How to: Making your own healthy salad dressings

Long gone are the days of hearty soups, stews, and roasted root vegetables that kept our souls warm and our bellies nourished all winter long.  Spring and Summer mark a time to celebrate fresh, light, and vibrant vegetables. It’s salad season!

While salads are probably one of the healthiest meals of all, how we dress our salad can totally make or break our healthiest intentions.  In fact, store bought dressings can oftentimes be what I call the “undo” button, capable of completely sabotaging what could have been a delicious and nourishing meal. 

Don’t believe me?  Head to your fridge or pantry, pick up a store-bought dressing, and take a glance at the list of ingredients.  More times than not, you will find a long list of highly processed ingredients, including sneaky sugar, excess sodium, and highly refined oils, along with an assortment of artificial additives and preservatives.  

So, how do we dress our salads for success?  You can start by learning what to look for when reading the nutrition label of store-bought salad dressing, which I explained in detail here.  And while there are a few good products currently on the market, such as Tessemae's All Natural Dressings, the truth is, you’re better off making your own.  DIY dressing is a no brainer - it’s healthier, more affordable, and puts you back in the driver’s seat.

The idea of making your own salad dressing may feel intimidating, but after a little practice, it becomes second nature.  To make it extra simple, here’s a step-by-step guide to DIY salad dressings.

DIY DRESSING: A Step-by-Step Guide

When it comes to making a salad dressing, I follow a simple acronym: FASSS — Fat, Acid, Seasoning, Salt & Sweet.  FASSS represents the 5 key components of a delicious and nutrient-rich salad dressing, with no recipe required! Let’s break it down:

  • Fat: Fat serves many purposes!  It brings a creamy texture to your salad dressing and serves as an emulsifier that holds all the other ingredients together.  Fat also acts as a chauffeur for your salad’s nutrients.  Did you know that many of our nutrients are “fat soluble”? That means they need fat to help transport them from our GI tract to our cells.  Without fat, our nutrients never reach our cells and we lose out on reaping their health benefits. This is why fat-free salad dressings are actually counterproductive. Try one of these high-quality fats: Olive oil, flax oil, nut and seed butters like tahini or almond butter, organic yogurt, hummus, or a mashed up avocado.
  • Acid: Acid brightens up your salad dressing, bringing a nice tang to every bite. Think: vinegars and citrus fruits.  There are so many different vinegars to explore: red wine, white wine, apple cider, sherry, balsamic, white balsamic, rice vinegar - each of these has a unique flavor.  You can also use lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruits .
  • Seasonings:  Here’s where you get to add some personality to your dressing.  Add garlic, some minced onions, scallions, or shallots, or mix it up with ginger or different herbs and spices.  Think of what kind of flavor profile you’re craving — whether it’s Asian, Mexican, Italian, Mediterranean — and let that direct you towards seasoning combinations commonly used in these areas of the world.  For example, if you’re going for an Asian-style dressing, you’ll probably add some grated ginger and garlic and perhaps some cilantro or fresh mint and toasted sesame oil.  Pro Tip: Use Chef Chad Sarno’s Herb & Spice Chart as a guide to creating flavor combination from around the globe!
  • Salt: In cooking, we add salt to bring out the flavor of the other ingredients, not to mask the ingredients.  Add a pinch of sea salt, or a splash of tamari, or whisk in a little bit of miso paste.  Chopped or pureed olives or capers are also a fun way to add a briney, salty bite.
  • Sweet: A touch of sweetness helps round out the ingredients in a dressing, sauce, or dish.  I generally encourage tasting your dressing before sweetening -  you may find it tastes great as is!  If you do find a need for a sweetener, it’s best to choose something that also delivers nutrients.  Think: Fruits — fresh, frozen, dried, or pureed — or a splash of 100% fruit juice.  You can even add grated or pureed veggies that tend to have a natural sweetness, like sweet potatoes, beets, carrots, or roasted garlic, sundried tomatoes, and caramelized onions.  A teaspoon of honey or pure maple syrup is also a great option.  Whatever you choose, be mindful and sweeten sparingly.  This is a case of “less is more.”

Here's an example of the FASSS method:

Everyday Lemon Dijon Vinaigrette
I make this at the beginning of every week so that it’s in the fridge ready to go.  It’s super simple to make, and incredibly versatile - I love it on salads, roasted veggies, fish, chicken - you name it.  Here’s the FASSS breakdown:

  • Fat: Olive Oil
  • Acid: Lemon Juice (and zest) + Vinegar (switch it up: red wine, apple cider, or champagne work great)
  • Seasonings: garlic + Dijon mustard + herbs + cracked black pepper
  • Salt: pinch of Sea Salt
  • Sweet: Do you need it? The lemon juice usually does the job for me! If not, add a tsp of honey or maple syrup.

