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Sauces

“Sauce is that mysterious liquid that transforms a humble slab of meat and turns it into the most decadent dish you’ll ever eat.”

A sauce is defined as a savory or sweet accompaniment used in either the preparation or serving of another food item. Although many sauces are usually a thick, flavored liquid, this is not necessarily the case. Sauces can either be a liquid, cream, semi-solid, or an emulsion. The main purpose of a sauce is to impart either flavor or moisture into another food item; however, sauces may also have a side purpose of being a decoration to a dish. The word sauce is a French word derived from the Latin word salsa (which means salted, or to be or to add salt).

All sauces are built from a base of some type of liquid component, but it does not have to be primarily liquid. Sauces like relish, different types of salsas, and various chunky sauces will sometimes have more solid components and have a higher proportion of solids to liquids. However, most classical sauces used in cooking are primarily liquid.

Each culture has their own derivations and categorizations of sauces and there hundreds of base sauces with thousands of additional variations.

Here are just some of the sauces from various cuisines around the world (this is not a comprehensive list by any means and excludes many regions and sauces that many others may consider to be significant):

French

Many times when discussing western cooking, the mere mention of sauces evokes thoughts of French cuisine. This is because refined sauces used in French cuisine stretch back all the way to medieval times. During this time period, there were already hundreds of sauces used in the preparation of many dishes. However, the study and categorization of sauces was very minimal. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that a critical look and reclassification of sauces occurred. It was from this period that the terms mother sauce and small sauce arose and these terms have now become ingrained in modern cuisine.

As a testament to how fundamental and pervasive French sauces are in cooking, many culinary programs teach the mother sauces as the starting point of chef’s foray into the world of sauces. Then usually in an advanced course, a class will cover some of the more significant small sauces that are derived from the mother sauces. It is for reasons like this that in the culinary world sauces and French cuisine goes hand-in-hand. In fact, many will also argue that most of the classical techniques in sauces and sauce-making stem from the techniques used in creating French sauces.

The following are the 5 mother sauces in French cuisine:

  • Béchamel: A classic white sauce made from milk or cream and thickened using a white or light (not blond) roux. Most derived small sauces include many cream sauces and cheese sauces. Rarely are meat-based or vegetable-based sauces derived from a béchamel.
    • Examples of small sauces derived from Béchamel: cheddar cheese sauce, blue cheese sauce, savory cream sauce, creamy mushroom sauce, and broccoli cream sauce.
  • Velouté: This classic sauce is similar to béchamel in that it is also a light sauce; however, it does not have a cream base. Instead, this sauce is made from a light or white stock and thickened using a light or blond roux (rarely is a white roux used for velouté). Usually, the white stock is chicken stock but may also be veal, vegetable, or on occasion fish or seafood based. Rarely is a velouté served as a finished sauce and is almost always served as a small sauce.
    • Examples of small sauces derived from Velouté: white mushroom sauce, seafood gravy, shrimp gravy, shrimp sauce, white wine sauce, shallot sauce, and many different types of thin gravies.
  • Espagnole: This darker (usually brown) classical sauce is the heartiest of the mother sauces. This sauce is comprised of a mirepoux (a 2:1:1 ratio of onions, carrots, and celery), a brown or dark brown roux, tomato puree, brown or dark stock and is usually seasoned with a sachet of herbs. Usually the dark stock is started from beef or veal, but the dark stock can be derived from any animal from which bones can be obtained. The darkening of the stock comes from the roasting of the bones prior to making the stock rather than from a specific animal. However, beef or veal is usually associated with darker stock.
    • Examples of small sauces derived from Espagnole: One of the main small sauces derived from Espagnole is demi-glace. Demi-glace is made from equal parts of Espagnole (usually made from veal stock rather than beef stock) and veal stock. Other derived sauces include many dark mushroom sauces, heartier meat and vegetable based sauces, various thick gravies, and most red wine sauces.
  • Hollandaise: Most commonly associated with the dish Eggs Benedict, this rich sauce is different from all of the other mother sauces in that it relies on an emulsion to provide the body and depth of the sauce. Hollandaise is comprised of butter, egg yolks, lemon (occasionally, a different acidic component like lime or vinegar is used) and white or cayenne pepper. Although commonly served as a finished sauce, many small sauces can be made from hollandaise.
    • Examples of small sauces derived from Hollandaise: Derived smalls sauces include herb sauces, mustard sauces, various richer cream sauces, and several “creamy” tomato sauces.
  • Tomate: This tomato based sauce is similar to the tomato sauces found in Italian cuisine except is richer and heartier due to the inclusion of stock, salted pork and ham in the sauce making process. Tomate is comprised of a mirepoux sautéed with garlic in the renderings of the salted pork, tomatoes, light stock (usually chicken or veal), a ham bone for flavor, and a sachet of herbs and spices. Sometimes, this sauce is thickened with the use of a light or blond roux. In addition, this sauce is usually finished in an oven. Although, this complex sauce is usually served as is, there are several small sauces that can be made from it.
    • Examples of small sauces derived from Tomate: Creole sauce and Provençale sauce.

