Healthy Homemade Salad Dressing Ideas
Summer is a great time to make salads the central focus of your meals, but a store-purchased salad dressing can quickly turn a healthy salad recipe into a disaster. Although salads are often considered an excellent choice for those following a healthy diet regimen, the dressing you choose to liven up your summer salad can actually interfere with your dietary goals.
If your only concern is to eat less fat, stay within a particular carbohydrate intake, achieve normal blood sugar levels, or steer clear of gluten, there are many pre-made salad dressings to help you do that. However, if you want to improve your health or make a tasty, memorable salad that leaves you feeling pampered and satisfied, you’re going to have to learn how to make your own salad dressing at home.
What’s Wrong with Bottled Salad Dressings?
Bottled dressings have a high potential for containing highly refined, rancid, or genetically modified oils, such as soy or canola. In addition, manufacturers often add:
- high-fructose corn syrup
- chemicals and preservatives
- modified starches
- genetically-modified soy sauce
- monosodium glutamate
- artificial flavorings
- vegetable gums
These ingredients work to improve the flavor and texture of the watered down and then re-thickened salad dressing. The spices in bottled dressings can be flat or tasteless. They also carry a high sodium content for an average 2-tablespoon serving size. Low-fat salad dressings consist of mostly water that’s thickened with vegetable gums and chemicals, and then flavored with spices, monosodium glutamate, and extra sugar or high-fructose corn syrup.
Healthy Oils and Fats are Necessary for Good Health
A healthy diet should include a variety of good fats and oils, and almost no trans fats (partially-hydrogenated fats or fats damaged during cooking or processing), but less than half of all Americans know that. In fact, according to a survey conducted by the American Heart Association, the fear of fat has become so ingrained into our minds that most Americans do not know that monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats can help reduce the risk of heart disease.
However, polyunsaturated fats come in two different types: omega-3 and omega-6. Although both types are liquid at room temperature and thought to be more healthy than saturated fats, an excessive amount of omega-6 oils can be harmful if omega-3 is in short supply. Since the typical American diet contains a large amount of omega-6 fats, this can be problematic when it comes to salad dressing.
Dietary fats are essential, and that includes the waxy substance known as dietary cholesterol. Fats provide calories and energy above your protein and carbohydrate needs, and according to the American Heart Association, also “support cell growth.” Fats do that by bathing cellular membranes. They also are needed to help the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins.
Cholesterol isn’t a fat, so it isn’t used for energy, but it’s what hormones are made of. It’s so important to survival, that the liver will create the cholesterol it needs if you don’t eat enough. When you eat more cholesterol-containing foods, the liver makes less. So it’s the types and amounts of dietary fats that can affect blood-cholesterol levels, not cholesterol itself. It’s trans-fatty acids that have the most influence on blood lipids and overall health.
Even if you’re following a high-carb, low-fat diet, you still need to include an assortment of the following fats in your daily diet for good health:
- extra-virgin olive oil
- nut and seed oils, such as grapeseed oil, sesame oil, or peanut oil
- cold-pressed, non-genetically modified oils, such as sunflower or canola
- nut butters, such as peanut butter or almond butter
- fatty fish, such as trout or salmon
- flaxseed oil
- walnuts and almonds
The key is portion control, and taking a sensible approach. Just because a product is trans-fat free, or almost so, and low in saturated fats, that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Summer salads made from a variety of dark leafy greens, colorful vegetables, and juicy summer fruits are a much better choice for your health than potato chips or even pretzels.
Healthy Salad Dressings Start With a Basic Formula
Most salad dressings follow a standard oil-to-vinegar formula, depending on the type of dressing it is. However, the ratio of oil to vinegar (or other acid medium, such as lemon or lime juice) is a matter of personal taste and can easily be adjusted to match your dietary goals and preferences.
If you like tart salad dressings, or want a lower-fat dressing, you can simply up the acid ratio to give you the flavor and fat content that you want. Likewise, you can lower the vinegar and up the oil if you’re following a high-fat, low-carb diet.
Formulas for Full-Fat, Low-Fat, and Medium-Fat Salad Dressings
The following ingredients make up the basic formula required to make your own healthy salad dressings at home. The formula consists of an acid medium, water or fruit juice, and a healthy oil. These formulas make up the basic foundation for your full-fat, low-fat, or medium-fat salad dressing.
