Take your dressing on the side? Never!
At least, there's never a need when you make your own healthful versions.
The trouble with traditional salad dressings is that they are an easy way turn a perfectly healthful salad into a calorie-dense, fat-laden disaster. Bottled dressings can have anywhere from 8 to 20 grams of fat per serving.
Of course, there are some decent commercial low-fat dressings, but more often than not they are loaded with sugar and contain gobs of sodium. It's hard to beat the taste of homemade.
The key to making delicious, healthful dressings at home is to reduce the oils and other fats, and bump up the ingredients that contribute texture and flavor.
The oil in dressings serves several functions, including providing a "cling factor, so your acidic and other flavorings don't end up in a puddle at the bottom of the bowl," says Food Network personality Alton Brown.
He also says that the oil softens and balances the acids. Classic vinaigrettes, however, often use a 3- or 4-to-1 ratio of fat to acid (often oil and vinegar). That can yield at least 10 grams of fat per tablespoon, and who uses just one tablespoon?
Mr. Brown says the oil generally can be reduced by as much as 40 percent if the other ingredients are not too acidic.
For example, this honey-lemon tea dressing uses much less oil than traditional recipes, and relies on strongly brewed black tea to stretch the volume and provide a mellow flavor that balances the acidity of the lemon juice.
This dressing also uses Dijon mustard as an emulsifier to make up for the reduced oil. Like oil, mustard is thick enough to bind the other ingredients, and provides additional flavor.
When choosing oils, think about flavors. Extra-virgin olive oil is almost always an excellent choice, but so are nut oils, such as almond, macadamia and hazelnut. They contribute complex, yet subtle flavors that can really complement a salad. Olive and nut oils also are rich in healthful monounsaturated fats.
In creamy dressings, the emulsifier often is sour cream or mayonnaise (and sometimes oil, too). This is an easy fix.
Nonfat yogurt, reduced-fat sour cream and reduced-fat mayonnaise make good substitutes here. All have good flavor and produce dressings that hold together and coat vegetables just as well as traditional versions.
This orange-poppy seed dressing relies on nonfat buttermilk and reduced-fat sour cream for its silky texture.
Buttermilk, despite its rich-sounding name, is always either nonfat or reduced-fat. Its thick texture and mild, tangy flavor makes it a useful ingredient for the health-conscious cook.
As for technique, whisking or using a blender produces smooth results, though most dressings will separate if not used right away.
HONEY-LEMON TEA DRESSING
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons strong black tea
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons honey
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, lemon juice, tea, mustard and honey. Season with salt and pepper. Makes about cup.
NUTRITION PER TABLESPOON: 49 calories, 5 grams fat (1 gram saturated), 0 protein, 3 grams carbohydrate, 0 fiber and 118 milligrams sodium.
ORANGE-POPPY SEED DRESSING
2 teaspoons poppy seeds
1/2 cup nonfat buttermilk
1/2 cup reduced-fat sour cream
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons orange juice
In a small dry skillet, toast poppy seeds over low heat, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Transfer to a small bowl. Add the buttermilk, sour cream, honey and orange juice. Whisk until smooth. Makes about 1 1/4 cups.
NUTRITION PER TABLESPOON: 21 calories, 1 gram fat (0 saturated), 1 gram protein, 2 grams carbohydrate, 0 fiber and 13 milligrams sodium.