We Asked 11 Chefs to Define a Condiment (and Now We’re Really Confused)

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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

I have a burning question for everyone: Is a hotdog a sandwich? Just kidding! Let’s all agree to put that one to rest. Instead, I’m here start another debate.

  • Is guacamole a condiment?
  • What about hummus?
  • Ranch dressing on pizza?
  • Ranch dressing on salad?

If you feel confident in your answers, ask the person next to you those very same questions. Chances are their answers won’t match yours.

This social experiment got its start after a heated discussion of what constitutes a condiment here at Kitchn HQ. Seriously, it was CONTENTIOUS. As a result, these questions have been keeping me up at night for weeks. In an attempt to gain clarity on the matter, I decided to crowdsource a definitive answer from the chef community. Here’s what each chef had to say.

1. Consistency matters.

Consistency-wise, a condiment needs to be thinner than guacamole but no thicker than ranch (which I think is the perfect condiment consistency). If it’s too thick, it becomes a dip.

Matt Hyland, Executive Chef of Pizza Loves Emily restaurants

2. Condiments are different in every culture.

A condiment is a sauce or seasoning that is applied by the consumer (not the cook) to customize the flavor of a dish. I feel condiments should have a general wide appeal, like the things that are on the table all the time. At a Mexican restaurant those would be regional vinegar-based hot sauces, and maybe a house salsa. At a Vietnamese spot it would be Sriracha, sambal, chiles in vinegar. In Japan, it would be togarashi. Plus, anything on a hotdog cart. Condiments become ingredients when added to the preparation of the food. For example, soy sauce in a marinade is a seasoning, but with sushi it’s a condiment.

— Julya Shin, Chef and Partner at Nokni, Oakland, CA

3. Condiments can be more than supporting actors.

“Condiments are usually thought of as supporting actors to highlight another ingredient, but sometimes they’re so good that they turn everything around them into a delivery system (like honey on toast).”

Jessica Koslow, Chef and Creator of Sqirl, Los Angeles, CA

4. Condiments aren’t one-size-fits-all.

“I truly feel condiments are more than just the average ketchup, mustard, relish, and mayo. As a chef, I like being creative and making different sauces for topping sandwiches, flavored aiolis, house-made steak sauces, pickled shallot relishes, creamy mustards, and new spins on ketchup like scotch-infused. I also love creamy avocado dressing, and seasoned hummus (make it smooth, make it chunky — you are the chef). The sky’s the limit with condiments.”

Barry Dakake, Chef at Scotch 80 Prime at the Palms Casino Resort, Las Vegas, NV

5. Condiments are not necessary to a dish.

“A condiment is something you serve with an already-made dish that doesn’t necessarily need it. Hot sauce and ketchup are definitely condiments, but I wouldn’t say that guacamole and hummus are because they can stand on their own.”

—Dona Savitsky, Chef and Owner at Doña Tomás in Oakland, CA, and Tacubaya in Berkeley, CA

6. Condiments should not be eaten on their own.

“Anything that can be eaten on its own — like a standalone dish — doesn’t count as a condiment. Hummus isn’t a condiment because you can eat it as a standalone thing. I’m on the fence about guacamole, though. In my opinion, salsa is a condiment, and ketchup/mustard/mayo (I swear by Kewpie) are for sure.”

Miles Thompson, Executive Chef at Michael’s, Santa Monica, CA

7. Olive oil and balsamic vinegar are condiments.

“A good extra-virgin olive oil goes a long way in adding flavor to a dish. I prefer a Ligurian olive oil for lighter dishes and salads. For heartier dishes, I prefer to use a full-flavored Sicilian or Tuscan olive oil. I also keep a bottle of good balsamic vinegar, the real stuff — aceto balsamico. A little bit goes a long way. I usually use it on top of greens or for finishing a dish; I don’t really use it as a salad dressing. Just a little over the top of greens is enough.”

Adam Hill, Executive Chef at Manzo at Eataly, NYC

8. Salad dressing is not a condiment.

“For me, a condiment is anything that is not necessary to the final dish but can still be eaten with a finished dish with no need for further cooking. A condiment enhances as well as gives the finished dish a whole new character. A dressing is necessary for a salad, so in my book, salad dressing is not a condiment.”

—Floyd Cardoz, Chef and Creator of The Bombay Bread Bar, NYC

9. Condiments are in the eye of the beholder.

“I see a condiment as a prepared, multi-ingredient product that is used as a personalized finishing touch on any dish. In other words, salt and pepper wouldn’t necessarily count as condiments. But the field is pretty much wide open to individual interpretation. One person’s salad dressing can be another’s sandwich dip.”

—Craig Koketsu, Chef and Partner of Quality Meats, Quality Eats, Park Avenue, and Quality Italian, NYC

10. Some chefs would prefer if you didn’t use them.

“Condiments can be a lifesaver (I love mustard and mayo), but as a chef I never want my customers to reach for them — not even salt! But the reality is that sometimes they will, so I do my best to serve up a great meal and edit the condiment options. At my restaurant, Cosecha, every taco comes with its own specific salsa, a wedge of lime, and a dash of salt. If you need pure heat, I have bottles of green habanero salsa on the tables.”

Dominica Rice Cisneros, Chef and Owner of Cosecha

11. Chain restaurants keep tabs on condiment preferences.

“At Popeyes, what people like to use for dipping fries and chicken varies from region to region. Garlic mayo is big in Canada, “golf sauce” (a blend of ketchup, mayo, and lime) is popular in Peru, and in Vietnam our customers love dipping chicken in Red Boat Fish Sauce. We are always up for condiment suggestions.”

—Amy Alarcón, Director of Culinary Innovation for Popeyes

Here’s What We Learned About Condiments

Clearly we did not reach a consensus about what constitutes a condiment, but there was a common thread in many of the answers: Condiments are flavor enhancers that can vary wildly based on each individual’s taste preferences and are thought of as unnecessary to the final dish. Declaring that something is a condiment doesn’t hinge upon what the ingredient is, but rather, how that particular ingredient is used. Capeesh?

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