How to Make Tartar Sauce

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Tartar sauce is a classic condiment, most commonly used to enhance the flavors of seafood dishes, particularly fried fish. Its creamy base, punctuated with pickles, onions, and often capers, delivers a tangy punch that contrasts delightfully with the mildness of fish. The sauce's origin dates back to the 19th century, with variations found in both French and English cuisine. It is named after the Tatars from the Eurasian Steppe, though the connection is more culinary romance than historical fact.

History and Origin

The concept of adding sharp or acidic ingredients to creamy bases has long been a part of European cuisine. The sauce known as "tartar sauce" was first seen in French cookbooks in the early 1800s, where it was typically served with steak tartare, another dish purportedly inspired by the Tatars. Over the years, tartar sauce evolved into a staple accompaniment for seafood, not just in France but across the world, particularly in Britain and the United States.


Traditional tartar sauce ingredients include:

  • Mayonnaise: The base of the sauce, providing creaminess and richness.
  • Pickles or pickled cucumbers: Finely chopped for a tangy kick.
  • Onions: Typically white onions, finely minced.
  • Lemon juice: Adds freshness and a bright, citrusy acidity.
  • Capers: Optional, but they add a distinctive briny flavor.
  • Fresh herbs: Usually dill, parsley, or tarragon, finely chopped.
  • Salt and pepper: For seasoning.

Additional variations might include:

  • Mustard: A teaspoon can enhance the depth of the sauce.
  • Hard-boiled eggs: Finely chopped to add texture.
  • Horseradish: For a spicy kick.
  • Worcestershire sauce: Just a dash can deepen the flavor profile.

How to Make Tartar Sauce

Making tartar sauce is a straightforward process that allows for personal tweaks and adjustments based on individual taste preferences. Here is a basic recipe:

  1. Prepare the Mayonnaise Base: Start with about one cup of good quality mayonnaise, either store-bought or homemade. If making mayonnaise from scratch, combine egg yolks, a teaspoon of mustard, and slowly whisk in oil until the mixture emulsifies and thickens.

  2. Chop the Add-ins: Finely chop the pickles or gherkins, capers (if using), and herbs. The onions should be minced finely to avoid overpowering the sauce with a raw onion flavor.

  3. Mix Ingredients: In a medium bowl, mix the mayonnaise with the chopped pickles, a tablespoon of capers, the minced onion, and about two tablespoons of finely chopped herbs.

  4. Season: Add the juice of half a lemon, salt, and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Stir well to combine. If using, add a small amount of mustard, horseradish, or Worcestershire sauce for additional flavor layers.

  5. Adjust Consistency and Flavor: Depending on personal preference, adjust the thickness of the sauce with more mayonnaise or a bit of pickle juice if too thick. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more lemon juice or salt if needed.

  6. Refrigerate: Let the sauce sit in the refrigerator for at least an hour before serving. This resting time allows the flavors to meld together beautifully.

Serving Suggestions

Tartar sauce is most commonly served with seafood, such as:

  • Fried fish: Classic fish and chips are almost invariably served with a side of tartar sauce.
  • Fish cakes: A dollop of tartar sauce can enhance simple fish cakes.
  • Battered shrimp: Adds a tangy contrast to crispy shrimp.
  • Crab cakes: Complements the sweetness of crab meat.

Beyond seafood, tartar sauce can also be a great addition to:

  • Vegetarian dishes: Such as fried mushrooms or as a dip for vegetable fritters.
  • Sandwich spreads: Adds flavor to chicken or egg salad sandwiches.
  • Potato dishes: Works well with roasted or fried potatoes.


Tartar sauce can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week. The acidity from the lemon juice and pickles helps to preserve the sauce, but it's best consumed while fresh to enjoy its peak flavor.

Nutritional Considerations

While delicious, tartar sauce is high in calories and fats due to its mayonnaise base. For a healthier version, yogurt or low-fat mayonnaise can be used as substitutes. These alternatives provide a lighter version while still offering a creamy texture and tangy flavor.

Tartar sauce is a versatile and easy-to-make condiment that pairs wonderfully with a variety of dishes, especially seafood. Its creamy texture, combined with the crunch and tang from pickles and capers, provides a delightful balance that enhances the overall flavor of mild foods. Whether used in traditional settings or as a creative culinary addition, tartar sauce remains a favorite choice for adding a zesty touch to meals.