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Cooking School Day 13: Sauces

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Emma Christensen)
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  • Today’s Topic: Sauces
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When you hear “sauce,” what do you think? Do the classic

French mother sauces

A sauce can be many things, and as home cooks, it’s important to understand some of the wonderful ways that sauces can enter into our cooking. While they can apear overly fancy or intimidating, sauces are an essential (and easy) way to polish your cooking. In today’s lesson, we’ll talk through some of the basics and help you put them into practice.

(Image credit: Sara Kate Gillingham)

Day 13 Lesson: Sauces

What is a sauce? A sauce is a versatile thing, but it needs a stage. This is to say, a sauce is always an accompaniment — never the main component. Sauces are also not typically tied to one particular dish, but can be used to fancy-up any number of foods. A béchamel is the start of a pot of macaroni and cheese as well as the base for a soufflé. A pesto can be tossed with pasta, spooned over fish, or served with steamed vegetables. Tomato sauce goes in casseroles or gets served with meatballs. You get the idea!

What are mother sauces? You may have heard the term “mother sauce” come up on an episode of Iron Chef or in an interview with a famous chef. This term refers to one of the five classic French sauces, the building blocks for many other dishes and complete meals. They include béchamel, velouté, espagnole, hollandaise, and tomato sauce. Those first three are all sauces made with a roux, which is a cooked paste of equal parts flour and butter. Some schools of culinary thought argue that mayonnaise is also a mother sauce, or should take the place of tomato sauce. The box below includes a little more description of each of these major sauces.

The Mother Sauces

  • Bechamel: Roux whisked with milk or other dairy
  • Velouté: Roux whisked with chicken, turkey, fish or any other clear stock
  • Espagnole: Roux whisked with beef or veal stock
  • Tomato Sauce: Tomato puree, sometimes thickened with roux but more frequently cooked until thickened
  • Hollandaise: Egg yolk and butter emulsion (served warm)
  • Mayonnaise: Egg yolk and oil emulsion (served cold)

As home cooks, we don’t encounter velouté or espagnole all that often, but béchamel, hollandaise, mayo, and most definitely tomato sauce are all used fairly frequently.

What about other kinds of sauce? A sauce doesn’t need be a fancy thing by any means! It can be a pesto made with winter greens or even just yogurt whisked with some spices and drizzled over fish. Sauces like these are simple ways to make a meal more interesting. They can often be made just by grabbing a few ingredients in your kitchen or that you have in abundance. They’re a chance for we home cooks to improvise a little and get creative!

Sauces in a recipe: Some sauces take 10 seconds and a blender, while others take a bit more focused dedication (looking at you, hollandaise!). If a recipe is called for in your recipe, be sure to read all the instructions before you start so you know what you’re signing up for. Sauces often depend on timing and then need to be served or used right away, so it’s best to have all your ingredients prepped and ready to go before you start.

Pro Tip!

When you’re serving a sauce with something seared or crispy, like a piece of salmon with crispy skin or a steak with a nice crust on the outside, place the sauce under the protein or serve it on the side. This way, the crispiness you worked so hard to achieve stays that way instead of getting soggy!

(Image credit: Emma Christensen)
(Image credit: Henry Chen)

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 #kitchnschool on Instagram or Twitter.

(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Study: Watch this video of How To Make Romesco Sauce, one of our favorites here on The Kitchn. See, a sauce can be that easy!

(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Practice: Make a quick sauce to go with dinner tonight. You can make something as quick as Faith’s 3-Ingredient Summer Sauce or something with a little more oomph like marinara sauce or an easy pan sauce. If you’re a fan of pesto, try chimichurri sauce for something different!

(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Improve: If you’ve never made homemade mayo before, give it at try! Our favorite method uses a stick blender, but you can also whisk it by hand. These two posts will show you how:

(Image credit: Faith Durand)

The Kitchn Cookbook & Sauces

The Cooking School was inspired by our new book, The Kitchn Cookbookand there’s plenty in the book to help your Cooking School experience.

Today’s tip: Yes, ketchup is a sauce! See page 173 for our favorite recipe for homemade ketchup — horseradish optional!

5 Recipes to Practice Making Sauces

The Kitchn’s Cooking School

The Kitchn’s Cooking School is 20 days, 20 lessons to become a better cook at home. Every day we’ll tackle an essential cooking topic and explain what you should know. Each lesson has three different homework options, so you can choose the one that teaches you what you need. Whether you want to refresh your skills or start from scratch, come to school with us!