In addition to the mother sauces, French cuisine employs a vast array of dessert sauces. Some examples of this are caramel sauces, chocolate sauces, and various types of fruit sauces and reductions.

Italian

Besides French cuisine, another cuisine that is commonly associated with sauces is Italian cuisine. In particular, two Italian food items are commonly associated with sauce: pizza and pasta. And although those are two types of dishes that are synonymous with sauce, Italian cuisine uses sauces for many other dishes.

In Italian cooking, there are three Primary Categories of sauces:

  • Savory sauces for pasta dishes (usually sauces that accompany a Primo or first course of an Italian dinner): These are the types of sauces that are commonly associated with Italian cuisine. These include various tomato based sauces (Ragù, Bolognese, Marinara, and Neopolitan), herb-based sauces (such as Pesto), and oil or fat-based sauces (such as Carbonara).
  • Savory sauces for meats, fish and seafood and vegetables (usually sauces that accompany a Secondo or second course and the Contorno or side dishes of an Italian dinner): Although Italian cuisine is commonly linked with pasta and pizza, there are just as many dishes where pasta or pizza is not the focal point. Likewise, many of these dishes have their own sauces that are not used for pasta. Examples include agrodolce (a sweet and sour sauce used to top lamb and sometimes beef or pork), vincotto (a sweet sauce used on roasted game, meat and poultry), calogiuri (various types of fruit-infused sauces used to compliment stronger tasting foods), salsa verde (a green sauce made from a base of parsley and commonly served with fish and seafood), and balsami (a balsamic vinegar based sauce emulsified with oil commonly used to dress both cooked and uncooked vegetables).
  • Sweet sauces used for desserts: These include sauces like crema al marscapone (a marscapone cheese based sauce used in making many different Italian desserts such as tiramisu) and sabayon (a sauce made from egg yolks, sugar, and sweet wine) and many different variants of sabayon (fruit-infused, or mixed with chocolate or different nuts).

East Asian

One of the defining characteristics of Asian (both eastern and southeastern) sauces is that many of them are derived from the fermentation process.

The following are some of the major sauces of Eastern Asian cuisine from which many other sauces are derived:

  • Soy sauce: This sauce with a rich heritage is made from the fermentation of a combination of boiled soy beans, crushed roasted grains (usually wheat), and Aspergillus culture. After a brining and pressing process, the resulting liquid is the sauce that is synonymous with East Asian culture. There are many variants of soy sauce depending on the fermentation, brewing and pressing process and depending on what grain or mold culture is used. In addition, many other varieties are created by infusing or concentrating one of the many types of available soy sauce. Although primarily used as a condiment or the base of a simple sauce, it also serves as a building block of many other complex sauces used in East Asian cuisine. Some examples of derived sauces include Teriyaki, Katsu Sauce, Hoisin, Tare, Bulgogi sauce, and Oyster Sauce.
  • Bean Sauce: Bean sauces in East Asian cuisine are created by fermenting various types of soybeans and crushing them into pastes and adding various seasonings. Despite the many different types of bean sauces, many of them are dark in color and have similar consistencies. This makes it difficult at times to differentiate between different bean sauces without tasting them. Bean sauce variants include: sweet bean sauce (also known as tianmianjiang, this is made by using fermented yellow soy beans, sugar, salt, wheat flour, and Chinese steamed buns), black bean sauce (also known as douchi, this is made from fermented black soy beans and salt) and brown bean sauce (also known as cheehou, this is made from fermented black or brown soy beans, garlic, and ginger). Many bean sauces are primarily used as a cooking ingredient, but are occasionally used as a condiment. Additionally, many bean sauces are combined with other ingredients to make a compound sauce in East Asian cuisine. Several examples of compound sauces made from bean sauces include mapo tofu sauce, gangjiang noodle sauce, and kukobi sauces for braised meat dishes.
  • Chili sauce: There are two primary categories of chili sauces in Eastern Asian cuisine. Fermented chili sauces and non-fermented chili sauces. Fermented chili sauces include gochujang (a spicy paste used on various fish and roasted meat dishes made by fermenting a combination of rice, fermented soybeans, salt, and red chilies; this paste is then mixed with garlic, vinegar, and sometimes soy sauce to make gochujang sauce), ssamjang (a particularly spicy sauce used on slabs of barbecued meat, this sauce is made by mixing gochujang with additional chilies, onion, garlic, green onion and fermented soybean paste) and doubanjiang (a very salty and spicy paste made from fermented broad beans and soybeans mixed with chilies and various other spices; usually used on food with residual moisture such as tofu, and noodles). Examples of non-fermented chili sauces include hot chili sauce (chilies mixed with hot oil and is used a lot on noodles and vegatables), flavored chili sauce (hot chili sauce that is seasoned with various spices and flavorings after the hot chili sauce is cooled down and is used as a finishing sauce for many different dishes) and XO sauce (a cooked sauce made from scallops, dried fish and shrimp, garlic, onions and chili peppers and used on many different foods).

