THERE SEEMS TO BE A mystique about oil-and-vinegar salad dressings that baffles even experienced cooks. Yet, these are among the simplest ways to flavor salads of all types. The coating properties of the oil and the flavor of the vinegar combine to create a perfect base for additional flavorings such as herbs or spices.
With many exotic oils and unusual-flavored vinegars to be found in upscale markets these days, it would seem to be a snap to create a dressing or a marinade with universal appeal. Not so. At times cooks hesitate to experiment with oil-and-vinegar combinations. Sometimes the problem stems from lack of familiarity with different oils and vinegars. Other cooks simply may not trust their own sense of taste. In either case, the solution is easy--and fun. Setting up a taste test of various oil-and-vinegar combinations is a good way to develop a sense of what various dressings taste like.
Buy small bottles of three or four different oils--a dark and a light extra-virgin olive oil, walnut oil, avocado oil, grape-seed oil and at least one of the more or less flavorless oils such as safflower. Then pick up a group of flavored vinegars--raspberry, Sherry, Champagne and / or other red- and white-wine vinegars, balsamic, rice and a good basic cider vinegar. Find a box of plain soda crackers, chop some celery and carrot sticks to snack on when you need to clear your palate, then start tasting. It won't be long before you find oil-and-vinegar combinations that suit your taste. At that point you can begin to think about herbs or other additions that would blend well with the various mixtures. How about rosemary with a Champagne-vinegar-and-walnut-oil combination? Or a touch of Chinese five-spice powder with a rice-vinegar-and-grape-seed-oil mixture? Try using that dressing to flavor a Chinese chicken salad.