Taste Tests

We taste the leading brands to find the distinct differences and rate them with tasting scores.

Taste Test: Bottled Tartar Sauce

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[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

The Winners!

  • #1: America's Choice
  • #2: Hellman's Tartar Sauce
  • #3: Kraft Tartar Sauce
Honorable Mention:
  • Gold's Horseradish Tartar Sauce

There's no such thing as tartar sauce neutrality. When that nice lady at the clam shack asks you if you want tartar sauce, it's never "I could take it or leave it." It's always a definite yes or a resounding no. Some of us in the Serious Eats office love the tangy, pickle-y stuff. Ed grew up dipping his french fries in it. I like nothing more than tartar sauce on my onion rings (and, obviously, fried clams). Robyn expressed immense regret at being out of the office during our tasting.

On the other hand, there are the tartar sauce haters. Leandra hid behind her desk during the tasting and was only forced into it when we physically brought the samples to her. Jen was a good sport about agreeing to taste, but deigned to do so in pico-liter sized portions. Erin was finally excused after ominous threats of a vocal gag-fest.

If you fall into the category of tartar sauce hater, this article is not for you. But if you are a tartar sauce lover—well, then, come sit by my fire as we discover who makes the best commercially available sauce.

The Contenders

  • America's Choice Tartar Sauce
  • Kraft Tartar Sauce
  • Woeber's Sweet & Tangy Tartar Sauce
  • Hellman's Tartar Sauce
  • Bookbinder's Tartar Sauce
  • Trader Joe's Tartar Sauce
  • Schlotterbeck and Foss Tartar Sauce
  • Gold's Tartar Sauce
  • Whole Food's Brand Tartar Sauce
  • The Criteria

    A good tartar sauce needs not just plain sweetness or acidity, but a balance of both. Too much sugar with no acid and it comes off as cloying. There should be plenty of pickle-y bits inside the mayonnaise base, packed with crunch and texture. Soft, squishy pickles or mayo that's too gloppy or greasy are unacceptable.

    We're talking the ultimate seafood condiment here, so above all it has to be fresh to complement the brininess of a good fried oyster or the clean flavor of flaky white fried fish. Whether the acidity comes from vinegar or lemon juice doesn't matter (though in any case, it has to be flavorful). Odd flavors like celery seed, dried herbs, or too much mustard were not appreciated by tasters.

    The Winner, With Reservations

    Gold's (5.6/10), 25¢/ounce

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    Gold's brand won many of the tasters over with its horseradish kick, while others found it inappropriate in a tartar sauce. If there's a seder-loving Jew in you, you'll probably be all over this brand. If traditional is what you're going for, then read on...

    Recommended

    #1: America's Choice (4.7/10) 17¢/ounce

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    Plenty of pickles and a balanced sweet and sour flavor put this generic supermarket brand at the top of our list. Some complained of a gloppy texture, but most described it as light and creamy.

    #2: Hellman's (4.3/10) 22¢/ounce

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    America's favorite mayonnaise company makes our second favorite tartar sauce. High in sweetness, it was also ranked second-highest in terms of acidity and freshness. Some folks were off-put by its yellow color (from the curry powder in its ingredients list), but most were able to look past it to its more-complex-than-most flavor.

    #3: Kraft (4.1/10) 17¢/ounce

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    Kraft's tartar sauce featured the crispest, crunchiest pickle bits, which helped put it in third place. A straight-up sauce with mild sweetness, it ups its flavor with a hint of mustard and onion. Tasters praised its clean, natural flavor and texture.

    #4: Trader Joe's (3.9/10) 25¢/ounce

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    "Tastes like typical commercial sauce," was the overall opinion, though one taster felt it had "an odd sour taste." The thickest of the sauces, it required a spoon to get out of the jar.

    Not Recommended

    #5: Bookbinder's (3.3/10) 36¢/ounce

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    "Greasy, oily, and all-around gross," was the strongest comment we saw. Other's didn't like the odd spicing. There were plenty of pickles in it, but none with any crunch.

    #6: Woeber's (2.6/10) 26¢/ounce

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    Parsley flakes and "natural lemon flavoring" didn't rescue this sauce from a strangely dessert-like sweetness. A complete lack of acidity to balance it out left it lingering close to last place.

    #7: Schlotterbeck and Foss (2.6/10) 62¢/ounce

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    They win the award for both highest price and strangest flavor. "SOMETHING IS WRONG WITH THIS," we were all thinking. More than one commenter wrote "Yuck," "WTF is this?!" or some variant. Avoid.

    #8: Whole Foods (2.2/10), 50¢/ounce

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    As usual, Whole Foods's house brand fell firmly into last place. What is it that prevents them from making good packaged products? "Grotesquely sweet like pickle pudding," yet simultaneously lacking in any real pickle flavor, there were few redeeming qualities in this second-most expensive brand. Odd spicing with too much celery seed.

    Wanna skip the bottles and go for the real deal? Check out the our own tartar sauce recipe. It comes together in moments, and blows any store-bought sauce out of the water.

    Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.

    About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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