Sauces are the key to elevating home cooking to new heights. A well-made sauce can transform an ordinary dish into an extraordinary culinary experience. From savory gravies to sweet and sticky glazes, sauces introduce layers of flavor, moisture, and texture to any meal.
While restaurants often have teams of chefs perfecting their sauce recipes, home cooks can also master the art of sauce-making. With a little practice and the right techniques, even beginners can make restaurant-quality sauces in their own kitchens. The key is learning a few foundational recipes that form the basis for endless variations. From there, you can tweak and customize sauces to suit your tastes.
Here are some classic and versatile sauces that every home cook should know how to make.
1. Tomato Sauce
A simple tomato sauce is one of the most versatile basics for any home cook. To make it, sauté garlic and onions in olive oil. Add a can of crushed tomatoes and simmer until slightly thickened. Season with salt, pepper, and herbs like basil, oregano, or thyme. Finish with a splash of red wine vinegar or lemon juice to brighten the flavors. Use tomato sauce on pizzas, pasta, chicken, fish, and more.
2. Fish Taco Sauce
This zesty sauce not only adds vibrant flavor to fish tacos but also shines on shrimp, chicken, and vegetables. In a bowl, combine sour cream, mayonnaise, cilantro, chipotle in adobo sauce, sea salt, lime zest and juice, and minced garlic. Mix until smooth and creamy. This cool, tangy fish taco sauce provides the perfect contrast to hot and crispy fried fish. It also makes a great dip for tortilla chips!
This elegant, creamy sauce is a brunch staple, served with Eggs Benedict, asparagus, and more. Whisk some egg yolks and lemon juice over a double boiler until thickened, then slowly add melted butter while continuing to whisk. The key is taking it off the heat before it gets too hot and curdles. Season with cayenne, salt, and white pepper. The velvety texture and tangy flavor make hollandaise an indulgent accompaniment.
This lively green sauce from Argentina makes grilled meats sing. To make it, combine chopped parsley, cilantro, oregano, garlic, shallots, red wine vinegar, olive oil, crushed red pepper, and salt in a food processor. Blend to your desired texture. Apply chimichurri to meat just before serving so the herbs stay bright and fresh. Along with meat, the vibrant, herbal flavors of this sauce liven up vegetables, eggs, potatoes, and more.
Pesto originated in Genoa, Italy, but has become a worldwide sensation. It is made with basil, Parmesan, pine nuts, garlic, and olive oil. To make it, blend the ingredients in a food processor until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. The versatility of pesto is hard to beat. Toss with pasta or gnocchi, spread on sandwiches and pizza, dollop over soups, spread on meat before grilling, or stir into risottos. Make a batch of this vivid green sauce to keep on hand.
This creamy white sauce made from milk and roux provides a rich, velvety base for dishes like lasagna and pies. To make béchamel, start by melting butter in a saucepan. Add an equal amount of flour and cook while whisking for 2-3 minutes to create a roux. Gradually whisk in warmed milk, then simmer until the sauce thickens. Season with salt, white pepper, and nutmeg. For added richness, incorporate cheese like Gruyère or Parmesan. Béchamel brings a luxurious texture and mild flavor to pasta, vegetables, eggs, and more.
A good gravy can transform a humble meal into a mouthwatering dish. Start with pan drippings from roast meat. Skim off any excess fat, then whisk in equal parts flour and make a roux over medium heat for 2-3 minutes. Slowly whisk in chicken or beef broth until thickened and simmer for 5-10 minutes. Finish by straining out any lumps and season with salt, pepper, and herbs. Use this gravy sauce to smother mashed potatoes, biscuits, meatloaf, or chicken fried steak. With practice, you’ll be able to whip up a perfect gravy sauce every time.
Similar to béchamel, this French white sauce begins with a roux and milk. But velouté uses chicken, fish, or vegetable stock instead of milk for a savory flavor. Melt butter, add flour to make a roux, then gradually whisk in warm stock. Simmer until thickened, then season with salt, pepper, herbs, and lemon juice. Velouté adds richness to soups, chicken pot pies, and seafood dishes. Turn it into a cream sauce by incorporating heavy cream or crème fraîche just before serving. This versatile base sauce can be endlessly customized.
9. Barbecue Sauce
Barbecue sauce brings a sweet, smoky, and tangy flavor to grilled and smoked meat. Sauté onions and garlic, then add ketchup, brown sugar, apple cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, chili powder, paprika, and molasses. Simmer until thickened, then taste and adjust the seasoning. Brush the sauce on the meat during the last few minutes of grilling or smoking.
This rich French sauce takes time to make but is worth the effort. Simmer beef or veal stock until reduced by half, then continue simmering with wine, onions, carrots, celery, mushrooms, herbs, and tomato paste until reduced again by half. The result is a glossy, concentrated sauce packed with meaty flavor. Use demi-glace to make other sauces like bordelaise, stroganoff, or red wine reduction. Make a big batch and freeze it in portions.
With these classic sauce recipes in your repertoire, you’ll gain confidence in the kitchen and be ready to transform any dish in no time. Don’t be afraid to experiment with ingredients until you love the results. Mastering sauces is a lifelong journey, but starting with these simple yet delicious recipes will set you up for success. So grab your whisk and saucepan and get ready to become a sauce master today!