Salad Dressing Substitutes
February 19, 2017 6:37 PM   Subscribe

What are options that are low-calorie and delicious that can be used as substitutes for salad dressing?

I've been stepping up my vegetable and salad game, and I'm looking for something I can put on a large salad, or with a bowl of veggies, in place of salad dressing. I'm not a huge fan of low-calorie dressing alternatives (with sugar substitutes), and I'm thinking there has to be more than one delicious and healthy thing that could make veggies and salad less dry. Along with lower calories, it would be all the better for being flavorful and having a wide range of coverage, meaning I could spread the love around to each bite.
posted by SpacemanStix to Food & Drink (42 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Oil and vinegar are a classic salad topping, and I am here to tell you that just vinegar is pretty close to just as good (sure, there are some fat-soluble flavors that the oil enhances, but). You could put some decent balsamic or red wine vinegar in one of those spray bottles for lighter, more even coverage.

Also: salt (and pepper). Salting your salads means you have to use less dressing.
posted by General Malaise at 6:40 PM on February 19, 2017 [12 favorites]

Just a spritz of vinegar! Or some vinegar and hot sauce, or a oil and vinegar that is very light on the oil.
posted by blnkfrnk at 6:40 PM on February 19, 2017

I agree with vinegar. I've also used lemon juice and lime juice.
posted by primethyme at 6:41 PM on February 19, 2017

Lots of Thai and Vietnamese salads are dressed with a delicious oil-less dressing of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and sometimes garlic and/or red pepper flakes. It's call nuoc cham in Vietnamese.

I always make it by mixing lime juice, sugar, and a splash of water to make something that tastes like good, strong limeade. Then I add fish sauce gradually until the dressing is a well-balanced mix of salty/sour. Or you can follow a recipe.

Because it doesn't have any oil, it doesn't stick to vegetables the same way that traditional dressings do - but it's very good, and an excellent low-calorie condiment.
posted by rossination at 6:43 PM on February 19, 2017 [11 favorites]

Half-and-half yogurt and salsa is not bad at all.
posted by mskyle at 6:48 PM on February 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

Salsa with a little hummus.
posted by Pax at 6:51 PM on February 19, 2017

If you take a very ripe avocado, mash it up a bit, and mix it into your salad, it's every bit as good as a creamy dressing.

I use Greek yogurt in place of sour cream/mayo in creamy dressings, too.

Try a variety of vinegars for different effects. Balsamics come in a lot of blended flavors now, especially at specialty stores. Then there is apple cider vinegar, peach vinegar, champagne vinegar, etc. in addition to the old white and red.
posted by Miko at 6:54 PM on February 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

Oil & vinegar.
Oil & balsamic vinegar.
Oil & vinegar & mustard (Shake them together. Classic vinaigrette.)
Lemon juice.

I haven't used store-bought salad dressing in decades.
posted by adamrice at 6:57 PM on February 19, 2017 [7 favorites]

I sometimes use cottage cheese (if you eat dairy). It is high in protein, too.

And Trader Joe's has something called "balsamic glaze" that is also quite good.
posted by pril at 6:58 PM on February 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Well define low calorie. 1 tsp of olive oil is about 40 calories. Or an egg is about 75 calories. Those 2 bases can be mixed with vingar and mustards (both so low cal, not worth adding) and any different spices to make pretty much whatever you want for a dressing. Heck, a tablespoon of pesto is only 75 calories. Double heck: a slice of bacon AND TWO teaspoons of bacon fat will clock in at a measly 120 calories and make one heck of an awesome spinach salad.

If you make it yourself, salad dressing enough to have more than you need will cost your calorie budget 75 to a max of 100 calories for a nice big tasty salad.
posted by chasles at 7:02 PM on February 19, 2017 [8 favorites]

Salsa and a little extra virgin olive oil, or soy sauce, dijon mustard and a little neutral oil.

(A little oil -- a teaspoon, even -- only adds 40 calories. In addition, you won't get the full nutritional bang for your buck if you eat no other fat with the meal.)
posted by maudlin at 7:07 PM on February 19, 2017 [7 favorites]

Tzatziki (yogurt, garlic, dill or parsley, finely diced cucumber, lemon juice or vinegar) is a great dip with crudite or you could thin it a bit and use it as a dressing.

