To improve your cooking, learn how to make and use sauce like a professional.
Chefs are masters of efficiency in the kitchen: maximum flavor for minimum effort. Shouldn’t that be your motto, too? The right sauce can elevate any dish – improving and balancing flavor, compensating for underseasoning or adding striking visual contrast.
Once, there were five “mother sauces,” the basic five that all other sauces came from: Bechamel, veloute, espagnole (brown sauce), tomato and hollandaise. After a century of guiding chefs and cooks, they deserve a promotion to mother superior status.
But today’s cooking calls for a new set of “mothers.” Five basic types of sauces appear over and over again on menus and in cookbooks that feature the vegetable-heavy, flavor-dense food that cooks and eaters favor today: Yogurt sauce, pepper sauce, herb sauce, tahini sauce and pesto.
Master each one, and you'll have access to dozens of variations that descend from them, too.
Over the last generation, the mother sauces have fallen out of favor with home cooks and professionals alike. They are rich and thick and involve extensive (or at least attentive) cooking time.
“The problem with the classic mother sauces,” according to the chef Michael Solomonov, who cooks modern Israeli food at his restaurant Zahav in Philadelphia, “is that most of them are made with roux. Now, roux is out. Nobody uses it, except when you’re making macaroni and cheese.”
Travis Lett of Gjelina in Los Angeles finds that lighter condiments are far more versatile than their richer ancestors, especially with the shifting emphasis toward fresh seasonal ingredients.
“If I’m going to make a lamb reduction out of lamb stock and red wine and tomato and fennel, that can be delicious, and that has a place in the culinary world,” Lett said. “I think it’s safe to say that that belongs on a piece of lamb, and a piece of lamb only. However, if I make a mint-pistachio pesto, I can throw that on anything.”
The pesto may not be as technically difficult to execute, he said, or require as much forethought. “But these herby sort of bright, aromatic emulsions that we can make quickly and repurpose into other things just fit into the sensibility of how we are cooking.”
Basic Yogurt Sauce
1 cup Greek-style yogurt, preferably whole milk
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons lime juice (from 1 large lime), more to taste
1/2 teaspoon salt, more to taste
1 garlic clove
In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together yogurt, mint, oil, lime juice, salt and 1 to 2 tablespoons water. Use a rasp grater to finely grate garlic into the bowl. Stir, taste and adjust salt and lime juice as needed. Cover and refrigerate for up to 5 days.
Persian cucumber yogurt: Stir in 1/2 cup minced, peeled cucumber (about 1/2 Persian cucumber), 1 tablespoon each finely chopped cilantro and dill. Serve alongside grilled chicken, fish or lamb. Thin with a little water and drizzle over sliced tomatoes for a simple salad.
Carrot raita: Substitute 3 tablespoons cilantro for mint and add 1/2 cup peeled, grated carrot (about 1 small carrot) and half a small jalapeño pepper, minced. Sizzle 1 tablespoon cumin seeds in 1 tablespoon ghee or neutral oil until seeds begin to pop, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir into yogurt. Serve with lamb or vegetable curries. Spoon atop spicy chickpeas, basmati rice, or roast salmon. Thin with a little water and drizzle over roasted beets, carrots and fennel.
Yield: 1 1/4 cups.
Basic Pesto Sauce
1/2 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves
2 cups packed basil leaves
1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, more to taste
Pulse pine nuts in a food processor until they’re completely broken down. Stop to scrape down the sides with a spatula from time to time. Add olive oil and garlic and pulse until garlic is finely chopped.
Chop basil very roughly – just run a knife through it once or twice to cut most of the leaves into halves or thirds – then add to food processor. Pulse, stopping every 15 seconds to push the leaves down with a rubber spatula, until basil is entirely worked into the oil. Pulse for another few seconds, and then stop to prevent turning the basil brown.
Pour pesto base into a bowl and add grated cheese and salt. Stir to combine, then taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Leave the sauce thick to toss with cooked pasta and a little pasta cooking water. Thin with 2 to 3 tablespoons more olive oil to use as a garnish for grilled or roasted meats, fish and vegetables. To store, pour a little more olive oil over the pesto and refrigerate in an airtight container for up to three days.
Mint-pistachio pesto: Substitute mint for basil and pistachios for pine nuts. Substitute 2 tablespoons pecorino Romano for the Parmesan and add 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest. Use to garnish spring vegetables, fish and shellfish.
Yield: 1 2/3 cups
Basic Herb Salsa
1 cup finely chopped parsley
1 1/2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest (from 1 small lemon)
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt, more to taste
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, more to taste
Combine parsley, zest, salt and olive oil in a medium mixing bowl. Use a rasp grater to finely grate garlic into the bowl. Stir to combine.
Just before serving, stir in vinegar. Taste and adjust salt and acid as needed. (Acid will dull the vibrant flavor and color of the herbs over time, so if you plan to store some of the sauce for future use, add acid to only the portion you’re using. Sauce, without vinegar, will keep in the refrigerator up to 2 days; bring to room temperature before using.)
