The Latin derivation of the word ‘salad’ simply meant “with salt.” A little sprinkle of salt over green herbs, maybe with a drizzle of olive oil was the essence of a salad. This is a far cry from our current prepared dressings containing hundreds of calories of unhealthy fats and other chemical ingredients.

So instead of store-bought salad dressings, why not do it yourself? You control taste, ingredients, and freshness. The easiest way to make a healthy homemade dressing is whisking your own vinaigrette. Stir in a small bowl: ¾ cup of extra-virgin olive oil, ¼ cup of red or white wine vinegar or add a touch of balsamic, ¼ teaspoon of fine sea salt, 1/8 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. Making your own dressing can be as much fun as creating the salad.

You can expand your culinary delight by adding any of the following to the basic mixture: mince a small to medium shallot; add a teaspoon of Dijon mustard; add 2-3 finely chopped garlic cloves; blend fresh or dry oregano, tarragon, or lemon juice. Other interesting ingredients include sun-dried tomatoes, anchovies, or walnuts. Red pepper flakes on top of a salad or in the dressing instead of the regular coarse ground black pepper add a nice extra zest.

Check out Joyce Goldstein’s book Mediterranean Fresh for dozens of healthy dressings, vinaigrettes, citrus, herbalized, or nut infused variations on basic oil and vinegar. Joyce, a faculty member and master chef at the Culinary Institute of America, offers many books for a marvelous guide to fun and healthy cooking.

An alternative to oil and vinegar is citrus dressings. The basic citrus dressing is ½ cup of mild, fruity extra-virgin olive oil, 4 tablespoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice, sea salt and freshly ground pepper. One of my favorite local Italian restaurants uses an orange citrus dressing with fresh orange wedges. Orange juice or squeezed blood oranges can make a great citrus dressing, though my preference is to use lemons or limes.

Zesting citrus is another cooking skill. Just use a fine grater or specially made zester for this purpose. You then give the lemon peel a “haircut” by shaving the outer peel into a fine paste and use this to enhance the flavor of your dressing. It also adds a nice citrus intensity on top of grilled fish, chicken, or vegetables.

Variations on citrus dressings are to add ingredients such as cinnamon, red pepper, pomegranate, cumin, mustard and shallots, capers and garlic. Be creative!

The better you like the dressing, the more likely you are to dig into the delicious and healthful veggies underneath. Just don’t ruin a great salad with a lot of unhealthy, heavy dressing. I discovered that when eating out, asking for the oil and vinegar to mix to my own taste at the table is often preferable to heavily seasoned prepared dressings. That being said, many restaurants have a fine vinaigrette as a house dressing. Just ask and they are proud to serve this healthful choice.
So play with both salad mixtures and dressings and get healthier today.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.