I also make a creamy dressing/dip with half yogurt and half mayo, a grated clove of garlic, and finely chopped thyme, oregano and parsley, and lemon juice or vinegar. If you use low-fat yogurt and low-fat mayo it would probably come out pretty low-calorie.

I agree with maudlin that the small amount of fat in salad dressings help you absorb vitamins in the salad, in addition to making it taste better and be more filling, while not adding too much to your calorie budget.
posted by Lycaste at 7:11 PM on February 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

Penzey's Spices let's you make your own salad dressing with your own oil/vinegar which helps control calories and usage. I also HIGHLY recommend getting a few different flavored balsamic vinegars for your dressings. I don't have a good recommendation for a shop to order from, but I got a very good smokehouse balsamic from The Olive Cart and really enjoyed it.
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 7:12 PM on February 19, 2017

If you make salad dressing yourself it is much better tasting as well as usually having way less calories, since so much of the problem with bottled stuff is the sugar and salad dressing usually only needs the tiniest bit of sweetness to round out the flavor - typically just whatever sugars are in the good vinegar or acidic fruit juice that you use.

But one problem that makes people want to use bottled dressing is that home cooks usually don't emulsify their dressings well and they break on the salad and it feels like it has less "coverage" as you put it. One way to make sure your dressing emulsifies easily at home is to put something in it that will set the process, like an egg or mayo or buttermilk, but you can also really emulsify your dressings with horsepower - aka buy a stick blender with a cup attachment and whir up your dressings in there. The water based stuff will break into teeny bits and the lipids will evenly coat them, forming that creamy mouthfeel that a really good salad dressing has. Then you need less of it to taste delicious.

On warm vegetables try a dollop of tahini with a squeeze of lemon juice, or black vinegar and toasted sesame oil with some minced ginger and garlic. Both really aromatic in different ways.
posted by Mizu at 7:16 PM on February 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

I purée frozen fruits and mix with vinegar (raspberry balsamic, for example).

Mustard with a dab of honey in red wine vinegar.

Fancy flavored vinegars. I have fig and pear in rotation now.
posted by OrangeVelour at 7:18 PM on February 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

Rice vinegar and Mrs. Dash.
posted by eeek at 7:29 PM on February 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Boathouse Farms yogurt dressings are amazing - they have great flavor with no sugar or sugar substitutes or weird diet dressing ingredients and they taste good. I really like the ranch and blue cheese dressing - you get the creaminess of a real dressing with about 40 calories per 2 tablespoon serving and no work. My local Safeway sells it the refrigerated section of the produce department.
posted by metahawk at 7:42 PM on February 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yogurt with a bit of lime juice is pretty good. Adding fruit can make a low fat salad more interesting too.
posted by kjs4 at 7:44 PM on February 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

You might consider getting a spray pump for the oil, and spray your lettuce lightly with oil, then add the vinegar/spices/toppings.
posted by effluvia at 7:54 PM on February 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Depending on the salad, just lemon or lime juice is pretty good. Restaurants and ads always have overdressed salads. I like sesame-ginger dressings, but I use a really small amount of dressing, and it tastes dramatically better than a salad drenched in gooey ranch dressing.

Spinach salad with sliced almonds, hard boiled egg, bacon, mandarin oranges
dressing - fresh lemon juice with a small amount of honey whisked in.
posted by theora55 at 7:56 PM on February 19, 2017

Yup, if you're veering away from olive oil (like a maniac), then just vinegar (in one of the fifty varieties it comes in) and maybe some hot sauce will do in a pinch.
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:05 PM on February 19, 2017

Meyer lemon juice and or hot sauce.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 8:07 PM on February 19, 2017

Chop the greens a little smaller; that leads to a better distribution of dressing and flavor.

Let me introduce you to my greatest salad seasoning discovery:


Seriously - chop it up, put salt on it, eat it.

Add something fatty to the lettuce for flavor: grated cheese, sunflower seeds, etc.
posted by amtho at 8:25 PM on February 19, 2017

3 tablespoons of olive oil, 2 smashed garlic cloves, and a big pinch of salt. It's really delicious. Nice change from vinaigrettes (I don't like vinegar).

