You will rule the kitchen forevermore with this quartet of easy-to-remember go-tos for every occasion. 

By Stacey Ballis
April 14, 2020
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When we talk sauces, we often talk about the “mother sauces.” These five basic sauces—tomate, béchamel, espagnole, hollandaise, and velouté—form the foundations of French cooking, and by proxy, of a lot of cooking world-wide. And while the name of each might not ring familiar, chances are they’ve played a role in gravies you’ve made and eggs Benedicts you’ve devoured.

But there are more classic sauces than the Big Five, and these stay-at-home days are the perfect time to learn how to make them and have them at the ready without having to wrangle an iPhone recipe while wielding tools in the kitchen. Learn, practice, and experiment with these four great sauces that are perfect for right now as well as the future.

Classic sauce #1: Tomato sauce

A simple tomato sauce is something you should be able to pull together quickly and with no fuss, because it is one of the most useful sauces in your repertoire. Here’s how to whip up an easy, pantry-fueled version with canned tomatoes (with a variation for fresh, below):

1. Start with one 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes. (If you have whole or diced, toss them for a fast blitz in your blender or food processor, or put an immersion blender right into the open can.)

2. Finely chop half an onion or one whole shallot.

3. Sauté the chopped onion in a tablespoon of neutral oil or clarified butter in the bottom of medium-sized saucepan.

4. When the onions are translucent but not browned, add the tomatoes and bring to a simmer for 5-10 minutes to a thickened consistency.

5. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and a pinch of sugar if you think it needs balance.

At this point, you can decide your sauce’s ultimate fate. Add any combination of garlic, basil, red pepper flakes, anchovy, or capers for a pasta sauce. Cook Italian sausage links or meatballs in it. Add two cups of chicken or beef broth for a tomato soup. Add dried Italian seasonings and garlic to use as pizza sauce.

FRESH TOMATO VARIATION:

If you’ve got vine-fresh tomatoes, substitute 2 pounds tomatoes for the canned tomatoes (this will make enough pasta sauce to feed a hungry family of 4). Grate fresh tomatoes into a bowl and discard the skins for Step 1, and then proceed with the recipe. To finish, add chopped basil and a glug of more olive oil for a fast and fresh pasta sauce. Add chopped roasted chili peppers and chopped cilantro for a fresh cooked salsa. Add chopped cucumber for gazpacho.

Classic sauce #2: White sauce

This off-the-cuff version of the classic béchamel mother sauce is super easy to do and can be the start to many beautiful dishes. Here’s the basic foundation to remember: For every cup of sauce, you want to use two tablespoons unsalted butter and two tablespoons all-purpose flour. And here’s how to get it done:

1. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the flour when the butter stops foaming and cook for 1 minute to cook off the raw flour taste.

2. Pre-warm 1 cup of whole milk and add to the butter/flour mixture in a steady stream while whisking.

3. Cook until it thickens to your taste, then season well with salt and pepper.

Voila! Now comes the fun stuff: Add grated cheese in a 1:1 ratio (1 cup of sauce would take 1 cup grated cheese, let’s say) for great macaroni and cheese or cheese sauce for vegetables. You can add a dash of hot sauce or a sprinkle of dry mustard powder to deepen the flavor. For a killer sauce for creamed spinach, add a little grated nutmeg and some Parmesan. For a creamy soup, add any pureed vegetable and stock in a 1:1:1 ratio (one cup white sauce, one cup pureed vegetables, one cup stock). For a gravy to pour over biscuits that you’ve been quarantine-baking, stir in extra black pepper and crumbles of cooked breakfast sausage.

Classic sauce #3: Gravy!

There’s a whole world of delicious pan sauces out there, but this classic doesn’t even rely on pan juices. All you need is some reduced stock to give it flavor, which makes it a great go-to for any meal when you want a savory gravy for fun (or to help out a piece of overcooked meat). Here’s how to get your gravy game on:

1. Pour two cups of chicken or beef stock into a small saucepan, and reduce over high heat by half, giving you one cup of concentrated stock. Keep warm.

2. In a second saucepan, sauté 2 tablespoons finely chopped onion or shallot in 2 tablespoons butter until golden brown.

3. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour over the sauté and cook for one minute to eliminate any raw flour flavor.

4. Slowly whisk the reduced warm stock into the sauté, cooking until slightly thickened.

5. Whisk in one tablespoon cold butter, being sure to keep the sauce moving so that the butter emulsifies into the sauce and doesn’t break (a technical term for curdling).

6. Season to taste with salt and pepper and add any fresh chopped herbs you might want.

And you’re off! For a sweeter sauce for pork or duck, try stirring in a tablespoon of red currant or sour cherry jam, or apple butter at the end.

Classic sauce #4: Salsa verde

This herb-based sauce is ideal for using up any fresh herbs you have lying around. It can be a punch of a single herb like parsley (don’t we always have a bunch left over?) or be a redolent blend of a whole garden’s worth of herbs (or an overzealous produce shopping spree). Scallions are great in salsa verde, as are celery leaves. If you don’t have enough herbs to fill out the sauce, add baby spinach, carrot tops, beet greens, kale, or even lettuce leaves. Here’s what to do with all that green goodness:

1. Put about four cups of greenery in your food processor, blender, or into a bowl that will handle an immersion blender.

2. If you have a lemon or a lime lying about, throw in the zest and a squeeze of the juice, or a splash of vinegar. Add a healthy pinch of kosher salt, a few good grindings of black pepper (optional: a pinch of red pepper flakes), and a half a cup of any oil (I like something neutral like canola or grapeseed).

3. Pulse until you have a cohesive but still chunky paste. Then taste. If you like it punchier, add more vinegar or citrus juice. Spicier, add more pepper flakes. Adjust salt, remembering that you will eat this on top of other food so it should be a bit more salt-forward than if you were just eating it out of a spoon.

Fun variations: If you have an old serrano pepper or Thai green chili hanging about, toss it in and eliminate the pepper flakes. Add garlic if you love it. Want it looser? Add more oil. Once you start tinkering, you’ll find the profile that suits you best. This sauce will store in your fridge, covered with a thin layer of oil to prevent oxidizing, for up to a week. Serve as-is over any meat or fish, toss with pasta, smear on flatbreads, drizzle over grilled or steamed vegetables. Stir in some sour cream or Greek yogurt or mayo for a sandwich spread or dip or a killer sauce for potato salad. Roll it up in dough with some cheese for a savory swirled roll. Use it as a sauce on a pizza, spread it under the skin of a chicken before roasting, or coat a rack of lamb with it. Once you start whipping up salsa verdes on the regular, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it!