The celebrity status of plant-based milks has been challenged lately, with the attacks going like this:
- Plant-based milks often contain a lot of added sugar.
- The majority contain food additives to which some people may have a negative reaction.
- Most offer zero to a small fraction of the protein that is in cow’s milk.
Despite the criticism, few dispute what is perhaps the most common benefit of plant-based milks: They are lactose free, and for millions of lactose-intolerant Americans, this is a huge plus. But there is another, quieter beauty of plant-based milks: Because of their low protein count, some of these milks do not curdle the way cow’s milk does when mixed with acidic ingredients.
For example, you can blend almond milk into a dressing that includes lemon juice without worrying about sour flavor or a curdled consistency. To me, this characteristic – stability of flavor and consistency – is a huge advantage when developing healthy salad dressing recipes. I think for both home cooks and professional chefs, it presents an interesting opportunity.
Mixing anything labeled “milk” with vinegar or lemon juice was counter intuitive to me at first. I almost expected the sour flavor and lumpy consistency of buttermilk. While my first few experiments were tossed down the sink, the potential to create luscious dressings that actually strengthen, rather than weaken the nutritional profile of a salad kept me going. After all, it’s easy to get fresh, healthy produce into a salad bowl. But so many dressings – even home made dressings – are laden with fat and sugar, that by the time you get the bowl to the table the nutritional profile has tipped to a neutral, or even negative zone.
The Importance of Flavor
Now, in addition to nutrition, let me emphasize another word I mentioned above: Luscious. To me, it means wonderful, complex flavor, the kind of flavor you get from layering ingredients such as poached salmon; fresh dill and garlic aioli, or seared pineapple, spinach and goat cheese. I mean flavor that captures the full attention of the person eating, and triggers a craving for another bite, and then another, and another. That’s the kind of salad I like to eat, and I assume it’s what a lot of other people are after, too. So, in my quest for healthy recipes, I don’t compromise flavor for nutrition. I want both, and I want it in droves.
That’s the reason pea milk, a recent entry to the plant-based milk line-up, is included in some of my dressings. The name is not appetizing, right? But, unlike most plant-based milks, pea milk, which at the time of this writing is dominated by a single brand called Ripple, contains about as much protein as cow’s milk. The protein can make it susceptible to curdling, but with some experimenting I’ve been able to produce smooth, creamy dressings using pea milk.
In these and other recipes, the plant-based milks cut the amount of fat in the dressing by reducing the need for olive oil or mayonnaise, ubiquitous ingredients in dressing recipes. These ingredients are great catalysts for flavor, but for many people, the calories – 1,495 per cup in mayo and 1,950 a cup in olive oil – are a problem.
What does that calorie count mean for the nutritional profile of a salad dressing? A typical ranch dressing contains about 90 calories per tablespoon, with the vast majority of calories coming from the fat in the olive oil, mayo or sour cream. By replacing most of that fat with pea milk, for example, the calories are cut to about 35 per tablespoon, with a higher percentage of the calories coming from protein and carbohydrates. An unconventional approach? Yes, and the end result is luscious flavor plus, additional potassium, calcium, and vitamins.
A Few Tips
Preparing plant-based dressings is easy on the pocket book, as most of these milks cost a fraction of the price of olive oil. It’s fairly simple, too, about as straight forward as traditional dressing recipes. Here are some tips:
- Use a blender, as this helps the ingredients emulsify.
- Use plant-based milks with the least amount of sugar and other sweeteners; you can always add a drop of honey, stevia, or sugar if needed.
- Do not use soy milk, as soy will curdle when mixed with acidic ingredients. (Tofu is essentially curdled soy milk).
And no matter what kind of dressing you prepare, remember: Dressings taste very different on the salad than they do straight from the blender jar. So, before tossing your salad, taste-test by dipping a lettuce leaf into your dressing (rather than a finger or spoon) then adjust the salt, pepper and any spices according to your preferences.
As long as the popularity of plant-based milks continues to rise, so will the debate about their advantages and disadvantages. Regardless of the noise, these milks can play a great role in delicious, home made dressings that actually strengthen, rather than weaken the nutritional profile of a salad. And for me, that’s a hidden beauty too good to be ignored.
Here’s a plant-based dressing that’s super low-cal but offers both protein and calcium, traits that are very rare amongst other salad dressings:
| 1/2 cup |
23 calories per tablespoon
- 1/2 cup pea milk
- 1 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 1/5 tablespoons white wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon fresh chives, chopped
- 1/2 tablespoon fresh dill leaves
- 1/2 – 1 teaspoon fresh garlic, chopped
- 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon hot sauce such as Tabasco
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
Transfer all of the ingredients to a blender, using the minimum amount of garlic suggested, and mix until smooth and emulsified. Taste-test the dressing on a piece of lettuce. Adjust the amount of garlic, salt and hot sauce according to taste.
Toss your salad with a thorough coating of the dressing. Serve and enjoy!