ADVENTURES IN FOOD AND FITNESS: Distilling the secrets of oil and vinegar at IPFW’s Salad Dressing Boot Camp
Most people don’t consider salad dressing a convenience food.
But that’s about to change for the 16 participants in Salad Dressing Boot Camp, a class offered through IPFW’s Continuing Studies Program.
As the students, all women, introduce themselves and their reasons for taking the class, almost all say they’re interested in not merely eating healthier, but in cutting back on processed foods. They already wedge plenty of salads into their diets; now they want to take a closer look at what they pour on top of all those fresh greens.
Asked to taste two samples of blue cheese dressing, one store-bought and the other homemade, no one has trouble guessing which is which.
The plastic container marked B1 “has more of a chemical taste,” someone remarks.
When instructor Lori Berndt displays the ingredients list of the unidentified bottled dressing on a Smartboard, they quickly see why.
“I’m counting one, two, three, four, five, six words I can’t pronounce,” she says.
Though some people have a hard time giving up the bottled dressings they grew up with, mixing up higher quality versions at home isn’t difficult, says Berndt, owner of the Olive Twist, a culinary boutique with locations in Covington Plaza and Auburn.
To wean her husband off bottled blue cheese, Berndt says she initially experimented with mayo and sour cream concoctions before discovering he was ultimately satisfied with crumbled blue cheese and herbs in an olive oil-and-balsamic vinegar base.
Berndt offers the class a sample of what’s since become her go-to blue cheese recipe, along with a creamier variety containing Daisy brand sour cream.
“That’s the only sour cream I’ve found that doesn’t have chemicals,” she explains. “It has a very clean finish.”
During the class that met Oct. 24, participants mixed up a raspberry vinaigrette with just two ingredients: extra virgin olive oil and a raspberry balsamic vinegar.
The factory-bottled version sampled beforehand had more than a dozen ingredients, the first of which was water. Though extra virgin olive oil was among the ingredients, it was far down the list, after sugar and vegetable oil.
Why does olive oil make a superior dressing?
It’s not just the flavor, Berndt says, though that’s a big part of it.
“When you squeeze an olive, the oil drips right out,” she explains. That’s not the case with soybeans and other plants used in most industrially processed oils, which generally use chemical processes to extract the oil.
When you consider all the additives and preservatives in the bottled version, Berndt says, “basically you’re paying for flavored water with added chemicals.”
Many bottled dressings use industrially processed vinegars as well. The balsamic vinegars Berndt uses are a close approximation of the traditional balsamic vinegars of Modena, Italy, which contain grape “must” – a brew of skins, seeds and stems – cooked over an open flame and aged in barrels for up to a century.
The flavored vinegars, such as the one used in the raspberry vinaigrette, contain only natural ingredients. The sulfites on the ingredient list, she explains, come from the grapes themselves and add to the flavor.
PERFECTING THE PROCESS
Though some restaurants use a 3:1 oil-vinegar ratio, Berndt believes a 50-50 mixture provides excellent flavor with less fat and fewer calories.
But there’s more involved in mixing up a vinaigrette than pouring and shaking.
“It’s important to add the balsamic vinegar first, then the oil,” Berndt tells the class.
If you do it in the reverse order, the heavier vinegar will sink to the bottom, making it less likely to emulsify no matter how vigorously the container is shaken or stirred.
Another common problem is rancid oil. The shelf life of extra virgin olive oil is typically 12-18 months, Berndt says. When buying oil at the store, check for a harvest date.
Also look for oils bottled in dark glass, which keeps out harmful light rays. It’s a good idea to avoid the bottles on the highest shelves, directly under the store lighting, for the same reason.
At the Olive Twist, oil is stored in tanks that identify the olive grove as well as the harvest date. Labels also describe the flavor and amount of polyphenols – micronutrients that function as antioxidants – in each variety.
A CHANGE OF HEART
Ironically, the only time Berndt was exposed to olive oil growing up was a highly negative experience.
She’d come down with scarlet fever, a rash that can accompany strep throat, and her doctor wanted her to bathe in olive oil.
Berndt’s mother, whom she describes as more of a “butter and lard” cook, fished a bottle out of the cupboard that she’d purchased several years earlier for use in a recipe.
Though the awful-smelling liquid softened her skin, Berndt vividly recalls wondering why anyone would ever want to use it in food.
Berndt got over her aversion to olive oil while visiting an East Coast specialty shop in 2010, a few months before deciding to open a similar shop in Fort Wayne.
These days she purposefully keeps a bottle of rancid oil around for demonstration purposes, so people can smell – and see – the difference.
“Rancid oil is stickier,” she says. “It even sticks to the bottle.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to toss it out. But you might want to move it from the kitchen to the garage.
“I like to use it on squeaky doors,” Berndt says.
Tanya Isch Caylor blogs about postfat living at www.90in9.wordpress.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.