Cut down on oil but keep up flavor in salad dressings by subtle substitution

February 20, 1994|By Mary Carroll | Mary Carroll,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

The well-dressed salad these days is not just a bowl of super-fresh ingredients. Good salad dressings are a must to enhance the delicate flavors of lettuce, vegetables and fruit.

Yet trying to keep salads low in fat with homemade dressings is tricky -- a classic vinaigrette contains 10 grams of fat per tablespoon. Is there a secret to keeping flavor in and fat out?

I've found a number of successful substitutions for oil in homemade dressings. The key is to retain the proper balance of flavors. Too much of any one ingredient -- sharp, tangy or smooth -- can throw the balance off.

The traditional proportion in most dressings is two parts oil to one part vinegar. I was able to replace up to one-third the oil with defatted broth, a vegetable puree, vegetable juices, blended low-fat cheeses, such as ricotta or cottage cheese, nonfat milk and even balsamic vinegar -- with no flavor loss.

For example, a recipe that called for 3/4 cup olive oil would become 1/2 cup olive oil and 1/4 cup broth, pureed ricotta, unsalted tomato or V-8 juice, or balsamic vinegar. Automatically, I've cut the calories and fat by 30 percent or more.

As I tried further reducing the proportion of oil to other ingredients, I noticed flavors appeared sharper. Oil acts as a flavor emulsifier, creating a harmonious blend that romances the taste buds. To keep the balance of flavors when reducing the oil, I had to reduce the amount of stronger-tasting ingredients like grated onion, garlic and cayenne pepper.

Another result of reducing the oil further was that the dressing was less able to adhere to and coat the lettuce -- the essential job of all dressings. So, to create creaminess, I added a small amount of low-fat plain yogurt or pureed roasted bell peppers. The bit of fat in the yogurt was much less than the original amount in the oil, and it helped the dressing bind together and do its job.

The roasted and peeled red peppers, which are sold in jars in the supermarket, became a staple for my doctored dressings. The peppers lent a grilled or barbecued flavor, a light rose color and -- when pureed first -- a smooth, silky texture reminiscent of fat. Green peppers worked well, too, although they were not as sweet as red.

Using stronger-tasting oils gave me more flavor mileage. For example, dark, or toasted, sesame oil can be used in smaller amounts than olive oil, yet the pungent flavor makes the dressing taste richer.

The following salad is an example of how the potent flavor of dark sesame oil can be used in a very small quantity to give a big effect.

Chinese vegetable salad

Makes 4 to 6 servings


1 large cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded, then sliced into thin crescents

1/2 head green cabbage, thinly sliced

1/2 cup drained canned mandarin oranges

1 tablespoon grated onion

2 cups chow mien noodles, optional

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro


1/2 cup rice vinegar

1/3 cup honey

1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce or tamari

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger root

1 tablespoon dark sesame oil

1 teaspoon salt

To prepare salad, combine cucumber, cabbage, mandarin oranges, onion, noodles, sesame seeds and cilantro in large bowl

To prepare dressing, stir together vinegar, honey, soy sauce, ginger root, sesame oil and salt in separate bowl. Toss dressing with vegetables. Serve immediately.

Each serving contains approximately: 200 calories; 719 milligrams sodium; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 7 grams fat; 32 percent calories from fat; 34 grams carbohydrate; 4 grams protein; 5 grams fiber.


This tart-sweet winter fruit salad is a wonderful addition to any brunch menu. The idea came from a Mollie Katzen recipe.

Sweet citrus salad

Makes 4 servings

4 oranges, peeled and sectioned

2 large pink grapefruit, peeled and sectioned

2 ripe kiwi, peeled and sliced

2 tablespoons honey or maple syrup

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3 cups torn leaf lettuce, spinach or wild greens

1/4 red onion, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon olive oil

salt, black pepper

Place oranges, grapefruit and kiwi in bowl. Toss with honey, nutmeg and cinnamon. Let stand 15 minutes.

Combine greens, onion and oil in salad bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper. To serve, pile fruit over greens.

Each serving contains approximately: 206 calories; 142 milligrams sodium; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 14 percent calories from fat; 43 grams carbohydrate; 4 grams protein; 14 grams fiber.


This delicious pasta salad is slightly higher in fat because of the peanut butter, but it is also spicy and warming, perfect for a winter picnic. The dressing is also a delicious marinade for grilled foods.

Warm and spicy peanut pasta salad

Makes 6 servings

4 cups cooked hot penne or other tubular pasta

1 cup diagonally sliced raw green beans

1 sweet red pepper, seeded and cut into strips

1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded and thinly sliced

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

6 green onions, cut into thin strips

1/3 cup smooth peanut butter whisked with 1/4 cup defatted chicken broth

1 tablespoon dark sesame oil

2 tablespoons low-sodium tamari or soy sauce

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons honey

3/4 teaspoon cayenne, or to taste

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/8 teaspoon turmeric

lettuce leaves

Combine pasta, beans, red pepper, cucumber, cilantro and green onions in large bowl.

Whisk together peanut butter mixture, sesame oil, tamari, lemon juice, honey, cayenne, cumin and turmeric in small bowl. Pour dressing over vegetables. Toss well to coat evenly. Arrange lettuce leaves in salad bowl and mound salad in center.

Each serving contains approximately: 410 calories; 292 milligrams sodium; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 11 grams fat; 23 percent calories from fat; 66 grams carbohydrate; 14 grams protein; 2 grams fiber.

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