Vary the herbs: Substitute half the parsley with basil, mint, marjoram or cilantro. Spoon basil salsa over poached eggs; mint or marjoram salsa over grilled fish; and cilantro salsa over beans and grilled corn.
Green olive and preserved lemon tapenade: Add 3 tablespoons roughly chopped, pitted picholine or lucques olives and the minced rind of half a rinsed preserved lemon. Serve with grilled fish or shellfish.
Italian salsa verde: Add 8 anchovy filets, (rinsed if salt-packed) and finely chopped, and 2 teaspoons capers, rinsed and finely chopped. Serve alongside grilled chicken, steak or braised beef. Drizzle over boiled green beans, carrots and turnips. Spoon over hard-cooked eggs for a simple appetizer.
Moroccan chermoula: Substitute cilantro for the parsley and lime juice for the vinegar. Omit lemon zest and add 1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger, 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin and 1/2 jalapeño pepper, finely minced. Serve alongside grilled lamb or pan-fried chicken breasts. Use as a marinade for chicken, sole, tuna or halibut. Spread onto turkey sandwiches.
Yield: About 1 cup
Basic Pepper Salsa
10 dried guajillo or New Mexico chiles, seeds and stems removed
3 dried arbol chiles, seeds and stems removed
2 to 3 cups boiling water
2 medium tomatoes, quartered
1 garlic clove
3/4 teaspoon salt, more to taste
In a cast-iron pan over high heat, toast peppers until their skin deepens in color and you can smell a toasty aroma, about 2 minutes. Remove peppers from pan and place in a large bowl. Pour enough boiling water over the peppers to cover, and let sit for 15 minutes.
Wipe out the pan, reduce the heat to medium-high, and set the tomatoes in the pan, skin-side down. Cook until the tomato skins are dark and blistery, about 10 minutes, then mash the tomato flesh with a wooden spoon and continue cooking until completely tender and somewhat reduced, another 5 minutes or so. Remove from heat.
Use tongs to remove the peppers from the water and place in the jar of a blender, reserving the soaking liquid. Add tomatoes, garlic, salt and 1 cup of the reserved liquid. Blend until smooth, then strain through a fine sieve, using a spatula to help you push the salsa through. Taste and adjust salt as needed. Cover and refrigerate leftovers for up to 5 days.
Smoky chipotle salsa: Add 4 dried chipotle chiles to the bowl of rehydrating peppers, or add 4 canned chipotle peppers, scraped of their adobo sauce, directly to the blender. Serve with fish tacos or quesadillas, or drizzle into black bean soup.
Harissa: Do not toast the chiles. After rehydrating, blend peppers, tomato and garlic with 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil instead of water. Add salt, 1 teaspoon ground cumin, 1/4 teaspoon ground caraway seed (to grind, use a spice grinder or mortar and pestle) and 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar and blend until smooth. Taste and adjust salt and vinegar as needed. Use as a garnish for lamb meatballs, grilled chicken, or pan-fried fish. Drizzle over roasted carrots, cauliflower, and sweet potatoes. Stir into stewed chickpeas and vegetable tagines.
Romesco sauce: Do not toast the chiles. After rehydrating, blend peppers, tomato, and garlic with 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil instead of water. Add salt and 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar and blend until smooth. Pour pepper base into a mixing bowl and add 1/4 cup each toasted, finely chopped almonds and hazelnuts. Stir, taste and adjust salt and vinegar as needed. Spoon over grilled green onions or asparagus, use as a garnish for grilled scallops or shrimp, or thin with a little olive oil and toss with roasted potatoes.
Yield: About 1 3/4 cups.
Basic Tahini Sauce
1/2 cup tahini, well stirred
1/4 cup lemon juice (from 2 lemons), more to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt, more to taste
1 garlic clove
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together tahini, lemon juice, cumin, salt and 6 tablespoons water until smooth and emulsified. Use a rasp grater to finely grate the garlic into the bowl. Stir, taste and adjust salt and lemon as needed. Cover and refrigerate up to a week.
Green tahini sauce: Blend 1 cup basic tahini sauce with 1/4 cup chopped parsley, 2 tablespoons chopped chives, 2 tablespoons chopped dill, 2 teaspoons chopped mint and 2 teaspoons chopped cilantro in a food processor until thoroughly combined. Cover and refrigerate up to 3 days. Serve as a dip with crudités or thin with 1 to 2 tablespoons water and drizzle over grilled fish, lamb or vegetables.
Japanese sesame dressing: Substitute 1/4 cup seasoned rice wine vinegar for lemon juice. Omit cumin and salt and reduce water to 1/4 cup. Add 2 teaspoons soy sauce, a few drops toasted sesame oil and 1 teaspoon mirin. Whisk together with garlic as directed above. Serve with boiled broccoli or green beans or alongside seared tuna. Or thin with a little water and use to dress thinly sliced cucumbers.
Yield: About 1 cup