Ah, Russian dressing. Of all the salad dressings and sauces, there is perhaps more controversy surrounding this condiment than any other. Where did it come from? (News flash: It wasn’t Russia) What ingredients should be used in making it? What color should it be?
Sadly, I don’t have all these answers. The origins of Russian dressing are lost in the mists of time. Sure, you’ll find stories on the internets and in foodie books, but they all seem to disagree with each other, so instead of repeating any of them here, I’ll just say that it most likely appeared sometime around the early Twentieth Century—A time I like to call the Golden Age of salad dressings. Prior to this time we pretty much had oil and vinegar to dress a salad. But suddenly, new and interesting dressings started popping up around the globe with great regularity. Italian dressing was born, then French, Caesar, Green Goddess, Thousand Island. All of these and many more popped up in the first few decades of the Twentieth.
By the 50s, it was a regular smorgasbord of dressings available. It truly was, ahem, the salad days, and a great time to be a dressing aficionado. (I am, in fact, a dressing aficionado. I keep over a dozen on hand at any given time. But hey, variety is the spice of life, right?)
Speaking of Thousand Island, this dressing has a bit of a murky history as well, perhaps because it is muddled up with Russian dressing’s history.
One was most likely an offshoot of the other, but no one is sure which came first. (Though some will argue that they know) The two are used interchangeably in many recipes (including Reuben Sandwiches), and they are quite similar in taste and appearance.
Now, if your only familiarity with Russian dressing is Aisle Seven of your local Piggly Wiggly, well then, you might say, “Chris, Russian and Thousand Island are different. Look, here’s a picture!”
And to this I would say, yes, store-bought Russian dressing is somewhat different from T.I. It has a deep red color as opposed to beige, and it tastes strongly of celery seed. In fact, other than that celery seed flavor, it is quite close to Kraft’s Catalina French dressing.
But, I say to you--if you go to a real, honest Injun New York deli, this isn’t what you’re gonna get on your Ruben. You’re gonna get something that looks like Thousand Island. But, it’s gonna taste slightly different than the T.I. you’re used to. And that’s because it’s not T.I., it’s Russian. Confused? Me too. There are more Russian dressing recipes out there than you can shake a hammer and sickle at, and they’re all different. But hey, I wanna make some Russian Dressing so I can make me a Reuben. So, what to do?
Well, I decided that if anyone is an authority on the matter, it should be those good folks who run the aforementioned N.Y. Delis. I remember the taste of their Russian, so I decided that was what I would shoot for when I mixed me up a batch.
I started with about six different recipes, and tried them all. All were interesting, and one was even a little bit weird. It had beets in it, which I thought was cool (beets are so Russian-y, after all), but this one came out all pink, and it tasted a bit beet-y, so it wasn’t really like any R.D. I’d ever tasted. I liked it, but it weren’t what I was looking for.
I finally came up with combining some of the recipes, taking what was common to all of them (like mayo, relish and horseradish) and then tweaking it a bit here and there. In fact, speaking of the horseradish, I think this is the one ingredient that sets Russian apart from T.I. Most Russians have horseradish, most T.I.s do not.
But, enough with the histories and formalities. Let’s go make us some dressing. Some Russian dressing. But unlike a Russian racehorse, we’ll take our time doing it.
NY Deli-Style Russian Dressing
1 Cup Mayonnaise
1/3 Cup Heinz Chili Sauce
2 Tablespoons Sour Cream
2 Tablespoons Minced Cornichons (or Dill Pickle Relish)
2 Tablespoons Minced Onion
1 Tablespoon Prepared Horseradish
1 Tablespoon Celery Seed
1 Teaspoon Worcestershire Sauce
1/2 Teaspoon Lemon Juice
1/2 Teaspoon Paprika
1/2 Teaspoon Kosher Salt
Combine all the ingredients together in a bowl and mix thoroughly by hand with a whisk.
Refrigerate for a couple hours to let the flavors meld. That’s pretty much it. Wow, I guess we didn’t need to take our time after all. This really is the dressing to make if you’re in a rush.
A few notes. Use real mayonnaise and not Miracle Whip or such…they are not the same. Make sure to use Heinz Chili Sauce.
If you can’t find it for some reason, use ketchup rather than another brand of chili sauce. The thing you’re going for with this condiment is a spicy tomato-y flavor, and that’s just what Heinz has, a spicier than ketchup ketchup flavor, with no actual chile heat. Other sauces might have that heat, and while that might be nice for us chili-heads, it wouldn’t be apropos in our Russian Dressing.
Also, try to find good cornichons for the recipe. Maille brand from France are quite nice.
Cornichons have a slightly different flavor than their more common cousin pickles,
and I think they work much better in this dressing recipe than pickle relish does, which to me tends to be reminiscent of ball park hot dogs. Finally, make sure you’re using celery seed, and not celery salt, which would make the dressing too salty.
That's about it, comrads!
Russian Dressing, chilled and ready to invade your taste buds!
Until next time,