For a full-fat salad dressing, use the following formula:
- 1/4 cup vinegar
- 2 tablespoons of water or fruit juice
- 3/4 cup oil
For a low-fat version, called a vinaigrette dressing, simply reverse the order:
- 1/4 cup oil
- 2 tablespoons water or fruit juice
- 3/4 cup vinegar
For a mid-range fat content, a 50/50 mix of oil to vinegar works well:
- 1/3 cup oil
- 2 tablespoons water or fruit juice
- 1/3 cup vinegar
To these formulas, you next apply the following template in order to choose the specifics and additions you want your homemade salad dressing to have.
Homemade Salad Dressing Template
Salad Dressing Base: Although the basic formula calls for oil, you can actually use mayonnaise, sour cream, water, sugar-free or regular catsup, pureed fruit, or fruit juice instead of the oil if you wish. Oil is not actually necessary for a tasty salad dressing. Flavored vinegars and spicy mustards thinned with another liquid also make an acceptable base. Simply use the amount of fats or liquid you want, according to your taste and dietary goals.
Acid Ingredient: For the acid, you can use standard white vinegar, flavored vinegars, wine or rice vinegar, and lemon or lime juice. Orange juice or tomato juice would also work well.
Mustard: Most dressings use mustard to emulsify the ingredients (blend them together better) and add flavor. Any type of mustard can be used, including dry mustard powders.
Sweetener: For standard dressings, white or brown sugar, honey, or 100% maple syrup is added to tone down the tart taste that the acid gives. If you’re on a particular diet plan, you can use a diet-friendly sweetener, such as Stevia, sugar-free maple syrup, sugar-free honey, Agave syrup, sugar substitutes, or sugar alcohols.
Seasonings and Flavorings: This is where creativity and variety play the largest role. Try to think outside the box by using plenty of herbs, spices, grated citrus peel, extracts, hot pepper sauce, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, dry powdered cheeses, and minced garlic or ginger. You can even add bacon bits, minced olives, or a dash of hot chili sauce.
Make Your Healthy Salad Dressing Recipes Unique
The formulas and template above are just a starting point from which you can make your own salad dressing creations. You’ll need to play around with different combinations of ingredients and flavors, adjusting the amount of each to suit your individual taste and preferences. Above all, you don’t want your summer salads to become routine and boring. You want to make each salad you create unique and memorable.
The following short video explains many of the basics and shows you the best way to mix together your salad dressing ingredients.
How to Make Salad Dressing at Home
For a smoother dressing, you can combine everything in the blender, rather than shaking it in a glass jar. You can also add a pinch of xanthan gum or guar gum to the mixture before blending to keep the ingredients from separating. That is how prepared bottled dressings often do it. Vegetable gums are strong thickening agents. You don’t want to use too much, so start with only a pinch, and then add more only if you need to.
12 Homemade Salad Dressing Ideas
When you find a dressing combination you especially like, make sure that you write down exactly what you did, so you’ll be able to replicate it. There’s nothing worse than putting together a fantastic dressing only to forget how you made it. To get you started, here are over a dozen homemade salad dressing ideas that will really perk up your homemade salads this summer.
1. Simple Oil-and-Vinegar Dressing or Balsamic Dressing
When it comes to fast and easy salad dressing, you can’t beat a simple oil and vinegar dressing. Simply combine olive oil with apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, or balsamic vinegar. Add minced garlic, onion powder, dry mustard, sugar or sugar substitute, salt, and a little pepper. For an Italian Salad Dressing, add oregano, basil, or other Italian seasonings, and let the dressing stand for a couple of hours or more to allow the flavor of the spices to permeate the oil. For a Garlic Dressing, just add additional minced garlic to either variation.
2. Greek Salad Dressing
Also known as House Dressing, this is a Greek version of a sugar-free oil-and-vinegar dressing. Toss olive oil, red wine vinegar, garlic powder, onion powder, spicy mustard, lemon juice, oregano, basil, salt, and pepper into the blender and whirl until smooth. You can also add some crumbled feta cheese for an authentic touch.
3. Caesar Salad Dressing
Although Caesar Salad Dressing is traditionally served with Caesar Salad, it makes a terrific tangy dressing for any simple lettuce salad. This works especially well for lower-fat and low-fat dressings because the oil is more of a flavor enhancer. You don’t have to use very much of it. Combine a hefty amount of lemon or lime juice, spicy mustard, a tablespoon or two of mayonnaise, some sugar substitute, salt and pepper. Fold in one tablespoon of any flavorful oil, such as olive or sesame. For a lighter, creamy salad dressing use fat-free evaporated milk or sour cream instead of mayonnaise.
