Knowing how to make a vinaigrette is a foundational kitchen skill. If you memorize your basic ratio of oil to acid (usually 3 to 1) and keep a few flavorful dressing ingredients on hand (mustard, honey, fruit jam, herbs and spices, etc.), you can whip up fresh, easy homemade vinaigrettes on the fly. Critical to your dressing success, though, is your whisking motion.
The Best Way to Whisk, According to Science
Get good enough at this technique, and you can save time and effort cleaning a food processor every time you make a salad. To emulsify oil and vinegar into a homogeneous vinaigrette by hand, there’s only one way to whisk: side to side.
ATK testing shows that vigorous side-to-side whisking emulsifies vinaigrettes better than circular stirring or the looping motion you’d use to beat eggs. That’s because a side-to-side stroke is an easier motion to repeat rapidly and with force. With side-to-side whisking, you’ll generate more whisk strokes per minute than you would with other motions. See for yourself:
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They’ll also be stronger strokes, because with a side-to-side motion, you’re generating more “shear force” than you would with circular whisking. (“Shear force” is a physics term that refers to a directional force applied to a surface.) As you whisk, the utensil forces liquid to one side of the bowl. When you quickly switch the whisk to the opposite direction, the liquid exerts opposing force against the liquid moving in the original direction. When whisking side to side, try tipping your bowl at an angle to allow for faster lateral wrist movement.
While you’re whisking, the greater shear force of side-to-side movement means that the oil is broken into smaller drops that stay suspended in acid, keeping the vinaigrette emulsified longer. Because oil and vinegar naturally don’t want to combine, emulsification requires breaking down the oil into those small droplets so that they can remain suspended.
The Best WhisksDo you need a bunch of different shapes and styles crowding your kitchen, or can one perfect whisk do it all? We think we've found it.
A well-emulsified vinaigrette doesn’t just look more cohesive, it also keeps your salad crisper. Oil will generally wilt salad greens, but when the oil droplets are locked inside vinegar, they don’t come into direct contact with the greens—hence, crunchier salad (such as this Summer Crunch Salad with a Tex-Mex-inspired dressing from Cook's Country).
Still struggling to keep your vinaigrette fully emulsified? Try adding a tablespoon of one of the three m’s: mustard, mayonnaise, or molasses (just not blackstrap; it’s too strong a flavor). All three of these condiments act as emulsifiers, meaning that they have molecules in them that bind on one side to water or vinegar and on another side to oil. They essentially act as a magnet holding the two parts together.
Whisk properly (side to side) and remember your three m’s, and you’ll have silky, satisfying vinaigrettes ready to make use of all the summer’s best produce.