Here’s how I see it: “cold salads” are to summer what “hot dishes” are to winter, so this “Universal Vegan Cold Salad Dressing” is my summertime Cream of Whatever soup. Makes sense, right? Potato salads, macaroni salads, rice salads, chickpea salads, broccoli salads… Just start with your favorite carb or veggie, use this Universal Dressing in place of mayo, add your favorite cold salad accouterments, and season to taste. Done. Super creamy, satiating, and protein packed.
My goal, this summer, if I may be so brazen, is to elevate the common cold salad, served in the warmer-weather months, to the level of the comfort food casserole served in the cold-weather months.
Why can’t we just eat cold salads as meals? Why can’t we just eat a big ‘ol bowl of potato salad or macaroni salad or whatever (formerly) mayo-based salad we want as our meal, without the shame, guilt, or judgement that comes with just filling up on sides?!
Hopefully, with my help, and the help of my Universal Vegan Cold Salad Dressing, the creamy cold salad will get a full makeover; transforming it from an “unhealthy” “side dish”, into a protein-rich main event.
As you can see, I’m quite passionate about this topic, so brace yourself: The following are the rantings of a madman. Or maybe a genius. Or maybe just someone who loves creamy cold salads a little too much.
Only time will tell.
When the weather cools down, we want to cozy up with a huge cream-of-whatever-soup-based casserole (like my Vegan Funeral Potatoes or my Brussels Sprouts Casserole), that will not only warm-up our bellies, but also warm-up our hearts.
Well, what do we do when we want that same comfort and “warmth” from our food, but it’s literally over 100 degrees outside?
Creamy cold salads! Yes. Those picnic and BBQ staples that, like the sides on a Thanksgiving table, are often better than the main course.
Hear me out: “Cold Salads” are to hot weather what “Hot Dishes” are to cold weather. Right?! With cold salads, you get that same creamy comfort experience of a casserole, but without any of the heat!
So, why hasn’t this connection ever been made before? I think our favorite part of the dish, the mayo, might have a little something to do with it.
In the past, cold salads have always been mayo-based, rendering them too calorically dense, and nutritionally vapid to function as a meal on their own. When you think about it, they’re just been carbs dressed in fat, which is both the best and worst part about them.
Thankfully, there’s such thing as vegan ingenuity to help us overcome this mayo obstacle, and vegan necessity is always the mother of invention in my kitchen.
So, what exactly was my necessity? Well, I needed to come up with a Universal Vegan Cold Salad Dressing (Think: a cold salad equivalent to a cream soup base), that could be used to make an infinite number of cold salad “casseroles”, that has a much better nutritional profile than vegan mayo.
Remember, I’m trying to elevate a side into a main, and I want to eat a substantial serving of whatever salad it is that I make, as a meal. So whether it’s a potato, a pasta, a broccoli, a rice, or a whatever salad, I want it to be significantly more nutritionally “generous” than vegan mayo, which is just 1400 calories of fat, per cup, without any other macro-nutrients or vitamins.
This dressing, and this idea of elevating the cold salad to the status of a hot dish has been a labor of love of mine for many years.
The first iterations of this dressing, and this concept started when I developed my Vegan Comfort Food Salad recipes a couple of years ago. I knew that I was onto something, and I knew that where I left off with those was not the end of where I knew this vision could go.
Growing up, I was always the kid who loved the mayo-based salads at picnics and weddings (I grew up in rural Northeastern Nevada where in-laws normally “catered” the weddings). I lived for the potato salads and the macaroni salads that were staples at those events.
The Vegan Wrench:
In 2020, vegans have it made. There’s pretty much nothing that we can’t get a vegan version of. There’s vegan mayo, and vegan sour cream, and butter, and cream cheese, and even vegan jarred Alfredo sauce! And for the most part, they’re all great.
The drawback to these products, though, is that they’re normally just oil-based, without much nutritional value at all. They taste great, but they don’t give you anything but flavor and texture. At least dairy and egg-based creamy sauces offer you a little bit of protein with your saturated fat.
