Baking School Day 18: Essential Dessert Sauces

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

The Kitchn’s Baking School Day 18: All about essential dessert sauces.
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From carefully measuring ingredients to the way we gently fold our delicate egg whites, much about pastry has a lot to do with attention to detail. These practices should not be lost by the time we get to the presentation. And with presentation and finishing our carefully crafted goods comes the most delicious dessert sauces. Think gooey caramel, vibrant raspberry sauce, and drizzles of chocolate ganache!

Here’s a guide to the dessert sauces you should know by heart.

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

8 Essential Dessert Sauces

Here are eight sauces that are essential in the pastry kitchen: a pair each of custard, sugar, fruit, and chocolate sauces. Many of these are used for filling, garnish, topping, and plating — or just to jazz up any dessert when you are feeling extra fancy!

Crème Anglaise

This classic vanilla custard is made with sugar, egg yolks, and hot cream or milk. It is rich and sweet, typically served alongside a warm cake or fresh apple tart. Drizzle it over bread pudding, fresh fruit, or even pour it into a bowl with a dollop of meringue to create “floating islands.” It is the base for many other desserts, like vanilla ice cream, sabayon (where the milk is replaced with wine — see below), and crème brûlée.

Crème anglaise may be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to one week.

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How To Make Sweet and Silky Crème Anglaise Sauce


Served hot or cold, sabayon is a creamy sauce that is typically spooned over fruit or served with a dessert soufflé. It is made by whipping egg yolks, sugar, and wine over indirect heat until thickened. You may use sweet, dry, or sparkling wine. The Italian version, zabaglione, is made with Marsala wine. If serving warm, prepare the sabayon just before plating.

Caramel Sauce

A good caramel sauce is like liquid gold — sweet, sometimes salty, and always warm and flavorful. If your homemade caramel sauce can make it past being gobbled down with just a spoon, it pairs wonderfully with an array of pastries. Drizzle it over tarts, cheesecake, and ice cream, or combine it with buttercream before frosting a layer cake.

To make a caramel sauce, you first must make the caramel. This can be done using either a dry or wet method. With both methods, cook the sugar until it reaches a medium amber color before carefully stirring in cream, butter, vanilla extract, and/or salt to turn it into a sauce!

  • Dry method It’s pretty simple: sugar plus heat equals caramel! To make a caramel sauce using the dry method, start by cooking the sugar by itself until it melts, liquifies, and caramelizes. This method is quicker than the wet, but that also means it may burn more easily. Do not stir but simply watch as the sugar melts from the outer edge to the center of the saucepan. Swirl the pan to distribute the sugar if it begins to color unevenly. Remove the saucepan from the heat as soon as it reaches your desired shade of amber.
  • Wet method — This method combines sugar, water, and sometimes corn syrup to prevent the sugar from crystallizing. Stir everything together before cooking over high heat. Like the dry method, only swirl the pan to combine once it starts cooking. Remove from heat when your desired shade of amber is reached.
A deliciously dark caramel sauce. (Image credit: Melissa Ryan)

Why Make Your Own Caramel

While there are great prepared caramel sauces you can buy, making your own allows you to control how dark and flavorful your caramel will be. The darker and longer it cooks, the more caramel flavor there is. You can also change up the caramel by adding things like sea salt, bourbon, or both!

Serving Caramel Sauce

Caramel should be served warm. It will thicken as it cools, so let it rest until the desired consistency is reached (usually about 10 to 15 minutes). If making in advance, store in the refrigerator and reheat in the microwave as needed. Store leftover cameral in a glass jar in the fridge for about two weeks.

Sugar Glaze

This might be one of the easiest and quickest recipes to prepare. Made with just powdered sugar and either water, milk, or juice, a sugar glaze whisks together in seconds. Drizzle it on breakfast pastries, streusel-topped muffins, scones, and cinnamon rolls. Dip the top of a donut straight into a bowl of sugar glaze, or let it drip over the edges of a layer cake. The more liquid you add, the thinner the glaze will be.

Trying adding different flavors, like vanilla bean, almond extract, or a touch of lemon juice!

Sugar glaze is best used right away, but will keep covered in the fridge about a week. Bring to room temperature and whisk until smooth before using.

Apricot Vanilla Bean Jam — all you need for a beautiful fruit glaze. (Image credit: Tessa Huff)

Fruit Preserve Glaze

So effortless yet so tasty, fruit (most commonly apricot) glaze is simply thinned fruit preserves that have been passed through a mesh sieve. Not only do fruit glazes provide a beautiful sheen and magnificent flavor to pastries, but they can also help protect crisp crusts from getting soggy over time. They may be brushed onto cake layers to keep them moist and flavorful as well. You will find most fruit tarts are brushed with apricot glaze to keep the fruit from drying out and discoloring.

To make, heat apricot preserves in a saucepan until they begin to melt. Add a bit of water to thin it out, then strain with a mesh sieve. Let the glaze cool slightly, but use while it is still warm. Store leftover apricot glaze, covered, in the refrigerator and reheat as necessary.

A basic raspberry sauce on waffles. (Image credit: Emma Christensen)

Fruit Coulis

Fruit coulis is a vibrant and pleasantly tart sauce that is used to create beautiful designs with plated desserts and offset rich and sweet pastries. Much thinner than a glaze, fruit coulis is a dessert sauce simply made from thinned, strained fruit purée (as opposed to fruit preserves) and sugar. Typically made from berries, but sometimes more exotic flavors, like mango or currants, fruit coulis pairs wonderfully with a slice of rich chocolate cake, dessert soufflé, puddings, cheesecake, or lemon tarts.

