How to Make the Best Vinaigrette: At many restaurants a salad is just another obligatory course of ice-berg lettuce, some commercial prepared dressing scooped out of a gallon jug and dolloped on top of your salad, and topped with some packaged croutons. At Beechwood Inn – our quest for lighter fare and healthy greens, has led us down a path, searching for that elusive healthy salad dressing. Low carbs, low cholesterol, and low fat, has become a mantra. So what is it that we should put on top of your salad that’s good for you?
How to Make the Best Vinaigrette
By Chef David Darugh, Beechwood Inn – Georgia’s Premier Wine Country Inn
At many restaurants a salad is just another obligatory course of ice-berg lettuce, some commercial prepared dressing scooped out of a gallon jug and dolloped on top of your salad, and topped with some packaged croutons. At Beechwood Inn – our quest for lighter fare and healthy greens, has led us down a path, searching for that elusive healthy salad dressing. Low carbs, low cholesterol, and low fat, has become a mantra. So what is it that we should put on top of your salad that’s good for you?
Guests to Beechwood inn’s Farm to Table Dinners always love our local organic micro-green salads prepared with our wonderful vinaigrette dressings. The salad is healthy, beautiful and tastes spectacular. My philosophy as a chef aligns with the late Chef Charlie Trotter’s. He was a fanatic about sourcing, looking for the absolute best product wherever he could find it, and his dinners could be as dazzling for their provenance as for the dishes themselves. At Beechwood Inn our salad is a treasure not just because of the wonderful micro-greens we source from a local grower but also because of the aged vinegars we use to prepare the vinaigrettes.
You cannot make ethereal vinaigrette by going to the grocery store and purchasing an inexpensive bottle of red wine vinegar boasting the pink color of weak fruit punch. These vinegars are characterized by thinness and acrid acidity. In my salad they feel like it is dissolving the enamel off my teeth. At Beechwood Inn we trust our vinaigrettes only to aged sherry’s and balsamics.
Why aged? As vinegars age, just like wine, they become more concentrated and more complex. With both sherry and balsamic they are left in wooden barrels for years. Each year the porous barrel permits water to pass through leaving the organics behind. Depending on the aging process each barrel may lose 5 – 7% of its liquid volume each year. So if you have a 30 year old vinegar it may yield 150% more concentration than its fresh version. As the vinegars age they develop aromas and flavors both from the contact with the barrel, their own changes in chemistry and from the slow oxidation process. These vinegars become dark and offer complex aromas and flavors of burnt sugar, coffee, toast, and dark fruits as well as a nutty woody back-drop. And they usually contain higher acidity levels than their inexpensive red wine counterparts – but the high concentration of organics masks that high acidity.
For Spanish Sherry Vinegars the Consejo Regulador has an age grading system: Vinegars with between 6 months and two years in wood are “Vinagre de Jerez,” those with more than two years but fewer than 10 are “Reservas” and anything with more than ten years in wood is a “Gran Reserva.” Many of the very best Sherry vinegar makers will place the actual age on the bottle. At Beechwood Inn one of our favorites is Los Villares that is 50 years old. It is amber, thick and concentrated. We use it more like a condiment and sprinkle it on strawberries, aged cheeses, and in gazpacho. Sherry vinegars are run through a solera system, the same way as the wines – so it will yield an average age it takes the vinegar to make its way to the bottle.
In the case of balsamics, they started out not as wine but as fermented and cooked fruit must. Balsamic vinegar can only be produced in Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy. The process of making it begins by cooking Trebbiano grape juice. This cooking reduces the water content of the juice, turning it into a syrup called must. The must is then poured into the first wooden barrel of a Solera series, mixed with an older Balsamic vinegar batch to begin the acetification process. Each year 50% of the vinegar is transferred down the line to a slightly smaller barrel, along the way acquiring some of the flavors of the different woods. The only approved woods are oak, cherry, chestnut, mulberry, acacia, juniper, and ash.
