What Is Thousand Island Dressing? Is It Just Ketchup and Mayo?

When perusing the salad dressing aisle, the bottles tell you what you’re going to get. Either the dressing is named after its contents, like blue cheese or raspberry vinaigrette, or the dressing is named after a country, like Italian or French, and those are so ubiquitous that everyone knows what they taste like. And then there’s Thousand Island dressing. Like a grainy video of a sasquatch lumbering through a forest, no one really knows what this mysterious sauce is or where it comes from. It’s high time we do our best Mulder and Scully impressions to reveal the truth of this crypto-sauce.

What is Thousand Island dressing?

The “Thousand Island” part of Thousand Island Dressing is an actual place. On the Saint Lawrence River, between New York and Ontario, there is an archipelago of 1,864 islands. To qualify as an island there, a piece of land has to be able to support two trees, so they are really stretching the definition of island. 

One origin story for Thousand Island dressing comes from the robust fishing and tourism industries of the area. At the turn of the 20th century, a fisherman’s wife named Sophia LaLonde purportedly would make the dressing for her husband’s lunch while he was out on the boat. It gained some local popularity and, as tourists caught onto it, they brought it back to their hometowns. 

A second origin story comes straight out of the famous Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City. The story goes that owner George Boldt forgot to put salad dressing on the menu. So, he instructed his head chef to make up a dressing from whatever he had on hand, and thus Thousand Island dressing was born. However, this story doesn’t account for the name. It’s likely that Boldt, a millionaire hotel magnate, had vacationed in the Thousand Islands. Perhaps he had it there and then brought it back to his hotel. Regardless, since the Waldorf-Astoria was at the forefront of cuisine in the biggest city in the country, it was a driver of taste, and Thousand Island dressing really took off from there.

I’m more inclined to give the credit to Mrs. LaLonde though.

What’s in Thousand Island dressing?

A simple internet search for Thousand Island dressing results in dozens of different recipes for it. And when you look at the ingredient list of commercially bottled dressings, it’s difficult to pinpoint the essential ingredients that make Thousand Island dressing amongst all the added preservatives, sugars, and weird starches. So let’s break it down.

The base for all Thousand Island dressings is mayonnaise. That’s going to be the conduit for all the other ingredients. The next most common ingredient is either ketchup or tomato paste. So far, we are in the creamy-tangy taste zone. Add some vinegar, citrus like lemon or orange juice, and a collection of spices; typical additions are salt, pepper, and something a little spicier like paprika. 

The ingredient that takes Thousand Island dressing to the next level is a pickle relish, either dill or sweet. That’s the most traditional add-in, but I’ve seen recipes that use other finely chopped elements like olives, onions, peppers, chives, and even hard-boiled eggs. Most bottled dressings at the grocery store are going the pickle route, but if you’re making this dressing at home, the world’s your oyster. Sure, go ahead and add some canned oysters

If you’ve ever had a Big Mac, you’ll know what Thousand Island dressing tastes like. McDonald’s “secret sauce” is basically their own variation of a Thousand Island dressing. In-N-Out and other fast food chains do the same thing. 

Russian dressing vs Thousand Island dressing: What’s the difference?

If you look at Russian dressing and Thousand Island dressing side by side, they’re pretty similar. And that’s because both sauces have a mayo and ketchup base. However, while Thousand Island dressing includes pickle relish, making it a bit sweeter, Russian dressing tends to include horseradish to give it a little kick. It’s a small but significant difference. 

About the Author

Luke Field

Luke Field is a writer and actor originally from Philadelphia. He was the former Head Writer of branded content at CollegeHumor and was also a contributing writer and actor to the CollegeHumor Originals cast. He has extensive improv and sketch stage experience, performing both at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and with their Touring Company. In addition to writing, he also works as a Story Producer, most recently on season 4 of Accident, Suicide, or Murder on Oxygen. Keep your eyes peeled for his brief but impactful appearance as Kevin, the screaming security guard, in the upcoming feature The Disruptors, directed by Adam Frucci.

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  • Up through the 1960s burgers were dressed with the eater’s choice of SEPARATE condiments: mayo, ketchup, mustard, and/or relish. Starting in the 1970s McDonalds created a lazy-man’s route to the condiments, using thousand island dressing (and calling it “Special Sauce”) on their Big Macs as a catch-all. The other big fast food chains quickly followed suit, and it’s stuck to this day. Thousand island dressing had already existed by the 1960s, and is simply a mix of mayo, mustard, ketchup and relish. Sometimes the old-school condiment chili sauce would be used instead of ketchup. Easy to make your own.