Make Your Own Healthy Salad Dressing
Crisp, fresh greens, bright, colorful veggies and gloppy, sugary dressing? Nothing ruins a perfectly delicious and healthy salad like a bad salad dressing. And there are plenty of sub-par salad dressings out there; all you have to do is look at the shelves at your grocery store.
Just reading the ingredients -- sugar, corn syrup, xanthan gum, propylene glycol (which is used to defreeze the wings of airplanes) -- can make you lose your appetite.
Fortunately, it's not hard to make your own. Salad dressings might be one of the easiest things to make, and nothing dresses up greens so well as a homemade dressing. In its simplest form, a good salad dressing is oil and vinegar that have been emulsified (or suspended together) with salt and spices. Even the most complex salad dressings start out with this base.
I recommend using a good-quality oil and vinegar. For most of the salad dressings I whip together at home, I use a basic extra virgin olive oil and then either balsamic or sherry wine vinegar. I will also use red and white wine vinegars, apple cider vinegar, rice vinegar and fruit-enhanced vinegars for some dressings.
Some people like using extra virgin olive oil in dressings, while others say it has too strong of a taste. I personally like the taste of olive oil, but if you don't like it, you can use an oil without a distinct flavor, such as grapeseed oil.
If I'm not using olive oil, I'll use hazelnut or walnut oil. Nut oils are particularly fragrant for salad dressings, especially if you're planning to garnish your salad with toasted nuts.
Most basic vinaigrettes also call for Dijon mustard and either onions or shallots. While I love shallots, when I'm in a rush to get dinner on the table, the last thing I want to do is mince a shallot for my salad dressing. My go-to trick is to use dried shallots: I just soak them in a little warm water for five minutes before making my dressing. Penzeys Spices and The Spice House both sell dried shallots in bulk.
Many salad dressings use a ratio of three to one for oil to vinegar proportions, but it depends on how tart you like your dressing. I personally prefer a ratio of two to one or one to one. To determine your own preference, add the oil last and add it slowly, a little bit at a time, and taste it as you go along.
When I want the dressing to have a more silky-smooth finish, I follow the advice of Matt Silverman, executive chef of Vinter's Grill and Agave restaurants in Las Vegas, and I throw all my ingredients in a blender or food processor. It's a rather simple technique -- using a blender or food processor to combine the vinegar and oil together -- but it really elevates your dressings.
I also love adding fresh herbs. Oregano, basil and thyme are great for Italian-inspired dressings, and tarragon tastes amazing in French vinaigrettes. Fresh fruits, juices and even a tablespoon or two of jam can be added for a touch of sweetness. Sometimes I'll add a teaspoon or two of vanilla extract, which makes an especially aromatic dressing.
For creamy dressings, you can use mayonnaise and sour cream, but I prefer crème fraiche and Greek-style yogurt. I use crème fraiche when I'm not counting calories and the Greek-style yogurt (no- or low-fat) everyday. When I'm making a ranch-style dressing, I add a couple tablespoons of low-fat buttermilk or buttermilk powder. Some grocery stores sell the powder, but you can also purchase it online.
Here's a salad dressing recipe from my book The Complete Idiot's Guide to Tapas.Orange-Sherry Vinaigrette
Zest and juice of one orange
1 T. sherry wine vinegar
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1/8 tsp. kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Mix together orange zest and juice, vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper. Place in blender or food processor, and blend with olive oil for a minute or two.
Note: This dressing tastes great over a simple salad of greens, orange slices, red peppers, red onion and Kalamata olives.
Here's a basic recipe, updated from my book The Cheeses of Wisconsin: A Culinary Travel Guide.Basic Blue Cheese Dressing
½ lb. blue cheese
1 cup crème fraiche or Greek-style yogurt
2 T. rice wine vinegar
1 T. extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp. Cajun seasoning
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ tsp. Dijon mustard
Place all ingredients in a food processor or blender, blend on high for a minute or two. Makes about 2 cups of dressing.
Note: Use a good-quality blue cheese, like Rogue River Blue, Montforte Blue, Point Reyes Blue or BelGioioso's Creamy Gorgonzola.