What’s your go-to salad dressing? For most home cooks, it’s a vinaigrette that includes oil, vinegar, and lemon juice. Some like to add mustard, garlic, or shallots. These, too, are traditional ingredients, according to Julia Child’s version of the classic French recipe.
Vinaigrette dressing is practical in that it requires minimal ingredients or equipment, and compliments most salads. But to me, it poses some drawbacks.
First, a classic vinaigrette is based on three parts oil to one part vinegar, which translates into a lot of fat and calories. It’s true that the fat in olive oil contains certain health benefits. But that same kind of fat is also found in avocado, pumpkin seeds and fish – all of which are healthy, lower calorie ingredients that can be included in a salad. Given the choice, I’d rather get my monounsaturated fats in the form of foods like these, rather than the salad dressing.
And sometimes, due to its mere repetition, vinaigrette seems as dull as an over-played song. Mixing up a different classic, such as ranch, blue cheese, or Caesar dressing doesn’t solve the problem. These are just as familiar to my taste buds, and even higher in fat and calories.
So, is there a way to cut the fat and add new, off-the-beaten path flavor to this old favorite?
A Two-Pronged Approach
After lots of experiments, I recently discovered a two-pronged approach:
1.) Replace some of the oil with a low-fat alternative.
2.) Inject flavor with the addition of spices.
The first step, replacing some of the oil with a healthy, low-fat alternative, is a tall order. Afterall, the fat in olive oil makes it a wonderful catalyst for other flavors, bringing forth the garlic, mustard and any herbs you might add to your dressing. Olive oil has a delicate aroma; a grassy but neutral flavor; and a viscous texture that produces a nice body and pretty sheen. So, finding a low-fat substitute isn’t easy.
A popular approach used by big brands that sell light dressings is to replace a lot of the oil (often cheaper soybean or canola oil) with water. Lots of sugar and salt are added in an effort to enhance the flavor. Additives with long names are thrown in to produce a thicker, oily-like texture. Based on my experience tasting these products, and from what I’ve read, this approach produces horrible salad dressing, so I don’t recommend it. Another, home-made formula which I came up with years ago is to replace some of the oil with orange juice or some other natural, sweet, fresh juice. This produces a tasty, tangy vinaigrette with slightly less fat than the traditional recipe.
More recently, I’ve turned to vegetable broth as a partial substitute for olive oil, an approach that creates its own set of challenges:
- A thin, runny dressing.
- An opaque surface, lacking the pretty sheen that olive oil produces.
Enter The Hero
Thankfully, these problems can be solved with the addition of a little arrowroot powder. Arrowroot, a starch made from the rhizomes of several tropical plants, is a natural thickening agent that bestows several important attributes to dressings:
a.) Body and heft – so that the dressing is thick enough and sticky enough to adhere to the salad ingredients, rather than running to the bottom of the bowl.
b.) A translucent sheen that is very similar to the appearance that olive oil creates.
c.) It helps the ingredients emulsify, eliminating the need for a high powered blender.
Therefore, by combining vegetable broth with arrowroot powder, you can eliminate a lot of of the oil from a vinaigrette, cutting the calories from about 45 per tablespoon to 12, and the fat from 75% to 2%. I eat huge salads, with maybe 3 tablespoons or more of dressing, so that’s pretty significant. Happily, this is achieved without compromising appearance or texture.
Which brings me to step two, ramping up the flavor. I’ve discovered dry spices to be one of the easiest ways to add intriguing character and aroma to what would otherwise be a same-old vinaigrette. Unlike dry herbs, which are made from a plant’s leaves, spices come from a plant’s roots, seeds, fruit, flowers, stems or bark. Like dry herbs, spices require no preparation – other than opening the container and dipping in a measuring spoon. There are huge varieties available in grocery stores and online, and they can often be purchased in small quantities. In addition to flavoring your dressing, spices offer health benefits, including antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins.
