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Whole Gourmet Natural Cooking

Alison Anton's Natural Cooking Blog offers healthy recipes, inspirational food articles and culinary advice for the natural chef, and features dessert recipes from her upcoming cookbook, Desserts for Every Body.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

No More Bottled Dressings!

There are a few good reasons to say bye-bye to bottled dressings (including sugar, preservatives and the fact that making your own is so easy) but number one in my book is the commercial use of unhealthy and over-consumed oils.

For the longest time, I couldn't figure out why every time I ate from the salad bar at Whole Foods I would walk away gassy and bloated. I hypothesized that it must have been the veggies. But why did I feel fine when I ate the same vegetables in a salad I made at home? The last thing I suspected was the oil, because I knew that Whole Foods was against "bad" fats.

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One day after lunch at my favorite restaurant, my nutrition mentor pointed out that he could tell the place used good oils. I prodded. "How do you know?"

He replied, "Cause the food went through clean". I started to put the pieces together: Unhealthy oils might be in more places than I previously expected.

For me, canola oil is the worst offender. It causes gas, bloating and pain in my gut. And it's everywhere. Canola oil is in bottled dressings and sauces, deli food, restaurant food, cereals, nut milks, breads and snack foods. Absurdly, I found it in almost every item in the Whole Foods Mediterranean antipasti bar, and on the shelf in Italian and Caesar dressings.

My biggest complaint about canola and other over-used oils (like soybean, corn and safflower) is how processed they are. According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, canola is subjected to extreme processing, including caustic refining, bleaching and de-gumming, all of which involve high temperatures or chemicals of questionable safety. Since canola contains high amounts of omega-3 fats, which go rancid quite easily, it also gets deodorized. In my opinion, any food that needs deodorant to "freshen up" is probably one to be avoided.

For more information on the history of canola oil, check out the article The Great Con-ola written by Sally Fallon and Dr. Mary Enig.

What Oil, Then?

All oils are delicate and will eventually go rancid. The refinement process for most oils forces them into a longer shelf life and deodorizes them so that consumers will not detect the rancidity. Since many Americans want a generic "no-taste" oil to meet all their cooking needs, another big reason why oils get refined is to dull out their distinctive flavors.

I always choose unrefined oils. Unrefined oils retain their natural flavors, aromas and colors, as well as nutritional values. I have a variety of unrefined oils to choose from instead of relying on one "all purpose" oil. I use the natural flavors of the oil to enhance my dishes, rather than act as a neutral substance to fill space. There are usually a couple of unrefined choices in the baking section at natural foods stores, but if you want a larger selection, try purchasing them online. Rejuvenative Foods (my favorite raw nut butter producer) makes several raw, organic varieties. Find them at Raw Oils.

Try a variety of oils (including combos) for your homemade dressings:
  • Almond
  • Avocado
  • Extra virgin olive (mild to robust in flavor, not "light")
  • Grapeseed
  • Hazelnut
  • Sesame (raw and toasted)
  • Sunflower
  • Walnut
For cooking, I use unrefined coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, ghee and butter for their higher smoking points.

The Balancing Act

A good salad dressing should enhance, not overpower, the salad. To fulfill this mission, it needs to have a nice balance of flavors, which occurs mostly from the oil to acid ratio. Other flavor enhancers are from the aromatics (garlic and shallots) herbs, spices and sweeteners.

The oil to acid ratio usually lies somewhere between 2:1 and 4:1, depending upon the desired brightness and the acid used. Acid brightens the flavors and oil balances them. Since citrus juices are milder than most vinegars, more citrus is usually needed to get the right balance. For example, a 2:1 ratio (2 parts fat to 1 part citrus) is commonly used for citrus dressings.

Vinegars tend to be brighter, punchier and stronger than citrus due to their fermentation process. When using vinegar in dressings, less of it is generally used to get the right balance. A 3:1 or even 4:1 ratio is more commonly seen when using vinegars in dressings.

When tasting a vinaigrette for balance (whatever acid you use) it should have a tang that pops off the spoon, with a reassuring sweetness at the end to calm the excitement. If you don't get that initial zing, it probably won't be bright enough when tossed into the greens. If there is too little sweetness to balance the acid, your dressing is probably too sour for most palates.

I know that people are trying to avoid sugar in all its forms. But to get a satisfying dressing that is balanced in flavor, some sweetness is desired to steady the intensity of the acid. We're talking a teaspoon here, and most people can handle this amount of sugar. Honey is an excellent choice, but I also use maple syrup, agave nectar, brown rice syrup and palm sugar in my dressings. If I'm cooking for a diabetic, I use a little liquid stevia extract.


This is a big word for the forced blending of two substances that don't naturally come together, like oil and vinegar. In order for the oil and vinegar to hold together without separating, the dressing needs to be emulsified. Emulsification makes the dressing creamier and more palatable.

Easy Two-Step Emulsification

1. Mix all the dressing ingredients except the oil in a small dish. This would include the acid, minced aromatics, fresh or dried herbs, salt and mustard, for example.

2. Now drizzle the oil into the dish in a slow steady stream, briskly whisking the other ingredients as you drizzle. Sometimes I even whisk in just a few little drops of the oil in to get the emulsification started.

The trick is to get some air! Emulsification won't work if you whisk or blend (as with a food processor) on a horizontal plane. The whisk has to lift up into the air and swoop down into the liquid. Most newbies miss this important law of physics.

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Creamy Dressings

Creamy dressings are some of my favorite dressings for both greens and slaws, and can even be used as sauces for meats, grains and veggies. I don't think I've ever made a "creamy" dressing that included cream or milk. I get the creamy consistency with nuts, nut butters and avocados. But yogurt and eggs make good creams too.

The same balancing principles apply for creamy dressings as do with vinaigrettes. You'll want some acid in there to make it stand out, aromatics for the specific flavor direction, sweetness to balance, and something salty to make it pop. Generally, you won't need to add oil, as the fats from the nuts will do. A food processor or blender comes in handy for pureeing.

Other Additions

You'll want your dressing to go in a certain flavor direction. Does it have Mediterranean flair? Or are you going for Asian or Thai? Are you serving and Indian meal and want to include a fresh salad? Your theme is going to decide what direction your dressing goes.

To try your hand at flavor direction, see my Improv Dressing Ideas, below.

Other flavor additions include:
  • Minced garlic
  • Minced ginger
  • Minced shallot
  • Fresh or dried herbs
  • Ground spices
  • Fresh or dried chilis
  • Mustard
  • Fresh or dried fruits
  • Wine
  • Raw or toasted chopped nuts or seeds

Orange-Fennel Salad Over Mache with Maple-Dijon Dressing
Bright, juicy and full of summer flavors, this salad makes a good accompaniment to lighter fare like grilled chicken or scampi. Two acids are used, lemon and white wine vinegar in an emulsion with extra virgin olive oil. Mache is a beautiful green with leaves that resemble large sunflower sprouts...

Improvisational Salad Dressings
Following a recipe is great, but learning to make dressings on the fly with what you already have in your pantry is a lifesaver. Applying the appropriate oil-to-acid ratios, try making your own vinaigrettes or creamy dressings by following these guidelines that I use with my Natural Chef students at Bauman College...

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