Make Your Own (Healthier) Salad Dressing

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salad dressingSo you’re standing over a big wooden bowl beholding your masterpiece. This is no ordinary salad. There are roasted baby carrots from your CSA, locally sourced cheese, grilled radicchio, organic orange segments, and baby greens you grew with your own hands. Because you care about the environment, the local economy and what your family eats.

Now you need some dressing.

Mmmm…it’s the disodium guanylate that gives it that homemade touch….

When did salad dressing get so gross?

I could go on and on (as I’m wont to do) about the dual loss of Mom’s cooking and Home Ec class, the folly of farm subsidies making bad food cheap, advertisers, food fads and imaginary allergies, etc. The sad bottom line is: It happened when we let it happen. We were seduced by “easy” and abdicated our food choices to people who DO NOT have our best interests at heart. Our bad.

There are dozens of books specific to dressings or with great dressing sections. A couple of great ones are Oils and Vinegars by Liz Franklin and the generally awesome How To Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. But here’s an overvembarrassed.lettuceiew:

What does dressing do?

All too often, it disguises a wilty, boring, or weird salad. Ever notice that we tend to put less dressing on a really great salad? The time to start thinking about dressing is before making the salad, not after.

Yes, there are days when all we have time or supplies for is lettuce/tomato/cucumber. That’s where assertive dressings like blue-cheese, Green Goddess, and Caesar come in. In such a case, try sticking those tomato chunks (brushed with oil) under the broiler for a couple minutes, too.

What’s in dressing?

Typically, oil and vinegar. Or at least, something oily and something acidic plus assorted seasonings.

Cropping up around the country are stores where you can taste the oils and vinegars. They bottle them to order and some even give a refill discount. Most of them ship. Odds are that your local Weight Watchers knows where they are. Full Disclosure: I work at this one: O’Live A Little but there are others.

Let’s talk about oil: Thankfully, people are finally waking up to the fact that bad, biased science from a bygone era gave fats and oils an undeserved bad rap. Our ancestors have been eating plant and animal fats since time immemorial. It’s the fake fats that are the problem. Did you know that hydrogenated oil was originally formulated to make soap and candles? That’s where it should stay.

Salad oils

Soy, Canola and Corn: Flavorless and odorless, they’re supposed to be more versatile. When did flavor become undesirable? Again, when we wanted convenience and “one oil to rule them all.” Farm subsidies made them artificially cheap and we grew accustomed to their taste (or lack thereof).

Be aware that in America, right now, any corn product that isn’t organic is almost certainly genetically modified! Canola and soy almost as much so. So if you do want a neutral oil, look for organic, but try having at least 2 oils around for different flavors.

Olive: There are tons of myths about olive oil. So here are some facts:

  • Color does not indicate quality or freshness
  • A great deal of it claiming to be Italian is really from someplace else but bottled in Italy, most is from Spain
  • EVOO doesn’t always taste better or milder (some is actually very bitter; taste is about variety, location, freshness and storage conditions)
  • Non-extra virgin isn’t necessarily substandard.

Tree nuts: Walnut, hazel, pecan, etc. Delicious and silky but very delicate and easily overpowered. Works nicely with nuts, dried fruits (especially cranberries) and mild fresh fruits like pears, figs and dates.

Sesame: Almost always toasted, very assertive. Usually paired with classic Asian flavors like ginger, lemongrass and soy sauce. It’s also great on salads that are next to or topped with salmon or green beans.

Squash Seed Oils: Remember eating the toasted seeds from your jack’o lantern as a kid? They press those and other squash seeds for oil now. Now, I’ve become allergic to peanuts. I don’t miss peanuts per se; I miss peanut butter. I about died when I tried roasted Butternut squash seed oil. It tastes like peanut butter! And if you mix it with a thick, well-aged balsamic vinegar in your favorite fruit flavor, that makes peanut butter and jelly! That’s a nice dressing for a mild salad but also try it on Belgian waffles topped with whipped cream or mascarpone cheese!

Which brings us to…

Vinegars

There are basically 2 kinds: Regular and Balsamic.

Regular (a word which hereafter shall mean “not balsamic “): These are typically made from grapes or apples. Red wine, white wine, sherry, etc. are usually just that. Read the label though! Sometimes “apple cider” or “Chardonnay” vinegar is really cheap, distilled white pickling vinegar with a little of the advertised vinegar added. Such pretenders are usually flat and boring, often harsh and bitter.

Don’t be afraid of blends like cider/white wine or sherry/champagne; the dominant flavor gets dialed down and makes it more versatile. For a more savory/Umami quality, try Malt vinegar. Made from barley, it’s ubiquitous on fish and chips but try it on salads with seafood, sweet potatoes and cheese. If you like the flavor  but want to tame it slightly, a touch of honey and a pinch of cinnamon or bay leaf will do wonders.

Vinegars made from red wines are typically more earthy and complex. Rice wine vinegar is very mild. Champagne is mild and versatile and is the favorite of artisanal picklers. Sherry vinegar is more interesting like red, but milder and often sweeter. Just as with alcohol, the word “dry” means “not sweet.”

Speaking of alcohol, many people who don’t drink alcohol for religious reasons shun vinegars made from them. That’s a personal choice. But I will say this: There’s no alcohol in them. Also, they don’t taste the same, according to alcohol drinkers; this removes the concern about getting accustomed to the taste and being tempted to drink actual Fire-Water. Cooking and baking with alcohol is another matter that we’ll leave for another time, but as for vinegar, you can save the distilled white for pickles.

