Great vinaigrette: adjust, adjust, adjust

Two basic ingredients: vinegar and oil. So why is it that creating the perfect vinaigrette often results in such a trial — and error — for some folks?

My theory? It's because composing the perfect vinaigrette is a ballet that relies heavily on the supporting cast. Bringing just the right amount of garlic in touch with a dab of Dijon and a grinding of pepper requires a savvy director who respects the individual players and has a keen sense of what each brings to the production.

And it doesn't come together by simply following a formula. JUST like a stage full of ballerinas, on any given day, the garlic may not be up to snuff, the black pepper past its prime and the Dijon on its last legs. Taste as you go — that's the ticket. Adjust, adjust, adjust.

Which brings us to the first rule of thumb when attempting vinaigrette, which is: There are no rules. Not really. There are guidelines and recommendations, but the traditional notion that a vinaigrette begins with an absolute ratio of one part vinegar to three parts oil is not so hard and fast in my book. Because of all the options for vinegars and oils these days, and because so many of us have reduced the fat in our diets, such a vinaigrette can seem dull and, well, oily.

In our household, my basic vinaigrette is more of a one-to-one concoction, but if that seems too zippy for you, consider a one-to-two mix.

Secondly, consider experimenting with the plethora of vinegars and oils that are on the market. Rice vinegar, for example, has a more delicate sort of "whang" than wine vinegar. Balsamic vinegars — depending on the style and quality you're using — typically are milder because they have been aged, but they still weigh in heavily on the senses, so using too much will overpower a dressing.

Olive oils come in a variety of strengths and characters. And then there are the oils that come with additional flavorings — with everything from chilies and garlic to fruits and nuts. If incorporating them into a vinaigrette, you'll have to proceed with caution.

Here's how I develop a vinaigrette:

1. Although some folks shake their mixture in a jar, I prefer to use a wire whisk and a clear container that's wide enough to accommodate vigorous whisking action and deep enough to contain the splashing such vigorous stirring creates. A clear bowl provides a visual sense of proportions, so if you aren't into measuring, you can eyeball the situation more accurately.

2. To proceed, glug some vinegar into the bowl. Whisk in the seasonings that you've decided to use. Their flavors will develop in the vinegar as you whisk. This is the first point at which you should begin to taste. Not enough salt? This is a good time to add more. Too salty? Glug in some more vinegar. Once you've achieved a flavor that you're satisfied with — keeping in mind that you should be mentally adjusting for the oil, which tames all the flavors — whisk in some oil.

3. Whisk and taste. Adjust. Whisk and taste.

4. Once you've achieved what you consider perfection, it's not a bad idea to dip a leaf of lettuce into the vinaigrette (immediately after you've given the mixture a vigorous whisking or all you'll get is a dose of oil) to see how your creation is going to play out in the salad bowl.

5. The final critical factor is the "toss." Wait until right before you're ready to serve your salad to add the dressing. Give the vinaigrette one last thorough whisk or shake, then drizzle over the salad and toss thoroughly but gently.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her through the Web site

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