Lemon-Thyme Vinaigrette, or: The Dirty Secret of Citrus and Vinegar

First things first: this is not a salad dressing recipe. The internet is littered with those, full of micro-managed ingredient lists that always seem to produce disappointing results. That isn’t to say that I blame the recipes themselves, necessarily, but salad dressings (particularly those involving citrus) are kind of a moving target from a culinary perspective. There’s no accounting for the particular sweet-to-sour ratio of a specific lime, nor for relative juice yields, etc. I also believe the dressing should be tailored to the particular salad, and the overall meal (but we’ll get to that). Lastly, a lot of dressing recipes strike me as wasteful, which is where this dirty secret comes into play.

So what is this post, then, if not a recipe? Well, it’s part meditation, part rant, and part toolbox that hopefully provide a road map for an infinite number of dressings. The whole point here is balance; to pick a theme, and taste as you go, tweaking until it’s perfect. Depending on your application, you may want something with a stronger acid punch; or a sweeter, rounder edge; or a salty component (like classic Cesar); or something with more body.

As an example, I’ll be making a lemon-thyme vinaigrette both because it’s delicious, but more so because it really highlights my philosophy about this process, starting with the lemons.

I am sure we’ve all gone looking for a similar recipe, and come across several that start by calling for some insane amount of lemon juice. Like, a whole bag of lemons, arduously squeezed and strained. It’s absolute madness. Well, I’m a firm believer that you can make a great dressing – and enough for several days – with a single lemon, and a little bit of cheating.

In a fit of madness and ingredient-scarcity, I made a shocking discovery. Most sour citrus juices can be multiplied (faked?) with a judicious application of distilled white vinegar and a little sugar. The only requirement is the forgery must start with real juice, and all the zest you can find. The zest is crucial because it will transmute all of the vinegar into clean, lemon-flavored acid that will be rounded off with a little sugar (as natural lemon juice has a substantial sugar component).

I use a microplane for the zesting.

Now, I’m not suggesting you go out and use this trick to make margaritas, but in salad dressings (and many sauces), the difference between 100% fresh citrus juice, and this reasonable facsimile is absolutely imperceptible. What’s more, the extra vinegar actually helps the dressing last longer in the fridge, as I find fresh juice goes bitter quickly. Lastly, you’ll have plenty of real limes leftover for uses that actually matter (like those margaritas).

So, step one for most dressings is to get the flavor pack together, which means everything except the oil. Here, we’re juicing and zesting one lemon, adding a pinch of salt, some cracked black pepper, some dried thyme, and that white vinegar and sugar I was talking about. We’re also adding a tiny amount (a teaspoon) of Dijon mustard, which will act as an emulsifier and hold the whole dressing together (for days, if you do it right) without adding any overtly “mustard” flavors. Everything gets a buzz with the stick blender:

I do this directly in the jar I’m going to store it in, because I’m lazy. I’m using a stick blender for the same reason, but you can certainly use a whisk.

So, no, I didn’t say how much of each ingredient, because there’s no right answer. We’re going to be adding the oil here shortly, then tasting it, and THEN the real dressing work starts to happen.

As for the oil, I’m using vegetable oil here because I really want the lemons to pop forward, and veg oil is flavorless. If I were making a Greek-style dressing, I’d be reaching for the extra virgin olive oil; for a Japanese hibachi-style carrot-ginger, I’d be grabbing sesame, etc. You get the idea.

Most importantly, whatever oil you’re using needs to be drizzled in slowly with constant mixing to make sure the emulsion takes hold, especially at first. Think of it like building a fire: you need to make sure the flame is nice and strong before you add more wood, otherwise the whole thing smolders and smothers, and there’s little hope of fixing it. I’m adding until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon:

At this point, TASTE. I did, and found it too punchy, so I added a bit more oil. That made it just a bit too flat, so I hit it with a little salt and pepper, and a tiny shot of while vinegar, and it was perfect. But that’s perfect by my palate and for my use. That first taste may have been just right for another application, which is the entire point.

In this case, the end target was the green salad on the right, which was served with onion-mushroom quinoa and roasted cauliflower with soy and chili sauce. Had I been serving pork, I may have added garlic cloves or leaned more heavily into the Dijon mustard. If we’d been having fish, I may have upped the oil content a little, or even gone lime-cilantro instead of lemon-thyme.

Anyway, the point here is there’s no one-size-fits-all dressing, even though the process is pretty straightforward. Oh, and stop wasting lemons.

4 thoughts on “Lemon-Thyme Vinaigrette, or: The Dirty Secret of Citrus and Vinegar

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