Go to any burger joint or sandwich stand and you'll find a collection of bottles, often corralled onto a tray, usually including tomato sauce, mustard, relish, mayo, hot sauce, and BBQ sauce. If fries are also on the menu, maybe there's salt and pepper nearby. Sometimes, they're found in squeeze bottles that can be used to drizzle tomato sauce on fries or mustard onto a sausage sandwich. Other times, they're in a more centralised location where customers help themselves and go, likely struggling to pump the tomato sauce and mustard into tiny to-go containers for future dipping.
This whole routine is pretty familiar to anyone who's ever eaten out, and yet here's a question that's been on our minds: Of all the food items listed above, which are condiments, which are sauces, and which are dips? Is the barbecue sauce you squirt onto your burger a sauce? Or is it a condiment? Is the tomato sauce into which you're dipping your fries a dip? If you put the tomato sauce on your sausage sandwich, does it then become a condiment? What if you spoon melted cheese onto your hot dog — does that make it a condiment? Is hot sauce a condiment even though the word sauce is in its name? Can something be all three? Or are these categories mutually exclusive? Recently, our friends over at Refinery29 in the US grew preoccupied with these questions and sat down to have an honest conversation about what truly is a condiment, what is a sauce, and what is a dip.
Nelson's Spoon Theory
Perhaps you wouldn't expect a topic as innocuous as this to spark passion or controversy, but this conversation turned into quite a heated debate. As we broke down the intricacies of these specific terms, various elements of various dips, sauces, and condiments were interrogated in order to come to some conclusion about the definitions. Senior News editor Leora Yashari — who originally posed this classification question to our group as being worthy of discussion after having repeatedly argued the subject with her friends — offered up a compelling way of differentiating between condiments, dips, and sauces — Nelson's Spoon Theory.
Created by Yashari's friend, Lily Nelson, Nelson's Spoon Theory posits that if you use a spoon to scoop the substance in question, then it is not a condiment, but is either a sauce or a dip. This makes sense if you think about the fact that condiments usually come in a squeezable bottle or are served and spread by a knife. Lifestyle editor Olivia Harrison acknowledged that the Spoon Theory was undoubtedly well-thought-out and appreciated that it provided clear guidelines for testing whether something was a condiment or not, but she strongly disagreed with it. "You can put a spoon in mayonnaise," she insisted. "I do it all the time." Harrison argued that because she's often spooned large dollops of mayo on burger buns (and then spread it around with the back of said spoon), the theory simply doesn't hold. Plus, what about when you add mayo to the other ingredients when making egg salad or something similar — in those situations, does mayo no longer qualify as a condiment? The debate raged on.
Though not endorsed by everyone, Nelson's Spoon Theory, at its core, is a reflection of physical property being a way to identify something as a dip, sauce, or condiment. This idea seemed, at least for a second, to have wide appeal among our group. We ran with it. "I just Google the definition of 'dip' and Dictionary.com says it's creamy. Are dips always creamy?" Money Diaries associate editor Hannah Rimm asked. Lifestyle, Wellbeing, & Social Issues director Kristin Iversen quickly hopped in: "No, because guacamole is a dip, and that's not creamy." This prompted pushback since the texture of avocados themselves is technically creamy. "Describing something as 'creamy,' to me, implies that there’s a dairy component," Iversen argued, futilely and, frankly, incorrectly.
Okay, so we weren't settled on the whole a dip has to be creamy definition, but could we agree on the physical characteristics of a sauce? Spoiler alert: No, we could not. Lifestyle writer Michelle Santiago Cortés stated, "A sauce needs body" and then, over the sound of Harrison singing "Body-ody-ody-ody-ody-ody-ody-ody," Work & Money writer Whizy Kim said, "Not necessarily. What about soy sauce?" That threw us for a loop. Kim continued to explain that sauce must not be characterised by its viscosity or texture. "When it comes to sauce, I think more about its use," she said. Now, we seemed to be getting somewhere.
Santiago Cortés brought up the fact that although you can serve sauce in a little tub on the side of a dish or even drink it, if it's particularly tasty, those aren't the primary ways a sauce is used. "I think the main function of a sauce is to bind stuff together," Santiago Cortés stated. "Like, okay, fab, marinara can be in a dip, but we know that she could bring a plate of spaghetti together. She could make it work." Yashari agreed that this was a great way to distinguish sauces from dips because "a dip is not a 'binding agent,' if you will." Rimm was on board and then posed the question, "So technically, is dressing sauce for your salad?" There was a pause and a murmur of assent. Rimm also pointed out that sauces play a key role in a dish, whereas condiments often do not. "Sauce makes the meal," Rimm argued. "If you're having pasta, it's like, are you having it with marinara? Are you having it with pesto?" She then brought up dish names like fettuccine alfredo as proof that the sauce is just as important as the pasta itself. A well-reasoned point since the same certainly couldn't be said for condiments — no one would ever identify their dinner as "mustard hot dog."
