Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Nutrition Debate #290: My Healthy, Homemade (Vinaigrette) Salad Dressing

MyFitnessPal recently had a “cooking tip” titled, “How to Make Healthy, Homemade Salad Dressing (+ 3 Simple Recipes to Try).” I liked it for several reasons. 1) It was “relatable” in that it addressed the majority of households who still purchase salad dressing in bottles – doesn’t almost everyone? 2) It was well written and easy to follow; and 3) I make a “killer” salad dressing myself (recipe later). Naturally, therefore, I also found lots to disagree with and offer my own “improvements.”
The lede brought a smile to my face: “As a kid, I would have been happy to drink Hidden Valley ranch dressing out of a sippy cup, and I didn’t discover that salad dressing could be homemade until a college summer abroad in Italy.”Can you relate?
I could relate to both points. Packaged salad dressings are tasty. They’ve been engineered in the processed food giants’ laboratories to be very palatable. And they are ready-made and convenient to use, so the argument against using them has to be strong. I won’t go into that here though. I’ll assume that if you have an interest in making your own salad dressing you already know how BAD bottled salad dressings are from multiple health points of view. (See also #291 coming next.)
And the point about Italy is one that most diners know as well even without having travelled to Italy. We’ll all eaten at the simple Italian Restaurant where flasks of olive oil and vinegar are on the table for you to pour into a small bowl filled with chopped iceberg, cherry tomatoes and shredded carrots. But for my taste, as healthy as that dressing is, it’s not enough.
A simple vinaigrette, as My Fitness Pal point out, is made up of “oils, acids and other flavors.” The oils they list are olive oil, grape seed oil, sesame oil, nut oils and avocado oil; the acids: vinegars (e.g., sherry, red wine, balsamic, rice) and lemon juice; the “other flavors:” mustard, jam/preserves [!], herbs (e.g., parsley, basil), garlic, shallots, ginger, soy sauce, and tahini. To this, My Fitness Pal adds, and I quote, “+standard seasoning” (see below) and salt and pepper.
They illustrate that with a jar filled with 60% oil, 30% acids and 10% other flavors. Here’s where I pick my first bone. That ratio of oil to acid is just 2 to 1 (2:1). A traditional vinaigrette uses a 3:1 ratio, but I suspect My Fitness Pal proposed to cut the oil portion to reduce the calories from fat (oil). The problem is they then go on suggest that their basic vinaigrette dressing be supplemented with “+ standard seasoning,” which they call your “preferred sweetener.” Folks, a basic vinaigrette dressing does not use as a standard seasoning your preferred sweetener, and to suggest jam/preserve is absurd.
Then, they state flatly the reason their basic vinaigrette dressing requires a “sweetener.” They say, “This is used to balance out the tartness of acids.” Readers, if you use a 2:1 ratio of oil to acid, your salad dressing will be tart. If you use a 3:1, ratio it will not. Adding sugar (jam/preserve) to your salad dressing is not a good idea. It’s much better to make less dressing and then toss the salad thoroughly with the dressing to lightly coat the ingredients. Nobody likes a salad drenched in dressing!
Another aspect of the My Fitness Pal article that I liked was the range and variety of the three basic “great vinaigrette” dressings they offered: Sweet, French and Asian. However, as noted above, the first two recipes they offer use that 2:1 ratio of oil to acid. Their Sweet Vinaigrette uses balsamic vinegar (high in carbs!) and adds 2 tsp. of jam to make ¼ cup, more than enough for a dinner salad for 4. Their French Vinaigrette recipe uses red wine or sherry vinegar and includes garlic (minced) and mustard, as does mine. Their Asian Vinaigrette recipe uses a 3:1 ratio of oil to acid, adds soy sauce, and uses rice vinegar and garlic. Sounds good!
My own French Vinaigrette is made from Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) and tarragon white wine vinegar (3Tbs:1Tbs), 2 or 3 cloves of minced garlic, a heaping teaspoon of Grey Poupon mustard, ½ teaspoon of salt and 50 turns of freshly ground black pepper. I put all the ingredients in a stainless steel bowl and whisk thoroughly to emulsify them. Both the vinegar and the mustard are natural emulsifiers, and the mustard is also a surfactant, so it holds everything emulsified. I then let it rest for 5 or 10 minutes to let the flavors fuse. Then just before serving, we thoroughly toss the dressing with all the ingredients until everything is evenly coated. This dressing recipe serves a large salad (4+ portions).
The salad we make is made up of washed and dried, then torn romaine lettuce, cut endive, sliced mushrooms, and usually some chopped hazelnuts, slivered almonds or toasted walnuts, and cheese. If we’re having company, we may shave some aged pecorino Romano on top, but usually we just add and toss in some grated or shredded Parmesan. I always prefer my salad to be served separately on a side plate, but not in a bowl. At home, we mix the salad in a large wooden bowl which we put it on the table so everyone can serve themselves. Guests always comment on how good it is, and go for seconds. 

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