For guidance on brands, ask friends and try some. Cooks Illustrated Magazine and their PBS show America’s Test Kitchen are another good resource. If you buy one that’s not terrible but not quite knocking your socks off, add your favorite herb or mix in a little Balsamic.

Balsamic: There’s a lot of confusion and myth about balsamic vinegar. In a nutshell, it’s crushed white wine grapes that are caramelized and aged in charred casks. As it ages, it also condenses and becomes thicker and sweeter. Experts and fans usually consider 8 years a minimum age but prefer 12 or more. Avoid ones that are barely aged (or just red wine vinegar) with thickeners and a ton of sugar added. White balsamic is not caramelized and the casks are uncharred, so it’s a lighter color and typically less sweet. It’s a less nuanced flavor but a cleaner, more floral one.

Flavored Balsamic vinegars are usually traditional balsamic flavored with fruit and other flavor concentrates. Why not add the flavor in the beginning? Because sometimes the aging process is not kind to a flavor and it doesn’t end up tasting like peach, mango, or whatever.

Part of the beauty of 12yr+ balsamic vinegars is that they can be drizzled directly on a salad without any oil…they stick! (That’s why Weight Watchers knows where the local on-tap shop is.) If you do use oil, far less is required than with regular vinegars. It becomes all about flavor. One of my favorite combinations is green apple White Balsamic with about 10% scallion olive oil.

What about “creamy” dressing?

That’s simply a dairy product in place of part or all of the oil. It’s usually buttermilk or yogurt, but other dairy is sometimes used including, of course, blue cheese. When I was in college in Idaho, they would dip or slather anything – a-ny-thing – with Ranch dressing. Salt Lake City was worse. A chef I worked with there bemoaned that Ranch dressing was “the second largest religion in Utah.”

Look at how many preservatives are in bottled creamy dressings and you’ll see why it’s best to keep homemade ones refrigerated and use within a few days.

Assertive, creamy dressings are a good excuse for iceberg lettuce. Or put them on a simple salad of any mild, crunchy greens with just tomato and cukes.

Here’s my mother’s version of creamy:

Sharon’s  Creamy Garlic Dressing

1 C mayonnaise (your oil and vinegar are already there)
1 Tb garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
About 2 Tb milk
Combine and refrigerate for at least an hour to reconstitute. Should be thick and gloppy. Thin with a little more milk if desired.
(One of my favorite things about Preppers is that you can talk about garlic powder in front of them without recrimination.)

Some Random Pairings and Observations

  • Roasted root veggies love orange and fennel.
  • When using citrus fruit, use the juice in place of some or all of the vinegar.
  • If you can’t have balsamic vinegar due to migraines or other reason, mix your favorite jam with some regular vinegar or a blend of citrus juices.
  • Hatred of arugula is often genetic. The smell and taste are nauseating. Don’t push.
  • Fresh herbs are best, but dried ones should be stored as whole as possible.
  • Replace dried herbs annually, use at about half volume of fresh, allow at least an hour for reconstitution.
  • Most salads become a meal with the addition of beans or other protein source.
  • Beans should be large/soft enough to get a fork into. Chasing small ones is annoying.

Recreating Favorite Brands

Maybe you can’t. Maybe that’s a good thing. My family and I are in love with a particular ketchup-esque make and model of bottled dressing. It has no equivalent in other brands. We dress salad with it but we also use it with or instead of ketchup and sometimes like Worcestershire sauce. I’ve tried many recipes from the internet and my own imagination and I can’t exactly reproduce it. That’s because I’m not using guar gum, maltodextrin, or anything cooked up in a lab. I also refuse to make corn syrup the first ingredient. Every time I fail to recreate it, I’m able to let go of the original just a little more. I’m down to just using it on burgers and fries, which are an occasional indulgence.

Like our hands and feet, our tongues develop habits. They steer toward the familiar. When we eat real food made from real ingredients, our tongues develop new habits. Healthier, cheaper habits that last a lifetime and just maybe extend and enrich that life.

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Beth Johnson

Beth Johnson is a lifelong gardener and Certified Master Gardener in the Northeast. She is a former Pastry Chef and restaurant cook.

5 thoughts on “Make Your Own (Healthier) Salad Dressing”

  1. I always love your articles. Healthier & Cheaper is exactly what I’m after. My second favorite concept was…”when did flavor become undesirable?”

  2. Here is my favorite ranch recipe: Equal parts mayonnaise, buttermilk and either sour cream or yoghurt. add vinegar to taste and dried or fresh herbs like chives, cilantro, basil or whichever you like and garlic powder and a pinch of salt. Add a little more buttermilk if it is too thick. Put on almost anything!!! Yumm!!

  3. I did not like the tone of this article. It is unfortunate that you can’t give this good information with out the understated snarkiness & negativity. Feeling sad I spent time on this article. Disappointed.

  4. I found your few “not totally cheery” allusions to the artificial/over-easy nature of many salad dressings to be not snarky but helpful. I needed this reminder to focus on the quality of the salad FIRST and to only add those dressings that will enhance its flavor in a healthy way. I also appreciated the section on salad oils—I knew little about these prior to reading.

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