Thousand Island Dressing Is Actually Quite a Special Sauce

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Thousand Island dressing is not generally seen as sophisticated. I associate it with steak house salad bars, deli sandwiches and country clubs. (Go ahead and tell me your club has a fancy chef and a locally sourced menu. I will believe you. But the one I grew up going to had Thousand Island dressing, wedge salads, prime rib and buttery Captain's Wafers served with a side of butter. In other words, delicious food.)

Fancy or not, Thousand Island dressing is delicious, sweet, tangy and creamy. And I love a recipe with a good back story.

Though the origins of the dressing have never been proven, I like the story from the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River.

Read More: The Mystery of the Thousand Islands Dressing at ThousandIslands Life

The more I tried to research the original recipe, the more confused I got. Although I had been told that the original Thousand Island dressing had no pickle relish, I found plenty of recipes that included it, and I happen to prefer mine with relish. Various green things have been added, including olives, parsley, green pepper, chives and green onions. Some recipes included black olives, or red peppers. Others called for Worcestershire sauce or various vinegars.

What was I to do? I looked to a classic cookbook.

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My Joy of Cooking is from 1973. I inherited it from my mother, who ultimately gave up on cookbooks and used recipe cards. The recipe is simple, and I made a few changes. It calls for 1/4 cup chili sauce or ketchup. Was 1973 ready for Sriracha? I wasn't sure, so I used half Sriracha and half ketchup. I also added a quarter cup of pickle relish, because I couldn't help myself. I also added about a quarter cup of sugar. In the end, I added a splash of milk, because I prefer a runnier dressing, almost like a dipping sauce for a sandwich.

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Speaking of dipping sauces, this brings me to another point. Thousand Island dressing, or some version of it, is often referred to as this or that restaurant's "Special Sauce." Many a Reuben sandwich includes it, though there is a pretty spirited debate going concerning Thousand Island vs. Russian dressing on that sandwich. My local favorite dipping sauce is from Groucho's and is named "45 Sauce," after the year it was perfected.

Making my own dressing from the Joy of Cooking recipe, I tweaked it based on repeated taste tests between mine and the 45 Sauce I brought home. (Yes, I felt pretty ill by the end of my experiment. They both tasted much better by the next day.) I ended up adding 1/4 cup of sugar — and could have added more — because that seemed to be the difference between my dressing and Groucho's delicious sauce. Next time, I'll trying using sweet pickle relish instead of regular.

In the course of my research, I also learned that many places consider Thousand Island dressing to be a cornerstone of the wedge salad, a delightful dish consisting of a large wedge of iceberg lettuce, topped with chopped tomatoes, bacon and — sorry, y'all — not Thousand Island dressing. Blue cheese is the only way to go.

→ My idea of the perfect wedge: Wedge and W(h)ine on The Shop Tart

In the end, the essential ingredients in Thousand Island dressing are mayonnaise, ketchup or chili sauce, hard boiled egg and some kind of olives. The rest is up to the chef!

As for the Russian dressing vs. Thousand Island debate...that's a whole 'nother conversation!

Thousand Island dressing recipes from around the web

  • Joy of Cooking - This one features green pepper and chives, but no relish.
  • The Food Network - This is a good basic recipe, calling for chili sauce and ketchup.
  • Food.com - This version is based on Kraft's recipe, simple and sweet.
  • Allrecipes.com - This version comes from a local Thousand Islander and is purported to be the original.
  • Epicurious.com - This Bon Appetit recipe includes capers. Yum!

Have you made Thousand Island dressing? What are your essential ingredients?

(Image credits: Anne Wolfe Postic)

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