Sauces & Dressings 101: Temporary Emulsions

temporary emulsion: balsamic vinaigrette

Emulsification is a pretty big word. Definition? An emulsion is a uniform mixture of two unmixable liquids. Perfect. That’s about as clear as mud… or mayo, or ranch, or hollandaise. But since emulsions are the basis for many dressings and sauces, a mastery of them can bring your cooking to an entirely new level. Let’s explore temporary emulsions first.

The science: Some liquids- think oil and water- do not normally mix. Because of their chemical structures they separate into layers. With a little physical effort, however, temporary emulsions and permanent emulsions can be made.

Oil and vinegar salad dressings, vinaigrettes, are examples of temporary emulsions. The vinegar is physically broken down by vigorous beating or mixing into tiny drops that become suspended throughout the oil. The more vigorously it’s beaten, the longer it will hold the emulsion. But the vinegar drops will inevitably recombine with each other and the mixture will once again separate.

Ingredients known as stabilizers can help the temporary emulsion last longer. Stabilizers- such as mustard, spices, finely chopped herbs- slow the vinegar drops from recombining by physically keeping them apart. They will allow the vinaigrette to remain emulsified longer, but it will still separate after standing long enough.

The example: To understand temporary emulsions, begin by making a basic vinaigrette salad dressing. In general, the ratio of oil to vinegar will be approximately three to one. This will vary according to the acidity of the particular vinegar, the type of oil used, and your taste preference. If adding a stabilizer such as mustard, it will equal about 1/3 the amount of vinegar. For example, one cup of olive oil could be mixed into 1/3 cup of balsamic vinegar, and 2 tablespoons of mustard could be added to stabilize.

Avoid harsh distilled white vinegar and try wine vinegars, balsamic vinegars, cider vinegars or combinations of vinegars and citrus juices. Any oils- salad oils, olive oils, grape seed oil, etc- can be used for various flavor profiles. Minced shallots, herbs and honey will give you even more options.

The method: Start with vinegar and mustard (or other stabilizer if desired) in a large clean bowl and begin to beat with a wire whip. This can easily be done by hand, or a mixer can be used. Begin to add the oil one drop at a time. Continue beating and gradually increase the oil to a thin stream. Your temporary emulsion will develop. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Vinaigrette will likely need to be mixed again just before use.

Stay tuned- Permanent Emulsions coming soon!

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