Practical tips for DIY dressings

  • Ratios: Traditional salad dressings are usually one part vinegar to three parts oil, but feel free to play around and discover your personal preference.  I tend to enjoy tangier dressings, so I use a higher acid to oil ratio.  Others may prefer more subtle notes of acidity, so using a higher fat ratio, or even simply adding some water, can help dilute or mute the acidity in a dressing.  
  • Repurpose Jars:  Save glass bottles from store bought dressings, pickles, condiments, etc.  These make for a great container for your homemade dressings as they can be securely sealed and are conveniently portable so that you can take your DIY dressing to-go for salads at work.  Since I use Dijon mustard in most of my dressings, I love using a nearly-empty Dijon mustard jar.  I simply add all the ingredients, give it a shake, and store it in the fridge for the week. 
  • Make one or two dressings each week: I recommend preparing one basic dressing, like the lemon Dijon vinaigrette, and one new, “fun” dressing each week.  That way you always have a flavorful dressing at the ready to use for your veggies all week long.  Plus, if you follow this formula, you will have mastered four DIY dressing recipes by the end of each month!
  • Reverse Engineer your favorite store-bought dressing: Consider using your favorite bottled salad dressing for inspiration - what flavors and textures does it offer?  Check out the ingredient list and cross out or omit all of the non-real food ingredients.  The ingredients that remain represent a list of real food ingredients that you can use as a great starting point for a DIY recipe.  Now categorize the ingredients into each of the FASSS categories, and fill in the gaps as needed!
  • Beyond Salads: Your DIY dressings are great for salads, but they also work well as marinades or finishing sauces for proteins, roasted veggies, and buddha bowls.  So if you aren’t a salad lover, learning a few DIY dressing recipes to keep in your back pocket will still be worth the investment.

The Challenge

Now take what you learned and put it into practice.  Here’s your homework assignment for the week:

  1. Save an old glass condiment container, or buy a case of mason jars.
  2. Pick a dressing to try (I’ve included a few of my favorite combinations below for your to experiment with, or try hacking your favorite store bought dressing)
  3. Jot down the FASSS ingredients you plan to use
  4. Add them to the mason jar, give it a shake.  Store it in the fridge for up to a week.
  5. Report back - I want to hear, how did it go for you?  Leave comments below.

For more DIY dressing ideas, see additional recipes below!

Lindsey Kane is a Registered Dietitian from Philadelphia. For more nutrition tips and recipes, visit her website at biteforchange.com. FASSS is inspired by and adapted from culinary educator and founder of Healing Kitchens, Rebecca Katz.


Basic Balsamic Vinaigrette

INGREDIENTS

Fat: olive oil

Acid: balsamic vinegar

Seasoning: dijon mustard + minced garlic + chopped shallots + fresh parsley

Salt: sea salt or tamari

Sweet: splash of OJ or tsp of natural sweetener

Lindsey Kane


Caesar

INGREDIENTS

Fat:  tahini or hummus + yogurt

Acid: lemon (juice and zest) + apple cider vinegar

Seasoning:  garlic + almond meal + nutritional yeast +  cracked black pepper 

Salt:  miso or tamari

Sweet: natural sweetener

Lindsey Kane


Honey Mustard

INGREDIENTS

Fat: olive oil

Acid: apple cider vinegar

Seasoning:  Dijon mustard 2 Tbs whole grain mustard + garlic  

Salt: salt to taste

Sweet: honey

Lindsey Kane


Green Goddess

INGREDIENTS

Fat: avocado

Acid: 1 lemon, juice and zest + Apple cider vinegar

Seasoning:  garlic +  nutritional yeast + chives + fresh herbs

Salt: sea salt 

Sweet: tsp of natural sweetener

DIRECTIONS

Puree the above ingredients in a food processor, or mash by hand for a rustic consistency.

Lindsey Kane


Sundried Tomato Basil Pesto

INGREDIENTS

Fat:  toasted walnuts + olive oil

Acid: lemon (juice & zest) + red wine vinegar

Seasoning:  garlic + nutritional yeast + basil

Salt:  sea salt

Sweet:  sun-dried tomatoes

DIRECTIONS

Puree the above ingredients in a food processor or blender or mix by hand for a more rustic consistency.

Lindsey Kane


Peanut Pad Thai

INGREDIENTS

Fat: peanut butter

Acid: rice vinegar + lime (juice + zest)

Seasoning: garlic + scallions +  ginger root + cilantro + crushed red pepper

Salt: tamari

Sweet: natural sweetener

Lindsey Kane


Chipotle Lime

INGREDIENTS

Fat: olive oil

Acid: lime, juice and zest + Apple cider vinegar 

Seasoning: + adobo sauce + garlic + scallions + cumin + chili powder + cilantro

Salt:  low sodium tamari or sea salt

Sweet: natural sweetener or splash of OJ

Lindsey Kane


Roasted Garlic & Rosemary Vinaigrette

INGREDIENTS

Fat: olive oil

Acid: red wine vinegar 

Seasoning: shallots + fresh rosemary + nutritional yeast + dijon

Salt: salt to taste

Sweet: 1 bulb of garlic, roasted + natural sweetener as needed

DIRECTIONS

Puree in a food processor or blender, or mash by hand for a more rustic consistency.

Lindsey Kane


Curry Tahini

INGREDIENTS

Fat: Tahini or Yogurt

Acid: apple cider vinegar

Seasoning: curry powder + cilantro + scallions

Salt: Sea Salt or tamari

Sweet: orange juice + zest

Lindsey Kane

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