"Top Chef" Fact Check: Is a Vinaigrette an Emulsion?

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If you tuned into the premiere episode of season five of "Top Chef" last week, you may have witnessed a moment that seemed to capture the (entertaining) absurdity of turning cuisine into fodder for a reality show: A curious argument broke out between Stefan, the smug, Finnish-born, German-raised caterer, and Danny, the Long Island-based chef and resident New Yawker, over whether or not a vinaigrette is an emulsion.

The conversation went something like this:

Stefan_2 STEFAN: A vinaigrette is a vinaigrette.

DANNY: It's an emulsion. The technique of making vinaigrette is an emulsion.

STEFAN: A vinaigrette is not an emulsion.

DANNY: Emulsion!

STEFAN: Come on! Get a life!

So, is a vinaigrette an emulsion?

Seeking a definitive answer to this critical question, I lugged out my copy of Alan Davidson's Oxford Companion to Food and looked up vinaigrette, which was defined as "a 'mixture' (inverted commas because oil and vinegar are, strictly speaking, immiscible) of olive or other oil with vinegar (or lemon juice or the like or a combination of some vinegar and some lemon juice)."

This put me in the mood for a salad, but there was no mention of the word "emulsion," so it didn't solve our conundrum.

I consulted writer Harold McGee, who is esteemed as an authority on the science of food and cooking. He emailed me this simple and succinct solution to the vinaigrette puzzle: "An emulsion is a combination of two liquids that can't mix evenly with each other, typically water and oil. One liquid is dispersed into the other in the form of separate droplets," He wrote. "A vinaigrette is a suspension of vinegar droplets in oil, so yes, it's an emulsion." Case closed.

Now, perhaps Stefan was thinking narrowly only of those emulsions that contain emulsifiers to stay together. As anyone who has made a basic vinaigrette knows, oil and vinegar will eventually separate into their original components (without more whisking). On the other hand, an emulsion like mayonnaise, which combines oil, lemon juice, and egg yolks, doesn't break down because of the presence of lecithin, an emulsifier, in the yolks. Similarly, adding some mustard to a vinaigrette will help to slow the separation of the oil and vinegar.

So, Stefan was wrong. A vinaigrette is an emulsion.

Images: Eater, flickr user DanielCK.


 





Comments

Well, to be -really- pedantic, a vinaigrette is only an emulsion if it's an emulsified vinaigrette. Sometimes vinaigrettes are "broken", which might be because a lot of time has passed since whisking, because the dressing hasn't been whisked properly, or because the cook has made a conscious decision to use a separated vinaigrette. Emulsified vinaigrettes are creamy and consistent in texture, broken ones have distinct oil and vinegar components.

http://www.google.com/search?q=broken+vinaigrette

 

Looking back from culinary school, we had many different emulsions that we made in class. One being a temporary i.e a vinegarette, short term, i.e. hollandaise and a more permenant, i.e. a mayonaise.

 

i lovvvve it. Keep going. I swear i love the blogs, good or bad and in my book a vinaigrette is not a bla bla. Anyways keep it coming especially Daniel ;-). Love the blogging

Best Regards

Stefan

 

If I remember correctly from my culinary education, a suspension is different from an emulsion...

 

I would have to say the difference is in the semantics. emulsion is a technical term meaning an emulsion which is a suspension of two liquids which cannot be combined and a vinaigrette which is a sauce/dressing which is made from 3 parts oil and 1 part vinegar traditionally. The former being preparational and the latter being constituential. The guy on the show was an ass and trying as I am to sound smart ;)...

 

Who cares? Does it taste good? That's all that matters to me...

 

A vinaigrette that doesn't contain eggs, mustard or another ingredient to stabilize the mechanical emulsion is called an "unstable" emulsion." Mayonnaise, hollandaise etc are "stable emulsions."

 

Ha! As I sat in front of my fireplace watching this episode I recalled fondly my days in the "front of the house" listening to the bickering of the chefs in the back. Whether a vinaigrette is a vinaigrette or a vinaigrette is an emulsion matter not - chefs will always find something to argue about. Because, like most creative directors (which I am in the field of advertising) it's rarely about the content and always about the battle.

 

Stefan is a great chef. He is really talented. ....I really hope he makes it , but no matter this will not be the last we see of him!

 

like or a combination of some vinegar and some lemon juice

 

i am in culinary school right now and there is a difference, a emulsified is heavier and will not separate, were a vinaigrette is lighter and will separate.

 

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