4. Asian Salad Dressing
If you have leftover Teriyaki chicken, you can add it to your lunch or dinner salad, and top it with this fantastic Asian dressing. Combine rice vinegar, grated ginger, soy sauce, garlic or sweet chili sauce, and toasted sesame seeds. Fold in some sesame oil and a mild flavored oil such as grapeseed oil. Alternatively, you can use equal amounts of sesame oil, rice vinegar, sugar-free maple syrup, and soy sauce. Then fold in some minced ginger. That makes a good chicken marinade too.
5. Honey Mustard Salad Dressing
Honey mustard is often used for dips and spreads, but it makes a nice salad dressing as well. Traditionally, honey mustard is made by combing mustard with pure honey. The more honey you add, the thinner the dressing or sauce will be. For a creamy salad dressing, combine mayonnaise, lemon or lime juice, a good-quality spicy mustard, and sugar, sugar substitute, or pure honey.
6. Thousand Island Dressing
This is my favorite type of salad dressing, provided it’s homemade. I don’t like bottled Thousand Island dressing at all. It’s far too thin and doesn’t taste anywhere near as good as you can make at home. This recipe is rich and thick, so if you want to make it thinner, simply add a little bit of pickle juice. In a small bowl, combine mayonnaise, catsup, dill or sweet-pickle relish, a teaspoon of lemon juice, a little minced onion, and some minced garlic. For a nice change of pace, add some crumbled bacon bits.
7. Blue Cheese Dressing
Like Thousand Island Dressing, homemade Blue Cheese Dressing just doesn’t compare with the bottled varieties. For the creamy version, combine equal amounts of mayonnaise and sour cream, then fold in a hefty amount of crumbled blue cheese bits. Season the dressing with cracked black pepper. Minced garlic or bacon bits will kick this dressing up a notch. Allow it to sit overnight for the best flavor. This is a particularly thick dressing, which becomes even thicker after sitting. If you want it thinner, add a little bit of milk or buttermilk after it’s sat overnight in the refrigerator. For an Oil-and-Vinegar Blue Cheese Dressing, simply add blue cheese bits to any of the above oil-and-vinegar dressing ideas.
8. Buttermilk Ranch Dressing
Hidden Valley Ranch makes a nice Ranch Dressing Mix or Dip Mix, but you can do something similar by using mayonnaise or sour cream and buttermilk for the base. Add onion powder, garlic, parsley, and dill weed to taste. This is also good with crumbled bacon bits, minced jalapeno, minced olives, or some grated parmesan cheese. For a super party dip, use sour cream and cream cheese for the base, then toss in some fine herbs along with the other seasonings.
9. Lemon Salad Dressing
Lemon juice really perks up a salad, and is particular good served over spinach and other greens. Combine the juice from 1 lemon, some grated lemon rind, a little sugar or sugar substitute, salt, seasoning pepper, and some olive oil or grapeseed oil. You can also add some minced garlic, a teaspoon of spicy mustard, and some chopped mint. If you thicken this a little bit, it also makes a nice sauce to serve over salmon.
10. Mexican Salad Dressing
Summer is a great time to add Taco Salad to your meal rotation. While you can certainly top your creation with a homemade salsa, dollops of sour cream, and sliced olives, you can also make a unique dressing by combining the salsa and sour cream with minced jalapeno, chopped cilantro, and lime juice. A pinch of cumin would also add a special touch.
11. Avocado Salad Dressing
Avocado dressing is a good way to increase the monounsaturated fat in your diet. Simply mash up an avocado, and add lime juice, some spicy mustard, minced garlic, minced onion, parsley, salt and pepper to taste. You can also toss the avocado in the blender and add some cucumber chunks along with the other seasonings. Thin with a little bit of milk, sour cream, or water. For a Creamy Avocado Dressing, thin with buttermilk or Greek-style yogurt.
12. Creamy Parmesan Dressing
Creamy dressings are sometimes frowned upon when it comes to watching calories and fat, but with today’s lower-fat sour cream and mayonnaise options, they don’t have to be off-limits if you make your own. Combine sour cream, mayonnaise, and grated parmesan cheese. Thin with a little bit of evaporated milk, and season with minced onion, garlic, dill weed, and crumbled bacon bits. A bit of lemon-pepper or sweet basil would also be good.
Once you start making your own homemade salad dressings, and discover just how easy it is to dress up your summer salads with flair, you’ll easily start coming up with your own combinations and ideas. In fact, salad doesn't have to be saved for just lunch or dinner. Salad makes a great breakfast or even a quick snack idea. Whether you're putting it along side a sandwich or making it the star of your meal, chipotle peppers, baby shrimp, minced green olives, chopped nuts, sunflower seeds, and even crushed pineapple can make a great homemade salad dressing to top your summer salads.