For vinaigrettes I recommend the ground and powder varieties, as they blend easily with other ingredients and are quick to exude flavor. Start with a conservative amount – which for me is 1/4 teaspoon in the recipe below – then taste-test and add accordingly.
A few of these are a bit exotic (that’s the point, right?); you may not be able to find them locally. If that’s the case, I recommend Sullivan Street Tea & Spice Co. or The Spice House for online purchases.
Ground caraway seeds have a vibrant flavor and aroma – think dill meets anise – that is often associated with German and Eastern European dishes. It adds a sweet yet earthy flavor to salad dressings, matching well with shredded cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, parsnips and cheddar cheese.
The idea of cinnamon in salad dressing might raise eyebrows…believe me, it’s fabulous, especially when the base is a vinaigrette that includes garlic or shallots. Cinnamon laced dressings are excellent with baby kale, spinach, mesclun mix, avocado, hearts of palm, strawberries and apples.
A dash of ground cloves adds wonderful complex flavor to dressing. Great with beets, walnuts, and dark, hardy greens.
This earthy/sweet spice has earned its place in many restaurant vinaigrettes as it has universal appeal. To me, it’s a fall back, as it seems to compliment any combination of veggies and fruits. It’s especially good with roasted eggplant, roasted carrots, spinach, kale, chicken, apples and goat cheese.
A combination of ingredients including coriander, turmeric, cumin, ginger, garlic, and in many cases, cayenne, gives curry rich, complex flavor. Its level of heat varies a lot from one brand to another, so pay attention to the description on the label. “Hot” can mean mind blowing, so heed the warnings! I prefer mild curry powder in vinaigrettes as it adds a rich, addictive zing, without overpowering the salad. Try a curry vinaigrette over dark leafy greens with red onion, apples, raisins and blue cheese.
When craving barbecue, here’s a go-to seasoning. Blend it into a vinaigrette and your salad will exude a rich, smoky flavor – perfect with baby kale topped with chicken breast, or a roast beet salad with corn and avocado. The quality of a mesquite seasoning depends on the quality of its ingredients, which can vary a lot from one brand to another. If the main ingredient is sugar, stay away!
When you consider the ingredients in this aromatic blend, it’s no surprise why it makes such a delectable addition to salad dressing. It contains Japanese peppers, sesame seeds, orange peel, ginger, hemp and poppy seeds. These ingredients mingle together to exude a citrus infused aroma and rich, spicy-sweet flavor with discernible heat at the finish. I searched high and low but could not find shichimi togarashi at my local grocery stores, so I ordered it online. I love shichimi dressings over grilled shrimp and citrus salads.
The main ingredient in most curry powders, turmeric packs an earthy, pungent, bittersweet punch, with less heat than curry as it is not mixed with cayenne or other peppers. To me, turmeric imparts its best flavor when accompanied by lots of garlic. Mix those two into a vinaigrette and magic happens, especially when tossed on a salad that includes romaine, grapes and goat cheese.
Master Recipe: Luscious Low Fat Vinaigrette
14 calories per tablespoon
- 1/2 cup vegetable broth
- 1 teaspoon arrowroot powder
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- 1/2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon + spice (see suggestions above)
In a small cup or bowl, mix together roughly one tablespoon of the vegetable broth with the arrowroot powder. Heat the remaining broth, using a pyrex measuring cup or other heat proof container, in the microwave until it begins to boil.
Whisk the arrowroot/broth mixture into the hot broth until combined. Return the broth to the microwave and boil for a minute and a half, pausing the cycle midway to stir.
Remove from the microwave and stir in the garlic, desired spice and salt. Add the vinegar and orange juice and stir well.
Whisk in the oil, then, taste test the dressing on a piece of lettuce or other ingredient in your salad. Adjust the amount of salt, garlic and spice to taste. Allow the dressing to cool. Toss with a salad of your choice and enjoy!
Dressing keeps, refrigerated, for about a week.