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Difference Between Cocktail Sauce & Chili Sauce

 What is the basic difference between cocktail sauce and chili sauce? I have recipes sometimes that call for chili sauce and all I have on hand is cocktail sauce. Can I use it instead?

 In general, cocktail sauce has more horsepower, although there is so much variety with either of these sauces, that it is really hard to pin them down. We have seen recipes for homemade chili sauce that use store-bought cocktail sauce as an ingredient, and recipes for homemade cocktail sauce that use chili sauce as an ingredient. Our little heads are starting to spin.

Both are tomato-based, of course, and both are generally used as condiments. Cocktail sauce is also often served alongside seafood. Chili sauce is likely to have some chile-like ingredient — either chiles or chili powder. It also is quite likely to have onion, green pepper, sugar, vinegar, and spices. Cocktail sauce, on the other hand, gets its oomph from horseradish, and may include lemon juice, and a hot pepper sauce, such as Tabasco. It may be based on ketchup or chili sauce.

Comparing the ingredient lists of some of the very basic sauces sold in supermarkets, there is little to distinguish chili sauce from plain ketchup — a simple addition of garlic powder, dehydrated onion, and whatever mysteries lurk within the unfathomable category of "spices." Supermarket cocktail sauces generally also include horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, anchovies, mustard, and other spices and flavorings.

You can go much further afield, though, in the chili sauce category, as there are hundreds of ethnic and regional chili sauces on the market, and some of these are very far removed from (and stratospherically hotter than) the chili sauce on the condiment shelf in your supermarket.

In terms of substituting chili sauce and cocktail sauce for the other, if you're talking about basic store-bought sauces, it probably boils down to your love of horseradish. If you like the horseradish-flavor of cocktail sauce and think it would complement the dish you're preparing, then use it in place of chili sauce. If your recipe calls for cocktail sauce and you aren't worried about losing the horseradishiness (a new word, and you saw it here first!), substitute chili sauce.

With a little effort, you can also make your own chili sauce or cocktail sauce.

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