Learn four essential sauces

green sauce
© Brent Hofacker

Knowing how to make a few sauces by heart is a skill we all can use.

In The Art of Simple Food, American chef and food revolution ringleader, Alice Waters, writes about her four essential sauces. They are all super simple, some with just a few ingredients. And they are like magic pixie dust in the kitchen. While some of us love dallying about for hours coaxing flavor out of a pile of ingredients, there is something to be said for knowing how to whip up an easy sauce to transform simple things into spectacular things.

Two of Waters' sauces are vegetarian and two are vegan – but all four of them work wonders in elevating meals that don't include meat. Vegetarian cooking does not need to be a bland affair, and the ability to quickly highlight a bowl of steamed vegetables or a grain salad, for example, is a greet trick to have up one's sleeve.

I love the idea of having a repertory of sauces one knows by heart – and I love Alice's four. But there are all kinds of other beautiful ones out there that you could adopt as well. With that in mind, I have collected some of the basics and some of my favorites and included them here.

Alice Waters' Four Essential Sauces

AIOLI (Garlic Mayonnaise): With just four ingredients – garlic, olive oil, an egg yolk, and salt – this homemade mayonnaise will make you never want to buy commercial mayo again. Mark Bittman describes the recipe in The New York Times.

VINAIGRETTE: Waters' vinaigrette recipe is so simple, yet so perfect. An optional shallot, red wine vinegar, salt, and olive oil.

SALSA VERDE: Her recipe for green sauce includes parsley, garlic, lemon, and capers for an intensely bright and delicious sauce that can be used on everything savory, seriously.

But one need not be limited to those ingredients. Katherine swears by her mix-and-match green sauce, which you can read about here: This super simple green sauce goes with everything. I also make green sauce with whatever I have on hand, it never disappoints.

HERB BUTTER: Waters' recipe for herb butter is straightforward. Mix chopped herbs with softened butter, lemon, salt, garlic, and cayenne. Mash it together; serve it soft, or roll it into a log, freeze, and slice into coins to let melt on cooked items.

Also known as compound butter, this is something I make all the time, and always have on hand in the freezer. I make a vegan version using coconut oil or plant-based butter, as well. Our favorite mix is with seaweed, it adds an umami bomb to whatever it is graced with. See my method here: 9 things to do with leftover herbs.

The Five French Mother Sauces

Famed French chef Auguste Escoffier codified the five “mother sauces,” of French cooking in Le Guide Culinaire, published in 1903. These are decidedly fussier than Waters' sauces, but hey, they're the French mother sauces, we can't exclude them here! Also note, they are all based on a proper roux, the magic thickener of cooked flour and butter.

BÉCHAMEL: Made with a white roux and milk, this sauce is used everywhere from lasagna to the base of other sauces like Mornay.

VELOUTÉ: This one will likely not go over very well with our vegan readers – it's made with meat stock, cream, and egg yolks. I've never tried to make a plant-based one, but maybe I will give it a shot.

ESPAGNOLE: This classic brown sauce is traditionally made with beef stock, but you can use a hearty mushroom stock or vegetable demi-glace. (Let Escoffier roll in his grave.)

SAUCE TOMAT: A very rich and animal-intensive tomato sauce, I'd skip this one and opt for one of the ones listed below.

HOLLANDAISE: If you love butter, lemon, and eggs (and are not worried about your heart) then this sauce is for you!

The other motherlode

There are so many sauces, so little time! Here are my favorites.

PESTO: Pesto does not need to be an ode to basil and pine nuts. If there is a green leaf in my kitchen, it will probably end up in a pesto experiment. And I think I have tried every type of nut as well. I always add some roasted jalapeno and have found that swapping in miso paste for parmesan makes the family vegans happy.

For ideas, see: How to make pesto with crazy greens.

ROMESCO: This Catalan miracle is sweet, salty, spicy, deep, zesty, bright, rich, and basically, perfection. A mix of roasted red peppers, tomato paste, garlic, almonds, and other goodness, it is great on sandwiches, stirred into soups, on top of grits/polenta, with grilled vegetables, on pasta, you name it.

I usually just improvise, throwing roasted peppers into the mortar and adding what I have on hand to achieve that delicious flavor; usually a mix of garlic, almonds, sun-dried tomatoes, olive oil, smoked paprika, et cetera. A food processor makes quicker work of it all.

EASY TOMATO SAUCES: There is a dish at NYC's Scarpetta restaurant that proves alchemy is real. It's spaghetti with tomatoes and basil, and it is simply transformative. I found the recipe online and it used to be my go-to tomato sauce, but to be honest, it's not that simple to make. Which is where the following two come in handy:

FLAVORED AIOLI / MAYO: Homemade aioli and mayo are so good they don't need anything more, but if you're using commercial mayo or want to add new interest to your homemade recipe, there are delicious things to add. Consider: Wasabi, chipotle peppers, Sriracha, pesto, roasted peppers, smoked paprika, capers, anchovies, miso paste, curry powder or paste, tamarind paste, ginger, et cetera.

SALSA: There are a zillion salsa recipes out there; find one you love and make it yours. Sometimes I just make a pico de gallo with chopped tomatoes, jalapeno, onions, and cilantro. Sometimes I roast tomatoes and puree them with chilis; often I make fruit and jalapeno salsas. They are all good, and all super versatile.

TAHINI: Most people know this healthy and delicious sauce for its role in hummus, but it can be put to use in a multitude of other ways. And it is very easy to make at home. Once you have made it, you can use it in salad dressings, drizzled over vegetables and grains, on top of chickpeas, to dunk vegetables in, on noodles ... as well as sweet applications, like in smoothies or stirred into brownies before baking, or on top of ice cream.

SECRET SAUCE: One time during the honey-mustard dressing era, I didn't have honey and used orange marmalade instead. Maybe this is a thing, I do not know, but I have been using it ever since. Sweet, chewy, and spicy – it's so good. It's probably more of a condiment than a sauce, per se, but use it as a base for dressings, on grilled vegetables and in sandwiches, and I can think of a lot of other places where it would be happy as well.

THE BEST VINAIGRETTE: Sorry, Alice Waters, I know yours is really the best, but I love this one equally: Use this simple trick for the best salad dressing.

There is probably no limit to the number of sauces that one could make; the idea is to have a handful of them that you know by heart and that help you make healthy, delicious meals quickly. Find ones that suit your dietary habits and that have flavors you love, and never be stuck with a bland home-cooked meal again.

Learn four essential sauces
Knowing how to make a few sauces by heart is a skill we all can use.

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