What Is Tartar Sauce And What Does It Taste Like?

Seafood lovers, unite! If you're from somewhere along a coastline (or perhaps Europe), you might be more familiar with tartar sauce than someone residing far inland. But for those who aren't familiar with this popular sauce, you might be missing out on a delicious condiment that could become your new favorite.

Tartar sauce is a condiment that is typically served cold, often as a side for dipping fried seafood dishes like fried clams or fried calamari. It also works well as a sauce added to sandwiches or atop steak tartare. Even if you haven't heard of tartar sauce until now, it is easy to find and just as easy to make yourself. It's a simple sauce that packs a flavor punch, and it's hard to forget once you've tried it. And, because there are a multitude of ways to make tartar sauce depending on what herbs and add-ins you prefer, it's easy to perfect your own unique version.

What is tartar sauce?

Tartar sauce is a cold, creamy condiment that is primarily off-white in color and from a glance, looks similar to vanilla pudding with herbs and other ingredients blended in. However, tartar sauce tastes nothing like pudding, though it does have a slightly sweet taste. At its simplest, tartar sauce is essentially a combination of mayonnaise, chopped pickles and chopped onions (via Recipe Tips). When making tartar sauce at home or purchasing a small-batch, craft-made version, you might find capers, olives, dill, lemon juice, vinegar, or even mustard added into the sauce. While traditional tartar sauce is not vegan as it contains mayonnaise, it is gluten-free! Of course, you can always swap the mayonnaise for a vegan kind like Vegenaise to fit your needs.

Taste of Home explains that the sauce's name comes from the French term "sauce tartare," which is "named after the Tatars, who settled in the Ukraine and parts of Russia." Moreover, Chopstick Chronicles states that the Tartars essentially introduced the idea of eating raw, finely minced meat, known commonly now as steak tartare, with a sauce that went on to be called Tartar sauce.

How is tartar sauce made?

Luckily, tartar sauce is pretty easy to make yourself. Grab your favorite brand of mayonnaise, and you're already a good percentage of the way there. For a very basic form of tartar sauce, you can combine the mayonnaise with your preferred brand of sweet relish, which covers your chopped pickles and likely your chopped onions as well (with a few herbs probably thrown in, too). This McDonald's copycat tartar sauce requires only five ingredients, making it quick, easy, and just as delicious as a more complex variety. Our Red Lobster copycat tartar sauce is similarly simple, but mixes things up with the addition of minced shredded carrots.

If you want to tweak tartar sauce to fit your specific tastes, there are a ton of ways to do that, too. For example, if you're looking for a vegan-friendly recipe, use your favorite brand of vegan mayonnaise! If you want fresher, crunchier pickles, buy dill pickles and chop them yourself (heck, you could even pickle them yourself).

Inspired Taste offers a few different suggestions for switching up your tartar sauce ingredients, including using bread and butter pickles, fresh lemon juice, or Dijon mustard. You can also get super do-it-yourself and even make your own mayonnaise.

What does tartar sauce taste like?

Tartar sauce has a semi-sweet, semi-savory flavor profile, with a bit of tartness. It's often served with fried seafood dishes, as its smooth creaminess really compliments the savory flavor and crispy texture. Since tartar sauce contains a variety of flavors and textures, the result is pretty dynamic. The mayonnaise base adds a mellow, creamy taste and texture, and the bits of chopped pickles and onions add both crunch and tanginess. 

Tartar sauce can be more tart or more mild depending on the amount of ingredients like lemon juice and capers you add into the mix. It really all depends on preference; some people like a tartar sauce with a lot of added ingredients for a more textured sauce, others like to keep things simple and smooth. The resulting flavor of your sauce will also depend on any herbs you add, like dill or parsley, which can make the flavor even more complex — just be careful not to add too much or they will overpower the sauce!

How to cook with tartar sauce

Tartar sauce is almost always associated with some kind of seafood. Yellow Bliss Road notes that a good tartar sauce recipe "can really enhance all kinds of seafood dishes," specifically breaded and fried fish, noting that the sauce is "a must for classic fish and chips." Essentially, it's a great sauce for dipping crispy bits into, or as a condiment on some kind of fish patty or fried sandwich. 

Of course, since tartar sauce originated as a sauce for steak tartare, it is used in that dish as well. However, a good steak tartare is a work of art meant to stand on its own, so again: be careful not to add too much tartar sauce so as to overpower any other flavors. Tartar sauce is nearly always recommended to be served cold. If you have just finished making your own tartar sauce and don't have to serve it immediately, consider AllRecipes' tip to refrigerate it for several hours before using.

Where to buy tartar sauce and how to store it

Tartar sauce is typically available in most major grocery stores. It's also readily available online on major retail sites or specialty stores, too. It might be worthwhile to check your local artisan store in case there are types of tartar sauce that have been made and packaged in your area — those likely have less preservatives and artificial additions, too.

If purchasing tartar sauce in a grocery store, look for it near the seafood counter. If that fails, try looking in the condiments or dressings sections (near the ketchup and similar products, for example). Tartar sauce will not be in a refrigerated section in the store, though once opened at home you will definitely want to store it in the fridge. Inspired Taste explains that homemade tartar sauce will last for about a week in your fridge. But pre-packaged tartar sauce can last up to six months when properly stored in your fridge, according to Insider. Just keep an eye out for any funky smells, off-seeming texture, or generally anything that looks strange about your tartar sauce — it might be a sign that it's time to grab a new one.

Nutrition information about tartar sauce

Tartar sauce is a tasty and enjoyable condiment that pairs well with many dishes, but you might want to hold off on making it a staple of your diet. While it certainly isn't the most unhealthy food you could be eating, you won't find it at the top of a health-centric or diet-friendly ingredient list.

According to the American Heart Association, you're much better off making your own tartar sauce at home, because you have total control over how much salt, sugar, or other potentially unhealthy ingredients are in your sauce.

There are only about 60 calories per serving in the AHA's tartar sauce recipe, which combines store-bought mayonnaise with fresh ingredients like capers and yields 12 servings. You are getting a little bit of fat from the mayonnaise, about 10mg of sodium, and some carbohydrates, but a little bit of fiber and protein, too. Again, tartar sauce isn't the healthiest or unhealthiest food out there, and like most other foods, it can be enjoyed in moderation.