But don’t get me wrong, I still love vegan mayo. My partner and I go through large jars of the stuff faster than the average veg couple. But when it comes to cold salads, you just need so much of it!
So as a vegan recipe developer, and a lover of all things creamy, I have a lot of options when it comes to making a vegan version of a dish that’s just as creamy as the non-vegan version.
What’s vegan AND creamy?:
- Plant-based milks – Soy, almond, cashew, oat, coconut, or any combination thereof, there are a ton of vegan milks on the market. The base of these milks are pretty much just the named ingredient blended with water and then strained. These can be used as the creamy component of a dish as-is, or they can be thickened with flours and starches (like in a bechamel or a gravy) to give that perfect creamy texture that we all know and love.
- Nuts and seeds – Nuts such as cashews and almonds can be blended with water to form a cream that’s not dissimilar from dairy-based heavy cream. You’ll need a higher concentration of nuts to water than you would if just making a milk, but the texture is nothing if not rich and creamy. Sunflower and hemp seeds can also be used in a similar way if you have nut allergies. Just soak the nuts or seeds, drain them, and then blend them with enough water to get to the desired consistency.
- Emulsify – Mayonnaise is oil whipped and suspended in egg yolks. Although vegans don’t use eggs in their cooking, they can still emulsify oils to the point of creating a vegan mayo. Store-bought vegan mayos have some stabilizers in them to keep the emulsion shelf-stable, but the concept is pretty much the same. So, replacing the mayo in a recipe with vegan mayo, is a one-two-one swap that nobody will be able to clock.
- Tofu – Tofu is pretty much soy milk cheese. Soy milk is made in a similar process to a nut milk, heated, and then an acid is added to it to make it curdle. The curds are collected, pressed together, and then you have tofu. There are infinite styles and textures of tofu available in stores, but if you’re looking for a creamy texture, then “silken” tofu is the way to go. Mori-Nu (affiliate link) is the most widely-available brand of silken tofu in the States, and it comes in varying densities from “soft” to “extra firm”. Just blend up the silken tofu, add your seasonings, and there you go.
Bringing it all together:
Each of these methods of getting to “creamy” have their advantages and disadvantages. Milks tend to be on the thinner side, while nut and seed based creams can be expensive to make and quite calorically dense. Emulsifications are 95% oil, and don’t provide much if any nutritional value for their high caloric density. Silken tofu is great, but it’s not available in every grocery store, and since it’s very high in water it has a tendency to “disappear” or get absorbed into dishes, such as cold salads, as they sit.
By combining these methods, we can use each one to its advantage, and help to counteract any of their negative attributes.
Silken tofu great not only for it’s physically properties, but it’s also very high in protein and dramatically lower in fat and calories than nuts, seeds, and oils.
When we add a few cashews to the mix, we add a bit of fat and body to the tofu, so that it doesn’t just get absorbed into whatever we put it on. Adding a bit of oil gives us a light emulsification as well as a barrier to help prevent full absorption. And finally, if the creamy sauce is too thick, we can use a plant-based milk to thin it out without diluting the flavor or texture too much.
So, by combining the silken tofu, cashews, and oil, we get the perfect creamy texture, with a greater nutritional profile, with a comparatively low caloric density.
On it’s own, however, this sauce doesn’t have much flavor, so how do we go from bland tofu to Universal Vegan Cold Salad Dressing?
- Bragg’s Liquid Aminos – Bragg’s is my go-to “soy sauce”. It’s rich and salty and full of umami goodness, and it also happens to be gluten-free. A fermented sauce like this helps to give a tremendous depth of flavor and saltiness. Any low-sodium soy sauce or tamari will work in this recipe if Bragg’s is unavailable to you.