There are also many sauces not derived from these major sauces that are used in Eastern Asian cuisine. Two of the major categories of sauces not derived from the above sauces are the many variants of miso-based sauces and vinegar-based sauces. Examples of miso-based sauces are: gomamiso (a sesame and miso sauce used on meat dishes), amamiso (a sweetened miso sauce used for some meat dishes and some fish or seafood dishes) and miso vinaigrettes (used in conjunction with vegetables and sparingly on protein dishes). Examples of vinegar-based sauces include no soy sauce variants of ponzu, (a sauce derived from rice vinegar, mirin and a citrus) curdle sauces (sauces made from vinegar and various root vegetables and then strained, and various pickle sauces (sauces made from pickling sauces and various seasonings and flavorings).

Southeast Asian

Although there are a vast variety of sauces used in Southeast Asian cuisine, two of the most prominent types of sauces are:

  • Fish sauce: A staple of Southeast Asian cuisine, fish sauce is so quintessential to Southeast Asian cuisine that each culture has their own names for each preparation style of fish sauce. This amber-colored sauce is obtained from the fermentation of fish (and sometimes other seafood) and sea salt. It is used as a condiment by itself, as a condiment in coordination with other ingredients, the base of a simple sauce, or as a part of a complex sauce. Most commonly, fish sauce is made from anchovies with some regional variations adding krill, squid, clams or oysters. In addition, other fish used for fish sauce include gobies, perch and sardines. Some basic additions to a fish sauce base yield many other types of sauces that are also used as condiments or used to make even more complex sauces. The most common addition is sugar and a citrus and is used as a condiment or dipping sauce. A further addition of garlic, ginger, and green onion is used as a dipping sauce with more depth. Cooking down and reducing the fish sauce and adding onions and chilies creates a sauce that is used to top roasted meats. Mixing fish sauce with vinegar and soy creates another sauce that is commonly used for dipping or used with cooked vegetables.
  • Chili sauce: There are many different types of chili sauces in Southeast Asian cuisine; however, the most well-known chili sauce that is known globally is Sriracha. Sriracha is a chili sauce created in Si Racha, Thailand and is made from a combination of chili pepper paste, vinegar, garlic, salt and sugar. It is commonly used as a condiment on many different types of food and is usually treated as a finished sauce. An uncommon addition to Sriracha is soy sauce and additional chili paste and this is used as a dipping sauce. Another common type of chili sauce is Nam Prik which comes in many different variations and is primarily used as a cooking ingredient. However, it is also used as a simple dipping sauce for many other items also. The Malay and Indonesian analogue to Nam Prik is known as Sambal. One last common type of chili sauce is Mae Poi which is a sweet chili sauce made from roughly chopped chilies, sugar, salt, vinegar, garlic and water. Mae Poi is a syrupy sauce and is used to coat braised meat dishes and various types of roasted fish.

Other types of less prominent sauces used in Southeast Asian cuisine include banana catsup (a catsup-like condiment that is made from bananas instead of tomatoes and is used as both a condiment and a cooking ingredient), cincalok (a sauce made from fermented dried shrimp and used as a condiment in conjunction with lime and chili peppers), satay sauce (a peanut based sauce made from roasted peanuts, coconut milk, soy sauce, garlic and spices primarily used with satay or skewered grilled meat although may also be used on salads and vegetable dishes), babi panggang sauce (a tomato-based sauce made from ginger, water, vinegar, salt and sugar), and various types of innards sauce (a sauce made from animal innards, usually the liver and heart and has a consistency similar to brown gravy except courser but smoother).

