I love simple easy things that work. I've written entries in the past about simple, cheap equipment that does what it's supposed to in a world full of complicated gadgets and expensive kitchen machines.
The basic vinaigrette is an example of a cooking technique that works. It's so easy to make a vinaigrette. It literally takes less than three minutes to make a quick salad dressing or sauce. And yet most home cooks do not know how to do it. That's a shame. So they buy bottled salad dressings full of all sorts of emuslfiers, stabilizers, cheap oils, HFCS, MSG, and other garbage. That's an even bigger shame.
Heck, even if you buy a bottled dressing that touts itself as "all natural" or as lacking artificial preservatives, it's still a huge rip off. The cost per ounce of the bottled stuff is probably five times what you'd pay if you made it yourself. Look at the label. You probably have all that stuff in your pantry right this very moment. Except for xanthan gum. But you can leave that out. Trust me, you won't miss it.
Vinaigrettes are among the most basic and easily made sauces in the culinary world. The beauty of a vinaigrette is that it can be made to be emulsified--meaning smooth, the oil and other liquids are in suspension and therefore stay mixed--or broken, where the oil and liquids separate when they sit. Many vinaigrettes are intentionally left unemulsified (or broken), so if yours doesn't work out the way you wanted it to, no problem--just serve it up. Once it's on the salad no one will know anyway. It'll still taste the same. And if you were planning to use it on the plate as a sauce, broken vinaigrettes can look very cool. It also seems to be trendy at the moment to explicitly identify a sauce as a "broken vinaigrette".
See? You didn't screw up! You left it broken on purpose because you're trendy.
Now I'm not a recipe guy so I'm not going to give a recipe for x,y,z vinaigrette. Nope. What I'm going to do is give you the formula--the technique--and then you can simply plug different ingredients into this formula, which will allow you to make literally hundreds of different sauces.
The formula that I use for a vinaigrette is:
Dijon Mustard + Honey + Vinegar + Oil + salt and pepper
That's it. You can get fancy and add lots of other stuff like shallots, herbs, and spices, but I usually don't. The mustard gives you sharpness and acidity, as well as some help with emulsification. The honey gives sweetness, and the vinegar oil, salt and pepper are essential.
As for technique, all you do is put a good blurp of mustard in a mixing bowl and add about the same size blurt of honey. Grind in some pepper, a good pinch of kosher salt, and then add some vinegar and whisk it up to get kind of a watery paste. Quantities aren't really important, because you're going to adjust the flavors later, once you taste it and see what it needs. Add whatever herbs and spices you're using (if any--I often use a bit of dried oregano, thyme, or basil, and a little red chile flake. Fresh herbs are great too, but add them at the end), and then, while whisking, start adding the oil; slowly at first, a few drops...let it get absorbed into the mixture, and then a bit more, drizzling it in a thin stream. You should see the dressing begin to thicken as the oil is emulsified into the other ingredients.
I usually add a few drops of water at this point, which allows me to 'stretch' out the vinaigrette a bit. By that, what I mean is that adding water thins down the mixture so that it doesn't get too thick from the oil before the flavors are balanced. Water also helps with emulsification. You can see the mixture kind of smooth out as you whisk in the water.
You can use a blender or a stick blender to aid with this process, but unless you're making a pretty large quantity, it's kind of hard to get it going. And why would you bother? Doing it with just a whisk is super-easy and then you don't have to clean the blender.
For those who are more visually-inclined here's a you tube video that walks you through it.
Of course, if you're doing a broken vinaigrette, you can just forget about the whole continuous whisking and adding oil in a thin stream thing and just dump all the ingredients into a bowl and mix them up prior to serving.
Besides being better for you and a money-saver, making your own vinaigrette is a very instructive exercise. If you get into the habit of making them regularly, to serve on your salad with dinner, you'll notice some small variances in the emulsification process and you'll begin to be able to make minor adjustments to achieve just the thickness (or viscosity) that you're looking for. But, again, don't sweat it. No pressure. If it breaks--just serve it anyway.
But the most beneficial aspect of making vinaigrettes is that doing them over and over again is a great aid in learning how to taste more effectively. A good dressing incorporates sweetness, acidity, savory flavors, salt, and the unctuous quality of the fats in oil. When all these elements are in balance, you don't taste any of them individually, you just get a zippy palate-tickling accent for your salad.
Working on getting these elements of taste in balance is a wonderful exercise in training yourself how to taste and how to adjust flavors in order to arrive at what you're looking for.
Keep it simple, so as to allow yourself to more easily taste, adjust, and re-taste. Stop when the dressing has some sweetness, but also gives you that pinch at the back of your cheek that you get from a good burst of bright acidity. If the dressing tastes bland or flabby, you've got too much oil to vinegar. Add a bit more vinegar and keep tasting. If it's too sharp (too acidic) add more oil, whisking and streaming it in, again continuing to taste as you go. If it's balanced but flat, add salt. If the flavors are where you want them to be, but it's too thick, add a bit of water. And so on. The best (and only) way to learn is to commit to doing it every time you want to dress a salad and playing with the process through trial and error.
And it's infinitely adjustable. Start with a balsamic vinaigrette. This is popular and most people have had it enough that they have a pretty good idea of what it should taste like. Try a few different balsamic vinegars and see what suits your tastes.
Then start swapping out different vinegars. Try a sherry vinegar, apple cider vinegar, or red wine vinegar (Do be wary, though, of cheap vinegars that call themselves "balsamic" or "sherry" but aren't much more than distilled vinegar, sugar, and caramel color). Or make an Asian-flavored salad and use rice wine vinegar and peanut/sesame oil instead of olive oil. You can also use citrus juices instead of vinegar to make a citronette.
Then you can start playing with different oils. A very neutral oil like canola will place more of the focus on the other flavors present. Different extra-virgin olive oils will yield different results, depending on how fruity or peppery the olive oil is. Nut oils like walnut oil or hazelnut oil are also great and really bring a distinctive flavor to a dressing. You can even incorporate bacon fat in place of some of the oil, as in the classic warm bacon vinaigrette served on spinach salad.
I know quite a few people who get that deer-in-headlights look when you talk to them about improvising and really cooking vs. following recipes to the letter, and making a vinaigrette--really getting the process down--is where I always suggest they start. Because it's so easy and so accessible, and because if it doesn't work, you can still eat it without any negative repercussions.
Learning to taste, and learning to make little adjustments to what's going on in the bowl--these are the building blocks of the transition away from being someone who just looks up and follows recipes and towards becoming a cook.
Give it a try! What have you got to lose? Besides all those bottles rattling around in the door compartment of your fridge, I mean. And xantham gum.