Please be patient with me this week, as I’m going out of my comfort zone and tackling a topic that I maybe won’t ever feel qualified to discuss: sauce. I’m not going to be able to do it all in one column, but I hope this will serve to define the matter a bit.
You wouldn’t think that it would be so hard to write about such a simple thing as sauce, but I’ve tried a number of times in the year I’ve been writing this column, and over and over again, I’ve become overwhelmed by the subject. And I don’t think I’m the only one. It’s easy enough to follow a recipe to make a specific sauce (I’ve written about vinaigrette, mayonnaise, pesto, pad thai, curry and peanut sauce), but it’s a bit harder to deal with the idea of sauces as a group.
The dictionary defines sauce as “a thick liquid served with food, usually savory dishes, to add moistness and flavor.” The list of things that qualify is very long. If you put butter on your toast, ketchup on your fries or dressing on your salad, you’re adding sauce. It may not be as fancy as a béarnaise or mole sauce, but it still qualifies.
“Sauce can transform a dish or a meal from good to great but should never call attention to itself-it’s always in the service of something else, and as such constitutes an unusual culinary specialty in its own right. This is why in the French brigade system, which divides chefs into various departments, the saucier is often the most talented cook in the kitchen, the magician and sorcerer. From the beginning of the meal (mustard with the charcuterie platter) through to dessert (ice cream on pie or raspberry puree with a chocolate torte), there’s almost no dish that doesn’t benefit from some form of sauce.”
The problem lies in how to make sense of sauces as a group. How do we classify sauces in a way that will allow us to think of them in general categories? If we can understand what family a sauce comes from, we will have more room to experiment with it, which might make it easier to adapt a recipe based on our moods, food sensitivities, pickiness or what we happen to have on hand.
This is a challenge that a number of cooks and writers have attempted to meet. Early French chefs gave us what became known as the “mother sauces,” which in the 19th century started out as a list of four and expanded to five sauces a hundred years later. They were supposedly the sauces upon which all other sauces are based, but a lot has changed in cuisine since then-so although a few are still good sauces with which to be familiar, we’ve also (predictably) moved beyond them.
Other food experts have tried as well. Writer James Peterson struggled with the problem and settled on two types of sauces: integral and nonintegral, which is helpful in thinking about how a sauce works with a dish-gravy made from the drippings of a roast concentrate the flavors, enhancing a dish with complementary tastes, while curries are instead designed to provide contrast on the plate. Food scientist Harold McGee categorizes sauces based upon how they are thickened, which puts emphasis on the process by which they are cooked-or if they are cooked at all (since some, like pesto or chimichurri, are simply mixed and served). And Michael Ruhlman approaches sauces in terms of their ingredients when he suggests in “The Elements of Cooking” that all sauces generally fit into three categories, according to whether they are stock-, fat- or plant-based.
These are all interesting ways to consider sauces, and no matter which context you choose, you’re going to find some overlap. For example, espagnole falls into all three of Ruhlman’s categories, since it is made with stock, fat (a butter-based roux) and tomato. Wikipedia breaks sauces down by nine types and puts velouté under white sauces, even though it is also made with a light stock and a buttery roux, so it might fall into another category, as well.
And here is where I need for you to bear with me, because I did more reading than cooking this week. I had friends in town for the holiday weekend and we enjoyed some meals out. And one evening, when we were enjoying some Thai food (Chattanooga is blessed with so many great Thai restaurants!), I was amazed at how many different delicious sauces were on the menu and was inspired to finally stop stalling and write about sauce.
So, I’m thinking about brown vs. white sauce, mother sauces, barbecue, curry, mole, aioli, salsa, pesto, chimichurri and sauces I’ve never even met before. I’d like to spend the autumn and winter exploring sauces and hope you’ll join me for the ride. If you want to get started, you might want to try one of these recipes. Maybe by springtime, we’ll be whipping up sauces on the fly! And please, in the meantime, let me know if you have any thoughts, advice or suggestions.
Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.