Central/South American

Just like a lot of Southeast Asian cuisine, Central/South American cuisine also uses a fair amount of spices and chilies. Additionally, due to their proximity to the equator, a lot of their sauces have a sweet and tropical flavors. Here are three of the primary categories of sauces used in Central/South American cuisine.

  • Salsa: Often times associated with Central/South American cuisine, the term derives from the Latin term salsa which means salty. In Spanish, it directly translates to sauce, and in English-speaking countries, it usually refers to the tomato-based, hot sauces found in Central/South American cuisine. Common types of salsas include Pico de Gallo (literally meaning “rooster’s beak,” this is essentially a salad made from chopped tomato, chopped onion and chilies such as jalapenos and Anaheim chilies; it is considered a sauce because of the natural liquids from the ingredients. Variants of Pico de Gallo include additions of meats such as shrimp and sausage, avocadoes, various citrus juices, vinegar and various herbs), Salsa Cruda (a common variant of Pico de Gallo made with jalapenos, cilantro, lime juice and coriander leaf), Salsa Verde (a salsa made with tomatillos as either an addition or replacement for tomatoes), and Salsa Roja (the contemporary red salsa made from cooked tomatoes, chili peppers, onion, garlic, and various fresh herbs and spices; the most common added herb is cilantro). Other variations of salsa include Salsa Negra (a lightly cooked dark sauce that is made from dried chilies, olive oil and garlic), Salsa Criolla (instead of tomato, the primary ingredient is red and white onions and may include pickled ingredients such as pickled beets or bell peppers) and many other salsa made from other chilies and other fruits (discussed in the below bullets).
  • Chili Sauces: With a vast variety of chilies available in Central and South America coming in a wide range of heat levels, there are also a number of chili-based sauces used in Central/South American cuisine. Some of the more well-known chili-based sauces include Aji (a spicy sauce made from finely chopped tomatoes, cilantro, onions and aji peppers), Mole (a prepared chili sauce that comes in varying colors and made from various chilies and spices and chocolate), Bajan Pepper Sauce (a hot sauce condiment traditionally made from scotch bonnets, mustard, vinegar, onions, turmeric, smaller amounts of other peppers and oil that is eaten with meats or fish), Ajilimojili (a cooked then cooled sweet and hot sauce made from hot peppers such as scotch bonnets or habaneros, olive oil, garlic, cilantro and citrus) and Llajwa (a hot sauce made from the locoto pepper, tomatoes, and various herbs). In addition, there are several salsas that are more reliant on peppers rather than tomatoes with varying heat levels from the use of chilies as mild as jalapenos to peppers as spicy as the hottest habeneros. Examples of these salsas made from chipotles, serranos, and habaneros.
  • Sweet Sauces: There are also many tropical fruits indigenous to both Central and South America. Just a few examples of tropical fruits commonly used are mangoes, pineapples, guavas, and papayas. Using these and various other ingredients, are key to many of the sweet sauces found in Central/South American cuisine. Some of these sauces include salsas made from tropical fruits and other sweet ingredients (examples are pineapple salsa, mango salsa, papaya salsa and tomato salsas that use citrus and sugar instead of peppers) and chancaca (a sweet sauce that is cooked into a syrup made from unrefined sugar, honey and citrus peel).

Other common sauces used in Central/South American cuisine include Guacamole (a popular avocado sauce that is made from ripened avocadoes, sea salt and citrus juice; common variants include tomato, onion, garlic, chilies, yogurt, sour cream, herbs, spices, citrus zest and other types of citrus juice in addition to the base), Mojito Isleno (a sauce made from capers, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and various herbs and spices marinated in olive oil and red wine vinegar or white wine vinegar; many variations include hot peppers), Pique Verde Boricua (a blended green sauce made from green peppers, onions, garlic, cilantro, cilantro, olive oil and lime juice; commonly, the green peppers are either caballeros, cubanelles or jalapenos, but it can be made from a milder green pepper such as green bell peppers), Roja Mojo (a sauce made from olive oil blended with garlic, paprika and cumin and flavored with citrus or vinegar), Chimichurri (a sauce used for grilled meats and fish made from parsley, garlic, oregano, olive oil and red wine vinegar or white wine vinegar) and Caruso Sauce (a cooked sauce made from cream, sliced white onion, mushrooms, cheese, and nuts such as walnuts or pecans that is primarily served with pastas or long grains; many variations include cured meats such as ham, bacon or cured sausages like chorizo).