White Balsamic Vinegar: A new variety of Balsamic Vinegar that is White. It owes its pale golden color to a low pressure cooking method. Because it is not dark like traditional Balsamics, White Balsamic Vinegar does not change the natural look of the food it is being drizzled over. Enjoy White Balsamic Vinegar on grilled vegetables, fish or poultry.
About Aged Balsamic Vinegar: It is illegal under Italian law for a Balsamic Vinegar manufacturer to advertise the age of a commercially produced Balsamic Vinegar. Many manufacturers try to bypass this law by simply putting a prominent number on the label like “10” or “20,” hinting that the Balsamic in the bottle is aged for that many years. This law is in place because it is impossible to verify the actual age of a Balsamic Vinegar due to its production method – using a solera. Commercially produced Balsamic Vinegar is a blended product, made from Traditional Balsamic and ordinary red wine vinegar. The Balsamico content itself is a blend from stock taken from barrels of different ages. Unless it is pure Aceto Tradizionale di Modena, which is stamped with the official seal, be skeptical of a retailer selling a bottle of Balsamic Vinegar who is making a claim as to its age.
How to Use Aged Vinegars: Aged Sherry and Balsamic vinegar tastes wonderful in traditional vinaigrettes or blended into an ice-cold Spanish gazpacho. And because the acidic nature of vinegar means that they break down protein fibers, they make great marinades, helping to tenderize meat. You can also use them to glaze grilled vegetables like sweet peppers, asparagus and carrots. Or you can use them to de-glaze a frying pan after cooking meat to make a delicious, syrupy sauce with the juices. Perhaps surprisingly, aged vinegars also work well in desserts – try some splashed over ice-cream, goat’s milk cheeses or strawberries. Use just a dash, along with a little sugar, and leave the strawberries to macerate for 2 hours or so, to balance sweetness and add a little piquancy.
We have actually seen some of the really fine really old Balsamic and Sherry vinegars used as an apertif or “digestive” after the meal. Just pour them into a Champagne flute or Sherry Glass and sip.
How to Make a Great Vinaigrette: While you don’t need to be a scholar of molecular gastronomy to make a nice vinaigrette, a basic knowledge of tensioactive materials available in the kitchen is helpful. What do I mean “tensioactive?” In example, laundry detergents contain molecules that adhere to the surface of greasy stains, enveloping them and detaching them from soiled fabrics. The droplets of water-insoluble matter coated with these tensioactive molecules are dispersed in water and carried off in the rinse cycle. In cooking, molecules of the same type coat droplets of oil introduced into water (or vinegar) to form emulsions. Using this knowledge of what kitchen products can be mixed together to form emulsions helps you create dressings, aiolis, sauces, etc.
Armed with this you can make vinaigrettes out of virtually any flavor in your kitchen. Like lemon? Combine a little mustard with lemon juice, salt and oil. Prefer oranges? Why not mix some fresh squeezed orange juice with blood orange vinegar, roasted garlic, and oil.
This is one of my everyday vinaigrettes. The wood aging of sherry vinegar creates a wonderfully complex flavor that is enhanced by nut oils.
1 shallot, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon local honey
1/4 cup aged sherry vinegar
3 tablespoons walnut or hazelnut oil*
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Toss the minced shallots with the salt in a bowl and let the shallots “weep” for a few minutes, then add the vinegar. This helps them flavor the vinaigrette more quickly. Whisk in the mustard and honey. Slowly drizzle in the walnut oil and the olive oil and continue whisking until it emulsifies. It’s not important to keep this vinaigrette emulsified. If the oil and vinegar separate, just stir vigorously to recombine them before using. Taste and then season with the pepper and additional salt if needed. This vinaigrette will keep several weeks in a glass jar in the refrigerator. The oils may thicken will get thick in the cold, so it out of the fridge an hour before using.
*Once nut oils have been opened, store it in the fridge to slow down the oxidation that leads to rancidity.
Beechwood Inn – Georgia’s Premier Wine Country Inn
Chefs David and Gayle Darugh
Best Chefs America 2013/2014 http://bestchefsamerica.com/