I also find that salads don't really need dressing if they have cheese. Buy a chunk of parmesan and grate some over, or crumble on some feta.

To dress a salad properly, do it like restaurants do- put the dressing in a large wide bowl and roll the bowl around to get the dressing all over the sides so it's a thin coating on the sides of the bowl, rather than a puddle in the bottom. Then throw in the salad leaves and toss with tongs. It gives you a light even coating of dressing instead of big glops and naked leaves, and you use less dressing.

Or, instead of pouring dressing over the whole salad, serve it on the side and just dip the fork in the dressing before each bite.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 8:27 PM on February 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

In addition to the tip about emulsifying: another way to save calories is to dress your salad the way good restaurants do. Never make a salad and then pour dressing over it. That way, you get a couple glops of dressing and a bunch of dry greens, and most likely, you use way too much dressing. Instead, take your chosen dressing (even if it's just vinegar or juice) and place it in the bottom of a large, wide bowl. Then, put your greens/veggies in the bowl on top of the dressing, and take a pair of tongs and start tossing the salad. The aim is to move the greens through the liquid in the bottom of the bowl, and keep turning them over until they are all coated in a light layer of the dressing.

Restaurants do this because it's (a) more delicious and (b) cost-effective, which is important to restaurants because PROFIT!! but the same strategy means: you consume fewer calories. I think most home cooks don't do this, and so you end up eating too much dressing and have an imperfectly dressed salad anyway. A little goes a really long way if you use this technique.
posted by Miko at 8:29 PM on February 19, 2017 [11 favorites]

I prefer citrus juices to vinegar in my salad dressings so usually if I have grapefruit or orange segments in it, I just drizzle some very good olive oil. If I have avocado and citrus, I even skip the oil. However, I also found this small bottle of balsamic reduction in Fairway and I find that a few drops of that is absolutely delicious on salads.
posted by theappleonatree at 8:39 PM on February 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think it's worth a note that people often consider vinegar a "free" ingredient (as in, negligible calories), but balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar, and other specialty vinegars are not "free" in that they do contain sugar, and the more concentrated they are (as in aged balsamic or balsamic reduction), the more sugar there is.
posted by Miko at 9:04 PM on February 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Miso isn't entirely calorie-free and can be on the saltier side, but can be used as dressing (there's the miso that you scoop out from the tub, but there's also some that is more... liquid... which could be used for this purpose).
posted by gemutlichkeit at 9:20 PM on February 19, 2017

Lemon (or lime), your favorite mild oil (I'm partial to grapeseed) and some salt. You can't go wrong with that on green veggies, especially lettuce.
posted by ipsative at 9:32 PM on February 19, 2017

A tsp of Sesame oil or miso mixed in to your other things is good; for a lone vinegar I really like Sushi vinegar. I also like adding rice seasoning mixes - packets or small tins of nori, Sesame seeds, etc.
posted by jrobin276 at 9:36 PM on February 19, 2017

Whatever you go with, the overall flavor will be greatly enhanced by seasoning your salad beforehand with salt.
posted by rhiannonstone at 12:06 AM on February 20, 2017

Calories aren't everything, consider this study before ditching the oil.
posted by missmagenta at 1:31 AM on February 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

I sometimes put salt on a salad, and then plain low-fat yogurt.
posted by mumimor at 2:32 AM on February 20, 2017

I like ponzu sauce (you can buy it pre made). It's like a citrusy soy sauce, and it's like 5 calories a teaspoon.
posted by Valancy Rachel at 6:08 AM on February 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Regarding emulsifiing - I put oil and vinegar and whatever else in an old jam or salsa jar with a lid, put the lid on, and shake it. Keep the extra in the fridge and shake it up again before next use.
posted by mai at 6:18 AM on February 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

These are wonderful ideas, and I am going to try many of them. Thanks for taking the time to share them!
posted by SpacemanStix at 7:19 AM on February 20, 2017

You can make a very low calorie Caesar-ish dressing using Greek yogurt (fat free or low fat are both fine), lemon juice, salt and pepper, a small amount of grated parmesan, smashed or finely minced garlic, and anchovies (or anchovy paste, which lasts forever in the fridge).
posted by telegraph at 9:46 AM on February 20, 2017

Canned olives come in a watery salty brine which I like to use as a salad dressing. The olives themselves have a fair bit of oil in them, so they are not low cal, but I like to throw in a handful of the olives and pour a table spoon of the liquid and toss it all together.

