What Is A Condiment, Really?

Ah, condiments. We talk about them a lot, and we all have our favorites ... but what are they, really? 

For many people, condiments are what truly make a meal. From spicing up burgers to creamier mashed potatoes and even transforming milkshakes, condiments habitually step in to save the day and make for an incredible dining experience. There's just one problem: despite our love for them, they don't have a straightforward definition. Merriam-Webster describes condiments as "Something used to enhance the flavor of food." That's a decent starting point, but by that standard, a number of ingredients could fit the bill. 

The jury is out when it comes to professionals, too. As evidenced by a roundup of chef responses to Kitchn's request to define a condiment, even the most seasoned (pun intended) pros differ on what might qualify. Pizza Loves Emily's executive chef Matt Hyland believes consistency plays a role. "A condiment needs to be thinner than guacamole but no thicker than ranch ... If it's too thick, it becomes a dip," he opined. On the other end of the spectrum, Quality Italian chef Craig Kokestu argued, "One person's salad dressing can be another's sandwich dip." Making things even more confusing, Floyd Cardoz, chef at The Bombay Bread Bar, is of the mind that salad dressing wouldn't qualify because it's "necessary for a salad." So, our question remains. What is a condiment?

Most agree that it's something added, after the fact

Condiments may be tricky to define, but most chefs and lexicographers (look that one up!) agree that condiments are additions. 

As Nokni chef Julya Shin told Kitchn, "A condiment is a sauce or seasoning that is applied by the consumer (not the cook) to customize the flavor of the dish." Likewise, Dona Savitsky of Doña Tomás explained, "A condiment is something you serve with an already-made dish that doesn't necessarily need it." Those descriptions align with the Collins dictionary definition, which says they're "added to food when you eat it." 

That's not to say that condiments can't also be used as ingredients. Shin points out that "soy sauce in a marinade is a seasoning, but with sushi it's a condiment." So some condiments can be used in the cooking process — case in point: you can add mayo for ultra-moist baked chicken or even mustard to help panko stick to salmon.

Whether we prefer our condiments as add-ons or ingredients, we can all agree on our love for them, as last year, Americans shelled out nearly half a billion dollars for just the most popular ones (via Statista). So, go forth and use them to your heart's content, and while you're at it, we highly recommend these easy homemade recipes to make your own.