size.
    I also wondered if you thought your readers might be interested in acquiring one of these through one venue or another.

    This inquiry can not close without offering my personal thanks for the many pleasant visits I have made to your website. You are a most gracious and entertaining virtual host.

    with distinguished greetings
    Jacques-Michel Grant-Casner

    I answered your question below with Parigi which is, in point of fact, the correct city. The box fails to specify that the reply must be in English. : >)

    I don’t know the exact dimensions, as it’s out in a country house that I don’t have access to. But it was approximately 5 inches in length. -dl

  • I just wanted to pass on an idea for finely mincing shallots for salad dressings. I use a Microplane grater/zester, which is quick and easy. You don’t have to use a cutting board – you can just rest the grater over the salad bowl. And I think it makes a nice finely minced texture for salad dressings.

    I also started using the Microplane grater for garlic in tomato sauces after our garlic press broke. Plus it’s handy for fresh ginger (though the fibrous texture can get caught in the grating surface).

  • Hi Julia: I use my Microplane zester for garlic, since I don’t like having that smell on my cutting boards (being a baker!) However I like the little cubes of minced shallots in dressing, but will give it a try. Thanks~

    (I keep ginger root in the freezer and use the Microplane to grate the frozen ginger. You might want to give that a try…no need to peel the ginger, either.)

  • Hello David, I’m a big fan of your website…I just wanted to share that someone has replicated the salt cellar on ETSY:

    http://www.etsy.com/shop/sittinginsawdust

    Obviously not vintage, but pretty neat, nonetheless.

  • Hi Nikki: Interesting! Although I still like the hewn look of the old one. If you order one, let me know how you like it…in a few years! : )

  • David,

    I just tasted the Edmond Fallot mustard you recommended(seed version) — it was so good I almost thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I’m a little ticked that all these years I thought French’s mustard was what mustard should taste like. Thank you! The people in France should give you big money for promoting their products.

  • I never saw this answer of yours at the time you left it :
    “However for some esoteric reason I prefer gras [de coude] and hope that readers will indulge me for taking liberties with their language…as I am wont to do a bit too-frequently.”

    “a bit too frequently” ? stop joking, will you :D
    I can’t speak for all the french people coming here, but of course it’s not too frequently, not even a problem.

    And better, that is why we/I love so much to read what you write. you give us the chance, in an enjoyable and funny way, to see our language anew… And because we’re very lucky you do it with our practice, our habits and quirks too, in a manner no less funny :D. I’ve learned a lot and saw a lot of things differently about my country, thanks to you.

    Surtout ne changez rien et merde aux grincheux de france ou d’ailleurs :D !

  • I am allergic to onions, shallots, leaks and ramps. What do you suggest I use instead? Or just leave out the shallots with no replacement?

    Yes, you can certainly leave them out if you need to. -dl

  • Thanks for the great recipe. The first time I made it with sherry vinegar and some
    Annie’s mustard that I had in the fridge. It was ok. Today I bought some real French
    Dijon mustard (something called Laurent du Clos which was on special at Whole
    Foods) and used red wine vinegar instead. Both ingredients made a significant
    difference in the dressing. It tasted much better this time. So much better that I
    don’t want to ever use bottled dressing again.

  • Thank you!

  • Thanks for the recipe. The trick for me is to make the vinaigrette into a perfectly smooth emulsion, held together by the mustard. All it takes is one too many drops of olive oil, and the whole thing curdles and separates, so the proportions are essential.

    Sorry to correct your French, but you capitalized “américain” and left off the “accent aigu” which no bona fide Frenchman would ever do.

    Also, I think the closest French equivalent of foodie is “gourmand” but I may be wrong.

    Like you, I’ve been trying to become French for years, but I’ve learned that the process of “francisation” must take its natural course and cannot be rushed.