Post Image
Credit: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell
Kitchn Cooking School

How to Be a Cook Who Whips Up Sauces Like a Chef!

We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image

Have you ever found yourself practically licking a plate, wondering how the cooks get food to taste so delicious? Have you gazed jealously at the brown butter dripping over a steak, or a rich, tangy hollandaise drizzled over greens, and wished you could make that at home? The secret is in the sauce. And making delicious sauces that make you feel like a chef is even easier than you think! We’re going to break down the essentials of sauce — those expert flavor-enhancers no pro would do without — so you, too, can turn any weeknight dinner into a showstopping affair!

Why Are Sauces Important?

Sauces are a chef’s secret weapon: They can take even the simplest meat-and-potatoes dish and make it next-level delicious. On a busy weeknight, making a sauce may seem like one step too many. But consider this: You rarely see a restaurant dish without some sort of sauce on it. The pros treat them as an essential last layer of flavor, and we think you should too. And it doesn’t have to be complicated, either. Sauces have a reputation for being fussy, but many are actually very easy to make, and well worth the effort in terms of bang for your buck.

Making a Sauce Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated

A sauce doesn’t need be complex, or even cooked, to be delicious: Blend a few greens or herbs with some nuts, cheese, and oil — bang! You have a pesto for pizza, proteins, or pasta. Even simpler: Whisk some herbs and lemon juice into yogurt and you have a creamy tzatziki-style sauce you can drizzle over fish or roasted vegetables. Even a vinaigrette or other salad dressing is a sauce.

The purpose of a sauce is simply to add flavor — and moisture — to a dish. Anything that is flavorful and thick enough to cling to your food can do that. And some sauces can even make your work easier — like pan sauces!

A Dirty Pan Is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Ever seared a piece of beef, chicken, pork, or even fish, and then discovered lots of chunky brown bits at the bottom of your pan? Believe it or not, chefs love those bits, called “fond.” That’s because almost any dirty pan is the start of an amazing sauce. In fact, we would go so far as to say that you should almost always deglaze a pan where you’ve cooked something over high heat, whether that is on the stove or in the oven.

Deglazing a pan has other benefits, too. In the five minutes it takes to make it will not only help your steak (or chicken, or fish) taste amazing, but will also help clean your pan before you ever even put it in the sink. Win-win!

Credit: Lauren Volo
Adding liquid to a hot skillet just after taking the steak out.

How to Deglaze a Pan Like a Pro Chef

The sauce is called, for obvious reasons, pan sauce. Right after you’re done cooking, take the meat or vegetables out of the pan and put them aside to rest in a warm place. Place the pan back over medium heat and then follow these steps to make your sauce like a fancy chef would.

  1. Sauté some aromatics (fresh herbs like thyme or sage, some diced onion or shallot) in the leftover fat. You can always add additional oil, if necessary. This is optional and just if you have something on hand to be used up.
  2. Deglaze the pan by pouring a liquid (wine or broth are great, but even water is fine) and scraping away with a wooden spoon. The heat should be high enough that the liquid comes to an immediate simmer (so fun when the steams boils up, but be careful when it hits the pan). The fond should disappear into the liquid, and your pan should start to look clean. But don’t stop!
  3. Reduce the liquid by simmering, until it’s about half gone. This will thicken it up a bit.
  4. Add a pat of butter or two. This helps make it richer (but, honestly, no one needs an extra reason to add butter).
  5. Season the sauce. After it has been reduced and is ready, taste the sauce and add any final seasonings, including salt, that it needs. You don’t want to season the sauce before reducing, as it can make it taste too salty.
Credit: Lauren Volo
Adding butter to finish a pan sauce.

That’s it! Pour it over the meat or veggies you’ve just cooked, and revel in the taste! This isn’t just a technique when you’re cooking on the stovetop — you can make this sauce after roasting too by putting the sheet pan or roasting tray on the stove and deglazing the tray there. And if this sounds like something you’ve watched happen at Thanksgiving, good catch! Pan sauces are essentially just gravies without the flour. We’ll talk a little more about how sauces build on each other below.

If You Learn Just One Thing Today …

Every dirty pan is a sauce in waiting. While we highly recommend you learn a handful of basic sauces (and use them on vegetables, proteins, and pasta), if you take nothing else from this lesson go back and re-read the instructions on pan sauce, above — or just bookmark this link — and use it the next time you’re cooking chicken or steak on the stove. If you make no other other sauces in your life, a pan sauce should be part of your repertoire. The feeling that comes from making a delicious addition to your plate while cleaning your pan is nearly magical.

What You Don’t Need to Learn

There are dozens of fussy, complex (and delicious) sauces from around the world — Mexican mole, classic French béarnaise, or a slow-cooked Italian Bolognese, to name three — that require true study and practice, or exceptionally long cooking times, to make. They are absolutely worth it, but sauce doesn’t have to be so complex to bring a world of flavor to your home cooking. Sauce-making, like salad dressing-making — can be a place of both simplicity and invention, where you combine a few tasty things and jazz up a weeknight meal. Master the magic pan sauce, then move on to more advanced sauces.

Ready to Get Next-Level?

More sauce talk. Ready to get Frenchy?

Let’s Talk About Mother (Sauces)

You may have heard the term “mother sauce” on an episode of Iron Chef, or seen it on one of your favorite food websites. The term refers to five classic sauces, which are, according to French culinary tradition, the building blocks for other dishes. Three of the mother sauces are simply different kinds of stock or dairy mixed with a “roux” — a cooked paste of equal parts flour and butter. Another is thickened tomato purée — the basis for many pasta sauces. And the last is hollandaise sauce, which is simply an emulsion of egg yolk and butter, although some schools of culinary thought argue that mayonnaise (an emulsion of egg yolk and oil) is the more basic version, and should take hollandaise’s place. The section below includes a little more description of each of these major sauces.