Don't forget sharp flavours - very little minced fresh garlic adds a nice bit of mild bite like Caesar salad dressing, but without the oil, vinegar or lemon. You need some oil in your greens to help you absorb the nutrients. I prefer to put in oily ingredients such as nuts, avocado or shrimp and then not add dressing. A Caesar salad with bacon bits in it does not need a sauce dressing that contains oil as it will have plenty of fat from the bacon. It just needs lemon and garlic.

Consider what umami flavours you like. You can get surprising and good results, depending on the other ingredients by putting in a little dollop of miso, or marmite or bovril. I like to put cold cubed leftover beef roast in my salads. You can use cold cooked pork or beef anywhere you put cold chicken. If there roast was not a totally lean one the cold roast provides both fat and savoury flavours. You can also use ingredients like barbeque seasoning powder in a salad like this.
posted by Jane the Brown at 11:43 AM on February 20, 2017

One of my favorites is a simple cilantro-based sauce: half a bunch of cilantro, a teaspoon or so of tahini, and the juice of half a lemon (or a whole lemon, if you like it tangy) in a blender. Blend until smooth, adding just enough water to get it to the consistency you like.

It turns out surprisingly creamy in texture, for having so little fat, and has a light and refreshing flavor with enough depth from the tahini to ground it.
posted by Lexica at 12:13 PM on February 20, 2017

You could cut calories by changing your salad dressing, or by using less dressing.

I've found that the method of dressing the salad really makes a difference in how much you need. For sturdy greens (or if you don't mind more delicate greens getting beaten up a bit), put the greens in a container with about half as much dressing as you think you need, put a lid on the container, and shake. That's the easiest way to really get good coverage on the greens that I've found - works well for cabbage or kale.

My other preferred method is to put my greens in a bowl, salt and pepper them, then top with a little dressing (usually olive oil and vinegar or lemon juice straight from the bottles/lemon) and toss gently with my hands. For me, this gets better coverage than tossing with a fork or tongs.

Another thing I do is use greens as a base for something hot and moist that will "dress" the greens on its own - say a chicken thigh cooked in a sauce.

Mustard, when added to dressings, gives a lot of flavor punch and means you can use a bit less oil.

This miso-tahini is lovely.

This Mustard-shallot vinaigrette I haven't made it exactly as indicated by the recipe - I eyeball and adjust on the fly, but I've always been happy with the result.

(I personally haven't enjoyed vinegar alone as a dressing, but I discovered that through dining with someone who really loved it, so YMM definitely V.)
posted by bunderful at 6:10 PM on February 20, 2017

You can make a simple traditional salad with just Iceburg lettuce, sour cream and a good amount of dill, and salt and pepper. It's surprisingly refreshing, and you could use lite sour cream. Also good with cucumbers.
posted by catatethebird at 11:20 AM on February 21, 2017

Cooking Light has many salad recipes with fantastic dressings, and is reliably low calorie as that's their thing. A standout that I have made many times is their Tomato Stack Salad with Corn and Avocado. The dressing featured in that recipe is a modernized, fresh take on a buttermilk ranch that features a variety of fresh herbs. I tend to substitute in some Greek yogurt for the small amount of mayo they call for. I thought I was done with ranch dressing, but not any more!

Another inspiration has been the sauces/dressings in the Longevity Kitchen cookbook. Her Lemony Balsamic vinaigrette is spectacular, and a little goes a long way.

I make all my dressings from scratch now and typically with no recipe, but starting out with some good ones to get a feel for the balance of acid, fat, salt, etc that I want was such a helpful step for me. And following the great tips above for how to dress a salad well but sparingly will keep things light on the calorie front.
posted by bloggerwench at 10:22 PM on February 22, 2017

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