Thick and hearty, silky and elegant, the perfect sauce can elevate a great dish to divine levels — and can hide all manner of sins.
Getting into the sauce game can feel daunting, but it isn’t actually that hard. From making a simple pan sauce to starting with slow-simmer stocks, these are the tips that will help you become the sauce master you deserve to be.
1. Start with fresh ingredients
Most sauces concentrate the flavors of whichever ingredients you’re using, so you want to start with the best. For example, you wouldn’t want to use up old, wilted celery or nearly squishy carrots to make a rich stock. Any off flavors will become more pronounced as your stock reduces, resulting in a subpar sauce.
2. Make your own stock
The best stock-based sauces start with homemade stock. A creamy mushroom sauce will be much more flavorful when made with homemade mushroom or chicken stock than with something from a carton or can. You can also try roasting your chicken, beef or pork bones before simmering them for an even richer flavor.
3. But don’t kill yourself over it
A lot of traditional sauces call for demi-glace, usually made by reducing homemade veal stock with homemade espagnole sauce. Of course, these days most of us don’t have the time to simmer 10 pounds of veal bones for hours on end just to make a cup of sauce to go with our meal. Fortunately it’s fairly easy to find premade demi-glace either in the broth aisle or frozen aisle of the grocery store or at gourmet and specialty markets.
And if you really don’t have time to make a simple chicken stock from scratch, try adding some celery, onion, carrots and thyme to your premade broth and simmering that for a while until slightly reduced. This will give the premade broth a fresher flavor that will result in a tastier finished sauce.
4. Thicken with starch
There are many ways to thicken a sauce, but using a starch is probably the most common. However, if you just add flour to your sauce, expecting it to thicken, you’re in for a lumpy mess.
A roux, which is a mixture of flour and butter, can be used to thicken opaque sauces. You usually make the roux first, then add liquids to it, and it will thicken as it cooks. White roux are made by melting butter and adding flour, then cooking for just a few minutes so it doesn’t taste raw anymore. Golden and dark roux are cooked until the flour starts to toast — golden for around 20 minutes, and a dark roux for up to 45 minutes.
Another thickening method is to use a beurre manié. Basically you knead butter and flour together to create a dough, then add it to your soup or sauce. By combining the starch and fat beforehand, you avoid any lumps that would form by just adding flour to a hot liquid.
In a pinch, you can also use a cornstarch slurry, but be careful to not use too much — it can make sauces unappetizingly gummy. To make a cornstarch slurry, add 1 part cornstarch to 1 part cold water, stir until combined, and then add it to your hot liquid. You should use about 1 tablespoon of cornstarch for every cup of liquid you want to thicken.
Just note that thickening with starches can mask some of the flavors in your sauce. Susan Volland, author of the encyclopedic but very enjoyable Mastering Sauces, warns that “starches can also mask flavors, especially salt, so starch-rich sauces require extra salt and seasoning.”
5. Thicken without starch
One of the easiest ways to thicken a sauce is to reduce it. As it simmers, moisture will evaporate, leaving you with a viscous sauce. Just be careful if you’re making a reduction; season the sauce after it has reached the volume you desire, or it could wind up way too potent.
Other sauces, depending on the ingredients being used, can be thickened with everything from chia seeds and nut butters to pureed tofu and plantains. It really depends on the sauce you’re making, so go with your taste — cashew cream might help thicken a vegan Alfredo sauce but would be out of place in a red wine pan sauce for steak.
6. Master pan sauces
Pan sauces are one of the easiest ways to jazz up a simple meal. The steps are simple. Brown your meat until just cooked through. Remove the meat to a plate, then sauté some aromatics in the pan (without wiping the pan out — you want the fond, or the browned bits on the bottom of the pan, to stay there). Then deglaze the pan with wine, broth or beer, scraping up the browned bits with a wooden spoon. Add some more broth to add volume to the sauce, then simmer lightly to let the flavors meld. Voilà — you have a pan sauce!
7. Create an emulsion
Emulsions are the key to creamy dressings and silky sauces. An emulsified sauce simply has the fat and water molecules mixed together rather than separated, according to Mastering Sauces. Egg yolk emulsions are used to make a creamy hollandaise sauce or mayonnaise. Butter can be used to enrich simple pan sauces, giving them body and a glossy sheen. Heavy cream or crème fraîche can also be used to create thick, rich sauces or just to add a little texture to something like tomato sauce.
8. Taste as you go
To make a balanced sauce that really pops but doesn’t overwhelm, you need to taste as you go. If you’re starting with stock, taste it to see if it could use a flavor boost before moving on to the next step. Likewise, if you’re about to reduce a liquid that’s already perfectly salty or sweet, you’ll want to dilute it before you reduce, or the flavors will become too concentrated.
Tasting your sauce at the end it just as important. This is your chance balance the flavors. Add an extra pinch of salt or dash of pepper, a squeeze of lemon juice or a splash of cream — either way, follow your taste buds until the sauce is just right.
9. Match your sauce to your meal
Think about the type of meal you’re having, then decide on a sauce. You don’t want to drown a delicate filet of tilapia with a rich blue cheese sauce, just as a light chicken velouté would be totally lost on a grilled rib-eye. Sauces should complement (think roasted chicken with chicken gravy) or contrast (think roasted chicken with a garlicky chimichurri) the meal they’re served with. Figuring out this balance comes with experience, so why not start experimenting today?