The Mother Sauces

  • Béchamel: Roux whisked with milk or other dairy.
  • Velouté: Roux whisked with clear stock (chicken, turkey, fish).
  • Espagnole: Roux whisked with beef or veal stock.
  • Tomato sauce: Tomato purée, sometimes thickened with roux but more frequently cooked until thickened.
  • Hollandaise/mayonnaise: Egg yolk and butter (or oil) emulsion.

While the names sound impressive, the trick to making most of these sauces essentially boils down to two main techniques: Making an emulsion and making a roux. And we’re here to tell you that these are actually easy techniques! Once you figure out how to do these, you’ll be able to whip up all kinds of sauces at home without trouble.

Mayonnaise: Making an Emulsion

We’re going to let you in on a secret: Homemade mayonnaise takes five minutes to make. Let that sink in a second (we’ll go make some mayo while it does). Imagine your next potluck potato salad, or serving someone a BLT and saying, casually, “Oh, yes. I just made the mayonnaise myself.” Sounds impressive, right? But it’s easy!

Mayonnaise is just an emulsion of egg yolks and butter, with some seasoning and lemon juice for flavoring. That’s it! And, as we discussed a few days ago when talking about salad dressing, an emulsion is just a mixture of oils and waters that would normally separate, save for the presence of an emulsifier — generally a lecithin, which is a substance that will attach to both water and fat. Egg yolks contain lecithin; so do mustard seeds. If you have oil, another liquid (like the yolk in eggs), and lecithin, you can make an emulsion.

The trick to getting an emulsion to work is to add the oil and blend slowly. That’s it! Lecithins are delicate, and if they don’t attach then everything separates. But when you add the oil slowly, and blend slowly, the ingredients will cling together. And you don’t have to do it by hand! Check out these instructions for immersion-blender mayonnaise, and these instructions for blender hollandaise, which is the same thing, but with melted butter instead of oil.

Why (and How) to Make a Roux to Thicken a Sauce

Another way to thicken a sauce is to add flour, but if you’ve ever chewed on lumpy gravy at Thanksgiving, you know it’s not always easy to get flour to blend well into liquids. The trick to getting the flour to blend smoothly is to whisk it with an equal amount of warm melted butter on the stovetop first, until it makes a paste. This is called a roux. Once you make that, it will blend easily and help thicken nearly any liquid.

You can whisk it into milk or cream and get a béchamel (which is the basis for mac and cheese sauce). Or you can add stock (have any left over from stock day?) and then herbs and seasonings to make dozens of different kinds of brown sauces (espagnole) or lighter sauces (velouté) depending on whether you have light or dark stock.

Our Favorite Gear

We have recommendations for basic gear on our equipment checklist, but here are a few more tools specifically for vegetables that can save time, and frustration.

  • Immersion blender will help you whip up sauces and make emulsions much faster.
  • Balloon whisk is fun, and handy when you don’t want to break out a bunch of equipment.
  • Wooden spoon is handy for making roux and general stirring of sauces.
  • Stand blender is useful for making a lot of sauce at once.
  • Food processor is good for making chunkier sauces, like pesto.

5 Essential Sauce Recipes

All of our assignments have three options, depending on how much time you have today. Do what you can; come back for more later!

15-Minute Assignment: Watch & Read

Watch the video! If you haven’t yet, watch the crash course video above. After that, read these basic primers. If you could pick just one thing from all this information, what would you like to try first?

30-Minute Assignment: Practice!

Cook some meat and deglaze the pan: This recipe won’t take 30 minutes, but read up on how to make a pan sauce, and all the things you can add, then pick a piece of protein to cook, and sear it on the stove, as we practiced earlier. As soon as the meat is done, deglaze the pan by adding wine, stock, or another liquid and aromatics, and reducing into a sauce. Optional vegetarian assignment: If eating meat is not your preference, you can try a similar technique by pan-searing mushrooms. It won’t leave quite the same fond, but you can still deglaze the pan and make a sauce for them using wine, stock, or another liquid.

Check your work: After the sauce has reduced by half, before pouring it onto your food, take a spoon and dip it into the sauce. How thick is it? Taste it. Does it need any final seasoning? Pour the sauce onto your food and examine the pan: How clean is it? Did any of the fond remain?

60-Minute Assignment: Stretch Yourself

Make béchamel sauce: Start by reading these tips on making a good béchamel sauce, then follow these instructions for making the sauce. (After you make it, you can throw in some fresh herbs and put it on top of pasta, or add cheese and make a classic baked mac and cheese!) Be sure to use the correct portions, and pay particular attention to mixing the flour and butter together, and then working the warm milk in slowly, so clumps don’t form.

Check your work: Once you’re finished, take a wooden spoon and stir the sauce. Do you see any lumps? Lift the spoon out of the sauce: Does it coat the spoon, or does it drip off, unevenly? What color is the sauce? Is it mostly white, or did the roux brown, darkening the sauce?

What It Takes to Be a Sauce Expert

We have barely scratched the surface on sauce-making. There are a world of sauces from every part of the globe, and while the methods above can help you learn to make a great many things, this lesson is by no means comprehensive. Information on how to make all the sauces could take several books (and, in fact, has). And you could spend a lifetime learning to make sauces and still only know a small amount. But hopefully these lessons will make you more confident, and ready to keep learning!

Meet Your Classmates

Follow your fellow classmates and share your questions and progress on Instagram and Twitter with #kitchncookingschool.

You can also join your Kitchn Cooking School cohort in our Kitchn Facebook group, which is devoted to all things Cooking School this month.

Credit: Kitchn