- Lemon juice – Traditionally, mayonnaises and aiolis are made with lemon juice and or vinegar. Because the sauce is so rich and creamy, the acid helps (not only in the emulsification process) to lift the flavors up a bit and give a touch of brightness.
- Apple cider vinegar – The purpose of the vinegar is pretty much the same as the lemon juice. Really, any vinegar will work in this sauce, so if you don’t have apple cider, you could use rice or white wine instead.
- Yellow mustard – Most cold salads, like potato, pasta, and even egg or tuna salads have a bit of mayo. A bit of mustard in the dressing tips its hat to those cold salads, and adds another layer of flavor. If making one of the aforementioned salads, you could add a bit more mustard to taste.
- Nutritional yeast – A vegan’s secret weapon… Nutritional yeast is credited with giving a “cheesy” flavor to dishes, and that’s definitely true when added in larger quantities. With this dressing, it adds to the “mayo” flavor of the dish and helps to further develop the umami. There really isn’t any replacement for it if you can’t find it. The sauce will still be alright without it, but it’s definitely much better with it.
- Garlic – Adding a clove of fresh garlic bumps up the flavors of this dressing. If you don’t have fresh garlic, a ¼ to ½ teaspoon of granulated garlic will work as well.
- Onion powder – Rich onion flavor without the raw spiciness or extra liquid.
- Salt – You should salt all of your foods to taste. There are a lot of flavor elements in this dressing that need salt to help make them shine, and ultimately it’s up to your palate to decide just how much you need.
- Sugar – Like salt, a bit of sugar helps to bring out flavors. Mayo also contains a slight sweetness, so by adding sugar or a bit of sweetener to the dressing helps to mimic that flavor. If you don’t want to use granulated sugar, an equal amount of agave or maple syrup will work as well.
- Black pepper – In my opinion, you can’t have a creamy dressing without a good amount of black pepper. Black pepper adds just a slight bit of heat, and helps to cut through the richness of any creamy sauce. Add as much or as little as you’d like.
So now that you know why this dressing was so important for me to make, and you know what all goes into it, I bet your wondering where you could find some recipes to use it in.
Where can I use it?
- Teriyaki Chicken Bowl Salad
- Vegan Green Bean Casserole Salad
- Vegan Chicken Spaghetti Salad
- Frozen Pea and Almond Bacon Salad
- Vegan BBQ Potato “Chip” Salad
- Mac-auliflower Salad
- Better Than Bouillon – Early versions of this sauce use No Chicken flavored Better Than Bouillon (affiliate link) to add an incredibly rich umami flavor. Also, those first versions of the dressing were attempting to be a cold salad version of a cream of chicken soup base. If you can get your hands on it, adding a teaspoon or two to the dressing in place of salt, is a game changer. Since it is a bit difficult to source, however, I just eliminated it from this “Universal” version.
- Tofu only – The first iterations of this sauce that appear in the Green Bean Casserole Salad and Vegan Chicken Spaghetti recipes are all tofu-based. So, I know from experience that this dressing made from just tofu (nut free and oil free) works just fine. It’s best if you dress your salads just before serving, however, to avoid any of the “disappearing” that I mentioned.
Without further ado, here it is:
Universal Vegan Cold Salad Dressing
- 1 12 ounce package firm or extra firm silken tofu (Mori-Nu)
- ½ cup raw cashews*
- 1 tablespoon Bragg’s Liquid Aminos or low-sodium soy sauce
- ½ lemon, juiced
- 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
- ¼ teaspoon yellow mustard
- 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
- 1 tablespoon olive oil (omit to make oil-free)
- 1 small clove garlic
- ½ teaspoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon sugar
- black pepper to taste
- Add all ingredients to a high-speed blender. Blend for about 1 minutes, until there are no flecks of cashews, and the mixture is emulsified.
* If you aren’t using a high-speed blender such as a Vitamix or even a NutriBullet, then you should soak your cashews in cool water for a few hours before blending. You can also do a “quick soak” by simmering the cashews in hot water for about 10 minutes