Is Russian Dressing Really Russian?

The surprising where and what of a Reuben's best friend.

Russian dressing is a classic condiment that elevates the Reuben from a combination of corned beef and sauerkraut into something truly divine. Truly, no classic delicatessen is worth a damn if they don't have a whole bunch of this stuff on hand to slather on sandwiches.

But what of Russian dressing's origins? As it turns out, the name doesn't really tell the story of where Russian Dressing is from, how it came to be, or what makes it different from similar salad dressings or sandwich spreads. Still, the story of Russian dressing's history — and the surprising central ingredient that may or may not have helped give the spread its name — is worth investigating.

Russian dressing isn't Russian

Though its name might suggest this emulsion of ketchup, mayo, and other ingredients was once served at banquets honoring Russia's autocratic tsars, Russian dressing comes from the state whose motto is "Live Free or Die."

That's right: Believe it or not, Russian Dressing hails from the decidedly-not-Russian province of Nashua, New Hampshire. Sources credit its invention to one James E. Colburn. First plying his trade at a meat market, legend has it that Colburn opened his own wholesale grocery outpost in 1906. At some point afterward, a biographical sketch from New Hampshire Resources, Attractions and Its People, a History, Colburn "hit upon an assembly of ingredients, which he named Russian salad dressing."

Soon enough, the idea took off to the point that Colburn was selling his concoction to retailers and hotels far from Nashua, providing him with enough of a steady income that he could retire a wealthy man in 1924.

In further evidence that the dressing is a uniquely American concoction, other places a bit closer to Russia certainly think of Russian dressing as American — least if the existence of what the Germans call American dressing (combining a yogurt base with ketchup, creme fraiche, mustard, lemon juice, and sugar) is any guide.

So why the heck is it called Russian dressing?

Knowing that Russian dressing is certainly not Russian, it's natural to wonder how the heck this creamy concoction got its name.

As with many culinary developments that predate widespread advertising and mass media culture, the etymological origin of Russian dressing remains subject to debate. For a while, the working theory was that Russian dressing got its name from the presence of caviar. The belief that "In its original form, [Russian dressing] always contained caviar" was echoed by the New York Times as late as 1978. However, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America believes that the idea that Russian dressing once contained caviar "is unlikely."

Whether or not Colburn ever put caviar in his Russian dressing is up for debate, but subsequent versions of the recipe nonetheless took the caviar concept and ran with it. A 1957 New York Times also notes that an early version of Larousse Gastronomique said that Russian dressing should be made with mayonnaise, poached coral (for its colorful tint), the pulverized shell of a lobster, fresh black caviar, and seasoned with salt. Needless to say, that's … not how anyone makes Russian dressing anymore.

So how do you make Russian dressing today?

The one thing your prototypical version has in common with that, uh, interesting recipe above is the use of mayonnaise. You'll also find portions of ketchup and Worcestershire as well. From there, you can kind of freestyle it a bit, though a pretty good recipe for Russian dressing incorporates a little hot sauce, some dry mustard, and parsley for some herbaceousness. Once you think of it in terms of a sort of ketchup-driven Tartar sauce, you'll start to hone in on how to put things together.

No one's going to stop if you want to flex and add some caviar in there … but just know that it'll probably catch them by surprise — and probably cost you a bit more to prepare.

Get the Recipe: Russian Salad Dressing

Reuben Sandwich II
Reuben Sandwich II | Photo by Molly.

What should you use Russian dressing for?

The quintessential use case for a Russian dressing is the classic Reuben sandwich, which slaps together corned beef, Swiss, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing on rye. The Reuben (and its main spread) are one of the ideal things to order from an old-school deli. That's far from the only sandwich it belongs on, though, as it'd fit in on a burger as well.

And yes: You can use it as a salad dressing if you want. But where's the fun in that?

What makes it different from Thousand Island dressing?

The distinction between these two American condiments named after places lies in a subtle differentiation of taste and texture. Both start with the same mayo-ketchup base, as well as some of the add-ins like Worcestershire and hot sauce, depending on who you ask.

Of the two, Thousand Island is a little more likely to feature some finely chopped ingredients like olives or onions than its New Hampshire/Russian counterpart. The biggest difference is the use of a chopped hard-boiled egg in Thousand Island to thicken and bind the ingredients.

While a Nashuan or an upstate New Yorker living around Lake Ontario might let their regional pride get the best of them, the differences between Russian dressing and Thousand Island aren't significant enough that it's worth beefing with whoever is making your Reuben over their particular choice. As The Artisan Jewish Deli at Home co-author Nick Zukin told The Washington Post, "even if you made what was essentially a Russian dressing, you might call it Thousand Island just to avoid headaches."

So in case you've spent years boycotting Russian dressing because of Vladimir Putin, just know that it's OK to spread the stuff on your sandwich without fear. Just don't call it Big Mac sauce.

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