If It Dips, It's A Dip
So, what about dips? One argument that we returned to time and time again was that these classifications all depend on context. Some insisted that something could change from a dip to a sauce to a condiment based on how it is used. Lifestyle, Wellbeing, & Social Issues deputy director Mirel Zaman was adamant about this idea. "As soon as something is dipped into it, it becomes a dip," she said seriously. But, honestly, if you dip your mozzarella sticks into a small side of marinara sauce, is that marinara sauce really a dip? Health writer Lizzy Gulino said she'd still call that marinara a sauce. Santiago Cortés agreed that a line had to be drawn somewhere: "You can dip a French fry in diesel fuel! This is too much. So now marinara can be a dip and alfredo can be a dip? I'm losing my shit." Senior Politics editor Natalie Gontcharova echoed that this context rule didn't make sense because really, "What can't you dip things in?" She argued that only special cases like ketchup or ranch could change identities based on context. There was no consensus there, so Santiago Cortés, who was particularly overwhelmed by the category of dip, offered a new approach.
"A dip is its own dish. When I'm talking about dip, I'm talking about whitefish dip, hummus, baba ghanoush, that weird cheese ball that people like that's covered in nuts," she said. The only other thing a dip is served with are crackers or crudites, Santiago Cortés explained, which are vehicles for consuming that very dip. Not everyone nodded along to this statement, which was basically the antithesis to the "dipping makes a dip" theory, but many seemed to be buying in.
While we discussed the uses of something being one way to identify it as a condiment, sauce, or dip, things took a really unexpected turn when Wellness writer Molly Longman asked, possibly as a way to break the growing tension: "Are you more likely to bring a condiment, a sauce, or a dip into the bedroom?" So far, we hadn't all agreed on much, but this question certainly brought the team together with riotous laughter. After some thought, Harrison responded, "Probably a condiment because you could easily squirt it on your partner." Santiago Cortés said, "Imagine someone trying to make it work with a jar of Ragu." Unfortunately, Longman's question continued to complicate things because it caused Yashari to pose a follow-up question, "Wait, so is whipped cream a condiment?" We had no clue.
What Did God (Julia Child) Intend For It To Be?
Maybe, the difference lies in how and when they're used. Generally, condiments live in the fridge door or on restaurant tables to be squeezed (and maybe sprinkled?) onto the main dish, which would remain the same with or without the condiment. A sauce, however, is part of the dish — unless it's BBQ sauce or hot sauce? Considering condiment, sauce, and dips' uses was only somewhat helpful in deciding a definition for each, so we moved on to examine how each is made. Maybe destiny — and therefore definition — is woven into the making of any given thing.
Santiago Cortés tried coming up with a compromise: "Everyone makes sauce. Sometimes you'll make a dip. Nobody makes their own condiments." Unless you're going for the artisanal vibe, Harrison added. If we look at ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise as the Big Three of condiments, this tracks. Except for when you take a closer look at mayo: "Well, making mayonnaise is easy," Iversen chimed in. "And, according to the French it's a sauce, so by that token, mayo is a sauce in those cultures where people make mayo at home, but it's a condiment to those who would never think to make it themselves." Did the exception just mint the rule?
This answer, however flimsy and interim, deserved a celebration: "If you had to do fuck, marry, kill," Yashari said, before presenting three items: "sour cream, ranch, and mayonnaise." Rimm had a quick response: "Sour cream would be an excellent fuck, and mayonnaise is my bae." Yashari then aired disdain about her friend's excitement to spend a lifetime with ranch, after fucking mayo once and killing off sour cream completely. "Like, what a chaotic choice," she said, exasperated.
When considered in such terms, we got a hint of the multitude of ways these food items matter in our individual lives. Mayonnaise is a condiment to some, a lover to others, and deserves a death sentence according to a select few. The infinite ways humans eat food have produced a similarly radiating diversity of toppings, spreads, condiments, sauces, and dips, each with its own identity, each experienced in a unique way by each person. Which is probably why the difference between a sauce, condiment, and dip is so personal. A dip is what you make of it. "Yes, you can dip a French fry into some diesel fuel and it does become a dip," Zaman said in response to Santiago Cortés' earlier query. As for Harrison, her lifelong commitment to mayonnaise goes beyond labels, "I say, marry and fuck mayo, so we can be intimate all the time and live our daily lives together. Happily ever after."