With warmer weather looming on the horizon in Northern America, many women and men start to simplify and streamline their diets. Gone are the heavy chili dinners and beef stews that fill our bellies in the dead of winter. Enter the salad: cool, fresh, crisp bursts of flavor – but not necessarily a significant caloric savings over a meat and potatoes dinner. The culprit: creamy, oil-based dressings. The solution: for most, it’s to take their dressing on the side.
Traditional commercially prepared salad dressings are an easy way to turn a healthy salad into a calorie-dense, fat-laden disaster. Bottled dressings can have anywhere from 8 to 20 grams of fat per serving.
Take your dressing on the side? Never! At least, there’ never a need when you make your own healthy salad dressings.
Of course, you can buy decent commercial low-fat dressings or even organic dressings but, more often than not, they are loaded with unhealthy elements like sugar and heavy amounts of heart-unhealthy sodium.
It’s hard, however, to beat a homemade dressing!
The key to making delicious healthy dressings at home is to reduce the oils and other fats and bump up the ingredients that add texture and flavor.
The oil in any salad dressing serves several functions, including providing a “cling” or “binding” factor, so your acidic and other flavorings (such as vinegar and herbs) don’t end up in a puddle at the bottom of the bowl.
Oil also serves to soften and balance the acids so that they’re more pleasing to the palate.
When thinking of healthier dressings, most people eschew creamy dressings in favor of lighter vinaigrette. But classic vinaigrette often uses a 3-to-1 or 4-to-1 ratio of fat to acid (for example olive oil and red wine vinegar). Such a ratio can yield at least 10 grams of fat per tablespoon! And who uses just one tablespoon?
So what constitutes a healthy salad dressing?
Let’s look at oil.
When choosing oils for your dressing, think carefully about flavors. Extra-virgin olive oil is almost always an excellent healthful and flavorful choice. But so are nut oils such as almond, macadamia, and hazelnut. Each contributes complex yet subtle flavors that can complement a salad. Olive and nut oils also are rich in healthy monounsaturated fats.
You can reduce the amount of oil, however, in any dressing by approximately 40 percent if the other ingredients that balance the dressing are not too acidic.
A common complaint when reducing the oil content of a dressing recipe is that one often misses the thick texture that oil adds to your recipes. Try adding Dijon mustard as an emulsifier to make up for the reduced oil. Like oil, mustard is thick enough to bind the other ingredients and adds a tangy flavor.
In creamy dressings, the emulsifier is often sour cream or mayonnaise (and sometimes oil, too). Providing a healthy option for these ingredients is an easy fix.
Nonfat yogurt, reduced-fat sour cream, and reduced-fat mayonnaise all make good substitutes. They each have good flavor and produce dressings that hold together and coat vegetables quite well.
Or try buttermilk. Buttermilk is always either nonfat or reduced-fat. Its thick texture and mild, tangy flavor makes it a useful ingredient.
With a little ingenuity and creativity, it is possible to make healthy salad dressings without sacrificing good nutrition by cutting calories, fat, and chemicals.