Harley Pasternak: Skip Store-Bought Salad Dressings — and Use These Recipes Instead!

09/17/2014 at 04:57 PM ET

Harley Pasternak
Jim Norton/Getty; Courtesy Harley Pasternak

Harley Pasternak is a celebrity trainer and nutrition expert who has worked with stars from Halle Berry and Lady Gaga to Robert Pattinson and Robert Downey Jr. He’s also a New York Times best-selling author, with titles including The Body Reset Diet and The 5-Factor Diet. Tweet him @harleypasternak.

I love salads, but I don’t love 99 percent of the bottled salad dressings out there.

My quest for vinaigrette that contained just olive oil and other unprocessed ingredients began at a well-stocked supermarket. But my perfect dressing was elusive. Some came close but an ingredient (or the lack thereof) gave me pause. I continued to hunt online, but again to no avail. I also found that whether one was looking for ranch dressing, a honey mustard type or a vinaigrette, the same problems prevailed. Which leads to this latest blog post …

Which oils should be in salad dressing? Healthy fats are integral to good health. Although it sounds counterintuitive, they’re also necessary for sustained weight loss. However, corn, cottonseed, soybean, peanut, sunflower oils and the ambiguously and innocuously named vegetable oil, which contains one or more of the others, have no place in your salads. They’re full of omega-6 fatty acids, which have been shown to be inflammatory and harmful in excess. They’ve also generally been heavily processed, using heat, which destroys nutrients. (Cold-pressed, a.k.a. expeller pressed, oils have not be subjected to heat.)

Olive oil, on the other hand, contains lots of omega-3s, which are anti-inflammatory, making extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) my preferred salad oil. I also like to use sesame and avocado oil on occasion (sesame is pretty strong in taste, so I only generally use a few drops; avocado oil is great for high-heat cooking).

Which oils are in salad dressings? With rare exceptions, the oils in almost all dressings from Kraft, Wishbone, Hidden Valley and other major players are the less desirable vegetable oil and/or soybean, sunflower and corn oils. I did find one Kraft dressing that contained olive oil, but it represented less than 2 percent of the total ingredients, of which there were 21 (we’ll come back to those other ingredients in a moment).

Surely, I thought some of the pricier brands would satisfy my quest for olive oil. Drew’s boasts that it uses only expeller-pressed oil and non-GMO products, but the first ingredient in its Rosemary Balsamic Dressing is canola oil. EVOO is only the third ingredient, followed by 19 others. Newman’s Own Olive Oil and Vinegar sounded too good to be true, and it is; the first ingredient is an “olive oil blend,” followed by (guess what?) vegetable oil.

Label lingo. The term “all natural” on a label is meaningless. Organic products contain ingredients grown without pesticides and artificial fertilizers, but may still contain the oils you want to avoid. A case in point: Annie’s Naturals Organic Balsamic Vinaigrette contains no artificial color or flavors and no preservatives, but the first ingredient is water and the dressing contains vegetable oil.

What else is in salad dressing? The first ingredient in Kraft Italian Zesty Lite Salad Dressing is water and the third is sugar. Of the 18 ingredients, most sounded like they would be more at home in a chemistry lab than the kitchen. Wishbone Italian Dressing lists 15 ingredients, again starting with water, soybean oil and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Yes, sugar in all its forms, including honey, table sugar, HFCS and agave syrup is ubiquitous. But that’s just the beginning. After reading dozens of ingredient lists, I came up with some doozies, including but not limited to: propylene glycol alginate, potassium sorbate and calcium disodium EDTA.

Save time and money. Prepared salad dressings purport to save time. But are they really any more convenient than making your own dressing? Why pay for cheap oils, water, sugar and often a host of chemicals, when you can buy a bottle of decent olive oil and one of balsamic, red wine or cider vinegar for the cost of two or three bottles of salad dressing? And, most importantly, how healthy are most prepared dressings? Only you can answer those questions, but I’ll give you a nudge in the right direction with three dressing recipes below, none of which take more than a minute or two to prepare.

Make your own in minutes. In an effort to keep the calories under control, my ratio of oil to vinegar or lemon juice is different from a lot of other recipes out there. Whisk the ingredients in a medium-size bowl or shake vigorously in a jar with a tight lid. Homemade dressings usually turn out the best if you mix the non-oil ingredients first, and add the oil in as the last step before you mix it all again. Feel free to swap oils, vinegars and herbs and spices to come up with your own recipes. Add a tablespoon or two of plain, unsweetened Greek yogurt for a creamy dressing. These recipes all serve two, so feel free to double or triple them and refrigerate any extra:

Mustard-Cilantro Vinaigrette
1½ tsp. Dijon mustard
4 tbsp. white wine vinegar
2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro, or 2 tsp. dried cilantro
1 tsp. ground coriander
Salt and black pepper, to taste

Tropical Lime and Avocado Oil Dressing
2 tsp. grated lime peel
4 tbsp. fresh-squeezed or bottled lime juice
2 tbsp. avocado oil
¼ teaspoon dried cumin
Salt and black pepper, to taste

Open Sesame Dressing
1 tsp. low-sodium soy sauce
4 tbsp. sugar-free rice wine vinegar
2 tbsp. dark sesame oil
2 tsp. fresh-grated ginger or 1 tsp. dried ginger
1 tsp. coconut sugar or sweetener of your choice
Black pepper, to taste

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Showing 10 comments

Flo on

I’m with you there, homemade is so much better, love them.

Mary on

I use salsa. It only has a fraction of the calories found in traditional salad dressing so I can use as much as I need without feeling guilty.

Heidi on

I make a dressing that’s tahini, red wine vinegar, water and pink salt. It’s great on a spinach salad of shrimp, avocado, cherry tomatoes, grilled corn and a little goat cheese.

Kelli on

My favorites are red wine vinegar & oil, or lemon, garlic & oil. Nice & light, and you can eat a ton without feeling guilty.

Pam on

The basic ratio is 3 parts oil to 1 part acid (vinegar, lemon, etc.). Add in your extras: S&P, dijon, herbs, etc.

Elaine on

What about Tessemae’s Dressings? It’s made with Olive Oil and other unprocessed ingredients. I found it at my local grocery store.

Anonymous on

My favorite is EVOO, lime juice and a little bit of honey. Easy, you can make as much or little as you want, and if you use organic honey, there’s nothing unnatural about it.

emilio on

My buttermilk ranch dressing is “the talk” of my family: made with skim buttermilk, Trader Joe Mayo (which has no EDTA)…and a mix of herbs, beat with a hand mixer. Nitrates (in meats), potassium sorbate (in way too many things) and EDTA (in commercial mayos) cause my migraines, so I’m highly motivated to stay away from them.

Ann on

One of the most ubiquitous additive that Harley didn’t mention is maltodextrose, which is a no-no for those on gluten-free diets. I’m so glad he gave us some recipes for additive-free dressings.

Timothy Claw on

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