Salads are full of possibilities, but choosing the wrong flavorful elixir to top them can be the deal breaker both taste-wise and health-wise. Making dressings from scratch is the best way to ensure that you aren’t canceling or drowning out those nutrient packed bowls of fresh greens and raw fruits and vegetables. Many store-bought dressings tend to contain high levels of saturated fat, high fructose corn syrup and other sugars, sodium, and a myriad of preservatives we can’t even pronounce.
Such ingredients, which are common in many convenience items, have been proven to raise the risk of chronic diseases, like heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. Making homemade dressings allows you control the ingredients, so you can make dressings that are delicious, low in saturated fat, sugar, salt, and contain no mysterious dyes or preservatives. Here’s a quick healthy homemade salad dressing tutorial:
Homemade Salad Dressings 101
– Emulsions: Salad dressings are made from emulsions. An emulsion is simply a combination of oil and water, two elements that don’t naturally mix. There are three types of emulsions commonly used for salad dressings. Temporary emulsions are made from oil and acid. Commonly called vinaigrettes, these dressings don’t stay combined for very long, so you will need to shake them frequently and well before use. Semi-permanent emulsions are oil, acid, plus one or more of the following ingredients: fruit purees, honey, or dijon mustard (among others). These may also be called vinaigrettes. These ingredients will help your dressing stay combined longer than a temporary emulsifon, but not permanently. Finally, there are permanent emulsions, which are dairy or egg based. Ranch, blue cheese, Caesar are some common permanent dressings. These will stay combined indefinitely, but they tend to be the types of dressings with the highest amount of saturated fat and cholesterol.
– Rule of Thumb: A basic ratio for a vinaigrette, which can be a temporary or semi-permanent emulsion, is 3:1 oil: acid. For example, 3 tablespoons of olive oil would warrant 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar.
– Fat is Not the Enemy: We need fat in our salad in order to absorb all of the important nutrients found in the vegetables and fruit. Many of these vitamins and minerals are fat-soluble, meaning we need to ingest some type fat in order to get all the good stuff from the salad. Choose unsaturated fats like olive oil, canola oil, peanut butter, peanut oil, etc. as the base of your dressing to achieve this, or use some simple substitutions to lower the saturated fat in your favorite creamy dressing recipe.
Try substituting yogurt for ingredients like sour cream or mayo. Yogurt is great because it not only has less saturated fat and cholesterol, it is also full of a good bacteria that helps kill off bad bacteria in your body to boost your immune system. Another great creamy substitution is veganaise, which is a soy-based, heart healthy emulsion that looks and tastes a lot like mayo. Substitute it one-for-one for mayo in any recipe. You can also trade out low to no-fat dairy products for full fat products. Just remember that fat is not the enemy. If you don’t eat a lot of saturated fat in your diet, opt for the full fats, but control the amount of dressing you put on your salad.
– More Herbs, Less Salt: One way to lower the salt, and not the flavor, in dressings is to use herbs and spices effectively. Basil, dill, oregano, rosemary, tarragon. Pick the combination you like. Garlic is also a great tool for this. Try adding garlic powder, roasted pureed garlic, or minced garlic to make your dressings more flavorful. Mustard is another great flavorful ingredient that adds depth to dressings.
– Choose Your Sugar Wisely: Cut the empty calories from your salad dressing, and not the flavor. Instead of white refined sugar, use honey or fruit purees. These do contain sugar, but also contain other nutrients that your body needs, so you are getting more bang for your caloric buck. Stevia, a natural sweetener made from an herb, is a great no-calorie substitute to sweeten your dressing. Because it is sugar-free (unlike honey or fruit puree), it is diabetic friendly. Look for it in your local health food store, order it online, or grow it yourself!
– Protein Packed Dressings: Use butters or pastes made of healthy fats like nuts or beans as the base of your dressing. For example, peanut butter, miso (a fermented soy-bean paste), and cashew butter are great healthy fat bases that also act as great emulsifiers. They contain the protein your body needs to build strong muscles, tissues and bones.
– Portion Control: Don’t drown out the fresh flavors of your salad ingredients. Try limiting your dressing to one tablespoon for a personal salad, two tops. A little goes a long way!
Try these healthy, delicious homemade salad dressing recipes today:
Honey Dijon Vinaigrette
1/2 cup good olive oil
1/8 cup apple cider vinegar
1 heaping tablespoon dijon mustard (the smooth or grainy kind)
3 tablespoons (or to taste) wildflower or clover honey
Red pepper flakes to taste (I used about 1/4 teaspoon)
1 teaspoon fresh tarragon leaves, roughly chopped (if using dry use 1/2 teaspoon)
Salt to taste (about 1/8 teaspoon)
Make the vinaigrette: you can either put all the ingredients into a measuring cup or bowl and whisk them, or you can put them all in a small jar (but not one that is so small that the ingredients fill it—you need to have empty space in the jar so there is room to agitate the ingredients properly) screw the lid on tightly and shake like the dickens. A blender also does the job quickly.
Thai Peanut Dressing
1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
1/4 cup tamari (or soy sauce)
1/3 cup warm water
2 tablespoons peeled fresh ginger, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh minced garlic
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar (or use red wine vinegar)
1 1/2 tablespoons sesame oil
3 teaspoons honey
1/2 teaspoon crushed chili pepper flakes (or to taste)
Whisk, blend, or shake until combined. Chill for an hour to marinate flavors. Serve cold on salads or warm on noodles!
Miso Tahini Dressing
1 tablespoon red miso
4-6 tablespoons water (to taste and consistency)
4 tablespoons tahini (sesame seed paste)
1-2 tablespoon lemon juice (to taste and consistency)
1 tablespoon minced scallion
Soften 1 tablespoon of miso in water and mix until smooth. Add tahini and lemon juice, again mixing until smooth. Stir in scallions. Thin with water and lemon juice to taste and consistency.
Vegan Ranch Dressing
1 cup vegan mayonnaise (veganaise)
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons parsley, chopped (if using dry, use 1 teaspoon)
1/2 cup unsweetened soymilk
Whisk all ingredients together and chill before serving. Add a little more soy milk if you need to thin the dressing.
Reduced-Fat Ranch Dressing
1 cup mayo (or veganaise)
1/2 cup plain yogurt or Greek yogurt
1/2 cup low fat milk
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon dry dill weed (to taste)
2 teaspoons fresh minced garlic (or 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder)
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard (to taste)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt (to taste)
1 large green onion, minced
dash of Tabasco sauce
Whisk, blend, or shake in a jar all ingredients until well combined. Adjust seasonings and chill for at least four hours to marinate flavors.
Denise Dill is a co-op livin', garden diggin', homegrown cookin' fool who creates soups of song out of local ingredients. She's currently working as a baker and soup maker while she completes culinary school. In the past, she worked as an urban gardener and community cooking educator. She has also toured the country as a folk musician, opening for such acts as Pamela Means and Hamell on Trial.