Indian

Indian cuisine makes lot of use of many different types of spices with a vast array of flavors. Although many of the spices used have heat levels ranging from mild to exceptionally hot, there are also quite a few spices that are not hot. Playing off of these spices, many Indian sauces make use of various types of chili peppers like many other equatorial cultures. Just like the other equatorial cultures mentioned so far in this article, heat is a common theme in Indian cuisine. Here are the two primary types of sauces that are prevalent in Indian cuisine:

  • Curries: Curry is a generic English term that is used to denote a vast amount of dishes in Asian cuisine that are made from a sauce made from a complex combination of spices, herbs and chilies. Curries are key staples of Indian cuisine and there are many different types of curries that exist. Many of the different types of curries in India stem from the city or region of origin and each have their own unique qualities and additions. Here are just some of the many different types of curries found in Indian cuisine: Vindaloo (the classic hot curry that is served in many Indian restaurants, its name stems from the Portuguese names for wine and garlic; these two ingredients are the primary flavorings of this curry and originally made with pork), Phaal (an extremely hot curry that usually derives its intense heat from the use of ghost peppers, most commonly the bhut jolokia chili pepper; in general, there is no standard for this dish as the point of this variation is to create the hottest possible curry), Afghan (a curry variation that uses chickpeas and is medium in heat), Korma (one of the more mild curries that is yellow in color, its most distinctive flavorings come from the use of almond powder and coconut powder), Dupiaza (the term roughly translates to two onion or doubled onion and refers to the use of both boiled and fried onions as the main flavoring, this curry is usually browner in color and has a medium heat level), Pasanda (a common milder curry that is made from coconut milk, almonds and additional cream; Pasanda is akin to most coconut curries), Bhuna (the common thick curry with medium heat that is made with meat and vegetables; it gets most of its thickness from the use of starches like potatoes, but also from additional reduction during the cooking process), Dhansak (a common sweet and sour curry that is made from either chicken or lamb and usually contain a sweet fruit like pineapple; the name for this particular style derives from an Indian dish made from a lamb shank, lentils and other vegetables), Madras (the common hot red curry; this curry gets its color from a heavy use of chili powder and is made with varying combinations of meats and vegetables), Patia (a variation of Madras curry that is slightly sweeter and slightly more sour from the addition of lemon juice and tomato puree), Jalfrezi (a thick curry with a slightly green color that derives from the use of green chilies; it also uses onion as another main ingredient) and Roghan Josh (a curry with a medium heat level that is usually made with lamb and has a deep red sauce containing tomatoes and paprika; its name is derived from a dish from Kashmir that shares the same name).
  • Chutneys: In Indian cuisine, chutneys serve the primary purpose of being used as condiments. Chutneys are sauces that can be comprised of almost any combination of vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices. They are usually categorized as either sweet or hot, and both categories have several other sub-categories based on the ingredients used, the coarseness of chutney, and the preparation method. Some of the many chutneys used in Indian cuisine include mint chutney (a green chutney that derives its color from the mint leaves and usually has a more neutral but refreshing flavor), mango chutney (a sweet chutney that is made with mangoes and gets additional sweetness from the addition of a simple syrup), lime chutney (an acidic chutney that is usually very smooth in consistency, most variations are somewhat sweet but savory or even salty variations exist), coconut chutney (a sweet chutney that is made from the use of both coconut flesh and coconut milk), tamarind chutney (a bitter and sour chutney that usually gets a lot of its thinness from the use of acidic liquids like vinegar or citrus juices), onion chutney (chutney made from onion that usually has a chunkier consistency; variations made with white or yellow onions tend to be more savory and those made with red onion tend to have a slight sweet note), tomato chutney (a chutney that has a similar texture to a very think salsa, but is usually not chunky; some variations have a consistency that is closer to very thick tomato sauce), parsley chutney (a chutney that is made from parsley and usually has a more refreshing flavor), cilantro chutney (a chutney that is slightly savory and has a more herbal flavor due to the use of cilantro) and garlic chutney (a very pungent chutney that is most commonly served in a paste-like variation; it traditionally has very savory notes). Additionally, in contemporary Indian cuisine, different chutneys with complementary flavor profiles are combined to make various types of fusion chutneys. An example of this is the common combination of mint and coconut chutneys or the combination of onion and garlic chutneys.

In addition, there are various types of dairy-based sauces and many different gravies that stem from the British influence on India. One of the dairy-based sauces in Indian cuisine is Raita, a cucumber yogurt dip that is usually eaten with naan. There are also many different types of spicy gravies that stem from the British influence on India. The most common type of spicy gravy is called Thumbuli and comes in several different varieties based on how the gravy is spiced.

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