Flavorful salad dressings and sauces can bring healthy meals to a whole new level — they make vegetables, lean meats, whole-grain pastas, and salads taste even better. And since store-bought products can be loaded with fat, calories, and sodium, learning to make your own sauces and salad dressings is an important skill when it comes to preparing good-for-you dishes. Not sure where to start? It doesn’t have to be tricky or time consuming — these tips from nutrition experts will keep calories and fat in check, while pumping up the flavor.
Easy Tricks for Better-for-You Dressings and Sauces
Follow these guidelines when going homemade:
Use vinegar, not oil, as a dressing base. Homemade salad dressing can contain more vinegar, lemon juice, or orange juice than oil to keep calories in check, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, author of The Flexitarian Diet. You’ll need to adapt traditional vinaigrette recipes, which call for more oil than acid. When making salad dressing recipes, Blatner recommends varying the vinegars and oils you use to keep your taste buds satisfied without adding a lot of extra fat. “Try balsamic, sherry, or apple cider vinegar, and experiment with olive, walnut, flax, and sesame oils,” she suggests.
Swap heavy cream for cheese. It is possible to enjoy creamy, decadent sauces without overloading on saturated fat. “For a healthier version of creamy pasta sauces, I use part-skim ricotta or soft goat cheese,” says Johannah Sakimura, RD, and Everyday Health blogger. She combines cooked pasta and veggies with a generous dollop of cheese, cracked black pepper, and a spoonful of the hot pasta cooking water (which helps thin out the cheese and turns it into a saucy consistency). “This sauce is lower in calories and fat than heavy cream-based versions, and you get more protein and calcium from the cheese,” she adds.
Rehab your favorites. For a better-for-you Alfredo sauce, Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, and author of Belly Fat for Dummies, uses a similar technique: “Alfredo sauce can be packed full of calories, but you can actually make a healthy one using low-fat cottage cheese,” she says. Simply blend one cup of low fat milk, 3/4 cup cottage cheese, 1/4 cup parmesan cheese, a pinch of minced garlic, salt, and pepper. Then, add a pinch of basil and stir the sauce over a low heat until it reaches your desired consistency, she advises.
Invest in a spice blend. When making homemade salad dressings, Sakimura recommends taking a shortcut by using store-bought spice blends. Simply whisk it into your vinegar and olive oil combo for a punch of flavor. “I’m a big fan of the Country French Vinaigrette Mix from Penzys Spices — It has garlic, onion, tarragon, lemon, and other great flavorings,” she says. “I always add a squirt of Dijon mustard to help emulsify the dressing.” Since many spice blends contain salt, Sakimura stresses the importance of checking labels for sodium content and using accordingly to keep levels in a healthy range.
Rely on fresh produce. Fruits and veggies aren’t only a vehicle for enjoying delicious dressings and sauces — they can serve as the base for them as well. “If you love a sweet salad, you can easily make a homemade fruit dressing by blending together 1/4 cup pureed raspberries with 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic, and a dash of salt and pepper,” says Palinski-Wade. And when it comes to homemade sauce, Blatner suggests putting your veggie drawer to work: “Puree roasted vegetables, such as roasted red peppers, with a splash of broth for quick sauces.” Be sure to remove the charred skin before processing.
Limit the salt. One of perks of going homemade is the ability to control the sodium level, which tends to be high in processed sauces. But if you aren’t reading the labels of your ingredients closely, the sodium in homemade sauces can add up quickly. In addition to seasonings, choose low-sodium or no-salt-added tomato paste, or go with fresh tomatoes instead. “A delicious low-sodium marinara can be created in a slow cooker with chopped fresh tomatoes, a bit of olive oil, oregano, sea salt, pepper, and garlic,” says Palinski-Wade.
And always choose the real thing when possible. “Sodium can be very high in commercial dressings, but when you are making homemade versions, it’s easy to nix that added salt, says Palinski-Wade. “Choose fresh ingredients such as minced garlic over garlic powder and onion flakes over onion powder to further reduce sodium.”
Skim off fat. When you make a meat-based sauce, cooling it in the refrigerator before you use it will allow you to separate out the fat. Simply skim the fat from the top of your sauce (where it will often harden) to dramatically reduce the fat content.
Use low-fat thickening agents. Instead of using a butter-based roux to thicken a sauce, cut back on fat by thickening it with a small amount of cornstarch or flour. You can even get more creative and use silken tofu or pureed cashews and water as the base for creamy dressings and sauces, says Blatner.
Up the creamy factor with nonfat Greek yogurt and pureed fruit, says Palinski-Wade: “They are great for achieving the creamy consistency without all the fat or calories.” For a healthy homemade blue cheese, she recommends combining one part blue cheese with two parts low-fat, plain Greek yogurt. Then add a splash of lemon juice, white vinegar to taste, and season with favorites like minced garlic, onion, pepper, and even basil. Or use avocado as a healthier fat source that will create a creamy dressing by blending it with one garlic clove, 1 tablespoon of olive oil, 1 tablespoon lime juice, and 1 tablespoon white vinegar. Then use as much water as needed to thin the dressing to your desired consistency and add a pinch of salt and pepper to taste, says Palinski-Wade.
Have containers of your favorite homemade salad dressings and sauces pre-made and ready to use when you need them to cut down on prep time during the week. You can keep a supply in the fridge for up to a week, and many sauces can be frozen, says Blatner. But don’t overdo it: Simply use them to add moisture and flavor to fresh vegetables and cooked dishes.