Adjust the amount of sugar according to taste or to account for underripe fruit. A splash of lemon juice will liven it up a bit while preserving the vibrant colors usually associated with coulis.

Chocolate Ganache

Made with only two ingredients, ganache is a key player in the pastry kitchen. Heavy cream and good-quality chocolate make ganache exceptionally decadent. By changing the ratios of the cream and chocolate, you can make ganache suitable for glazing, filling, and even turning into truffles!

Since there are only two ingredients, it is important use the best-quality chocolate available to you. Most ganache recipes call for chocolate that is of a higher percentage of cocoa solids. While there are recipes for white chocolate ganache, milk and white chocolates should not be substituted for in a recipe written for bittersweet chocolate. Keep in mind that a recipe will most likely call for chocolate by weight (not to be confused by the liquid ounces associated with the cream).

The Right Ratio of Chocolate to Cream

If you want to make a ganache to use as a glaze, use one part chocolate to two parts cream. This ratio will keep the ganache pourable for coating cakes and petit fours, or for simply drizzling over pastries or dipping cookies into.

How to Make Chocolate Ganache

To make, place chopped chocolate pieces in a heat-safe bowl. Slowly bring cream to a gentle simmer — just hot enough to melt the chocolate. Once warmed, pour the cream over the chopped chocolate and let stand for about 30 seconds. Starting from the middle of the bowl then outwards, begin whisking until smooth. Let the ganache cool until your desired consistency is reached.

Be sure to keep your ganache free from water, especially when using a double-boiler to heat it. If you ganache splits or seizes, try whisking in a bit more warmed creamed or use an immersion blender.

Ganache will thicken as it cools. It may be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to a couple weeks. Reheat as needed using a double-boiler or very carefully in the microwave to make a perfectly pourable consistency.

Get Your Step-by-Step Baking Lesson:
How To Make Chocolate Ganache for Any Dessert

Chocolate Sauce

More casual than ganache, a simple chocolate sauce can go a long way. Drizzled over ice cream, profiteroles, or cheesecake, chocolate sauce can dress up nearly any dessert.

Although it calls for up to three times as many ingredients, chocolate sauce is more forgiving than ganache. Made with water, sugar, corn syrup, and chocolate (chopped or cocoa powder), you warm and whisk the ingredients until smooth. Add a bit of salt, vanilla extract, and/or a bit of butter to adjust the taste to your liking, or swap some of the water out for cream for a richer sauce.

Allow the chocolate sauce to cool and thicken slightly before use. It may be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Reheat as necessary before serving

Ganache, sugar glaze, raspberry coulis, and caramel sauce. (Image credit: Melissa Ryan)

Tips on Plating Desserts with Sauces

Not only do dessert sauces add flavor, but they also play a role in presentation. Bright, vibrant raspberry coulis may be swirled with dark chocolate or crème anglaise. The contrast creates stunning, decorative accents for your desserts and pastries.

Sometimes a drizzle of caramel here or smear of chocolate there is totally great, but there is some finesse when it comes to plating a beautiful dessert. Here are some common techniques used to plate and dress up desserts:

  • Polka dots, swirls, and lines: These simple accents are playful and easy to make with many of the different sauces.
  • Corkscrew pattern: Pool one sauce on the bottom of a plate in a thin layer, then pipe a ring of contrasting sauce on top. Use a toothpick or wooden skewer to swirl the two together by making a continuous corkscrew motion.
  • String of hearts: Pool sauce on the bottom of a plate in a thin layer, then pipe dots of a contrasting sauce in a line or ring. Take a toothpick or wooden skewer and drag the tip through the center of the dots in one continuous motion.
  • Weave pattern: Pool sauce on the bottom of a plate in a thin layer, then pipe lines of a contrasting sauce on top. Take a toothpick or wooden skewer and make a herringbone-style patten by pulling the tip across multiple lines, then back in the other direction across the plate.
  • Spiderweb pattern: Pool sauce on the bottom of a plate in a thin layer, then pipe rings of a contrasting sauce in circles. Gently drag the tip of a toothpick or wooden skewer from the center to the outside. Alternate directions, if desired, as you continue around the web.

Keep in mind, less might be more. Consider the shape and size of the vessel your dessert will be served in and how it will be transported to the table. Also, if you are serving a crowd, think about how much time it might take to make intricate designs on a dozen plates. Think about composition, color, texture, and contrast! When creating patterns, be sure that the different sauces are the same consistency. Try using squeeze bottles, piping bags, or a pastry brush to apply the sauces.

In the end, have some fun! Now is the time to exercise some artistic freedom. Treat your plate like a blank canvas and your arsenal of dessert sauces as your paint.

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

Every lesson has three homework options. Maybe you’ve already got one down, or you just have time for a quick study session. So pick one, and show us by tagging it with #kitchnbakingschool on Instagram or Twitter.

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

Pin a photo of a seriously gorgeous dessert garnished with a dessert sauce.

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

Make a basic fruit sauce or a simple chocolate sauce.

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

Go up a level and make a caramel sauce or a crème anglaise.

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