A fresh salad with the right dressing becomes a light, tasty and healthy accompaniment to a meal. However, take a look down the supermarket aisle and you'll find a vast variety of dressings – boasting traditional recipes, fat-free alternatives, and seasonal flavour sensations. According to Retail World's 2010 Annual Report, salad dressings are worth:

  • $79.4 million in grocery value,
  • 51.3 percent of market volume,
  • 26.5 million units were sold, and
  • Goodman Fielder (which manufactures Praise and Paul Newman's Own) and Kraft are the main brands in the category.

Previous testing at CHOICE has found that oil and seasoning (salt and pepper) are the core ingredients in the three most popular dressing varieties (French, Italian and caesar). It's not surprising that many products are high in fat and sodium. But some are very salty, and about 50 percent list sugar as one of the first three ingredients. While the average 20g serve size won't contribute too much to your daily fat and sodium intake, we wouldn't recommend being heavy-handed with the bottle.

Pre-prepared dressings may appeal to consumers because of their convenience, but for the best taste and the ability to control the amount of salt, we recommend making your own. It's not that difficult and you may already have most of the basic ingredients in your cupboard and fridge. You can whip up a simple salad dressing in no time.

Fiona Mair, our home economist from CHOICE's test kitchen, has shared some of her recipes. These French dressings, Italian dressings and Caesar dressings should be light on your budget as well as taste great.

French dressing

French salad dressings or vinaigrettes traditionally consist of a mixture of vinegar, oil and grain mustard. Additional ingredients like herbs and garlic can also be added, and this is common in the dressings you'll find in supermarkets.

Quality descriptors for a good French dressing include smooth, herb, vinegar, sweet, and garlic.

CHOICE French dressing recipe

Making your own French dressing is so simple, and allows you to control the amount of salt you add. Here is Fiona's recipe; at $1.37 per 100mL, you can make a quick and easy French vinaigrette.

Ingredients (makes one cup)

  • 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • ¼ cup white wine vinegar
  • ¾ cups olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Method

Combine all ingredients in a jar and shake until mixture is slightly thickened.

Note: The dressing can be stored in the refrigerator for several weeks. The oil will solidify, but bring the dressing back to room temperature and shake well to normal consistency.

Nutritional information (per 110g)

Total fat: 72.1g

Saturated fat: 10.2g

Sugars: 0.04g

Sodium: 29.6mg

In comparison to the supermarket dressings, this recipe is the lowest for sugar and sodium. However, it's the highest for total fat and saturated fat in comparison to most supermarket dressings.

Italian dressing

Traditional Italian dressing is a simple combination of oil and vinegar. However, to spice it up you can also include garlic and Italian herbs such as basil and oregano.

CHOICE Italian dressing recipe

Once again we recommend making your own dressing. Not only can you control the amount of salt that goes into the dressing, but you can add as many or as few herbs as you want, or even choose to simply use olive oil and vinegar. Here is Fiona's recipe, costing $1 per 100mL.

Ingredients (makes one cup)

  • ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • ¼ cup red or white wine vinegar
  • ½ clove garlic, finely chopped
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon dried basil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Add a tablespoon of fresh parsley to the dressing just before serving (optional). You can also substitute one tablespoon of balsamic vinegar for one tablespoon of white vinegar if you like.

Method

Combine all ingredients in a jar and shake until mixture is slightly thickened.

Note: The dressing can be stored in the refrigerator for several weeks. The oil will solidify, but bring the dressing back to room temperature and shake well to bring back to normal consistency.

Nutritional information (per 100g)

Total fat: 72.3g

Saturated fat: 10.2g

Sugars: 0.01g

Sodium: 12.46g

Caesar dressing

Egg yolks are the base for a caesar dressing with parmesan cheese (or parmigiano reggiano) as a key ingredient. It can be grated and mixed through the dressing and/or shaved over the dressed salad.

Typical background flavours of this dressing include garlic, anchovies, lemon juice and worcestershire sauce. Olive oil acts as the emulsifier, blending all the ingredients together.

Quality descriptors for a good caesar dressing include smooth, herb and creamy.

Caesar dressing recipe

This dressing is slightly more complex to make from scratch, but once you have all the ingredients putting it together can be a breeze. Our homemade recipe will cost you more than the supermarket dressings at $1.94 per 100ml. However, it's worth it if you'll use the remaining ingredients in other recipes.

Ingredients (makes one cup)

  • 3 large egg yolks
  • 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 teaspoons worcestershire sauce
  • 6 anchovy fillets
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • ¾ cup finely grated parmesan cheese
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Cos lettuce, washed and dried (cut crosswise into 2cm thick slices)
  • Croutons, fresh
  • Shavings of parmesan cheese to serve

Method

Combine egg yolks, mustard, lemon juice, garlic, anchovies and worcestershire sauce in a food processor (you could also use a stick blender or hand whisk). While blending, slowly drizzle in oil until thick and creamy. Stir in parmesan and add salt and pepper to taste.

If making by hand, mash the garlic and anchovies and add water or extra lemon juice if the dressing is too thick.

Chill in the refrigerator before serving.

Pour over lettuce and croutons top with shavings of parmesan cheese.

Note: This dressing should be stored for no longer than one week. This dressing contains raw egg so you need to ensure that it is refrigerated correctly if you want it to last the week. The lemon in the mixture helps to cook the raw egg, but to get longevity out of the mixture you should use the freshest eggs and store correctly.

Nutritional information (per 100g)

Total fat: 58.6g

Saturated fat: 11.1g

Sugars: 0.9g

Sodium: 281.9mg

In comparison to most supermarket dressings, this recipe is the lowest for sugar and one of the lowest for sodium. However, it's the highest for total fat and saturated fat in comparison to most supermarket dressings. Most of the supermarket dressings use water as their first ingredient which is why their formulations are lower in fat.