"What's for dinner?" might be the most dreaded question of everyday life. Even if you have a lot of ingredients on hand, you have to figure out what to do with them and whether you can make something you're in the mood for. Learn how to make a few basic sauces, however, and you have flexibility -- turn whatever you have on hand into an awesome meal.
Sauces elevate a meal and make it easy for anyone to turn a bunch of vegetables and proteins into a finished dish with almost no thought. While every cuisine has its own standard sauces and flavour bases, once you know at least a few of them, you can add additional ingredients or flavour accents to expand your meal options. Here are a few to consider.
Bechamel (White Sauce)
Bechamel, a creamy white sauce, is one of the "Mother Sauces" or leading sauces from which all other sauces are born. (Others include veloute, brown sauce/espagnole and hollaindaise, below.) The Joy of Cooking says:
This French sauce is prized for its unassertive character and smooth texture, which make it the ideal agent to thicken and bind a wide range of dishes and to coat many kinds of foods. Make your béchamel a little thicker than you think it should be, because it is easier to thin it out than to thicken it.
Use béchamel sauce in lasagna, to cook vegetables in a casserole, for mac and cheese, and pretty much any cheese-based dish. You can substitute vegetable stock instead of the milk for a vegan version. Basically, you moisten white roux (equal parts butter and flour) with milk, salt an onion with cloves stuck in it, and simmer until it's creamy and smooth. As an alternative, the New York Times offers a healthy version using extra virgin olive oil instead of butter.
My fellow writer and food lover, Alan Henry also offers these tips:
The trick to a Béchamel is that it can be tricky if you don't control heat, and if you're the type who can't pay attention to one thing in the kitchen at one time, but you start with a roux (flour and butter/lard/shortening), get it nice and blonde (or brown, but usually not), and then add your dairy. Stir for what seems like forever until it thickens up and smoothes out, and you're set. Try making a Béchamel with bacon fat. It'll change your life.
It has a fancy name, but veloute is basically like béchamel, only instead of milk you make it with a light-coloured stock (chicken, fish or vegetable stock). It's really versatile, since you can use this sauce with any protein or just vegetables (and you can add mushrooms, shallots and or white wine for more variations).
The video above from Everoneitalian.com shows you how easy it is to make. Mix 2 sticks of butter with about a cup and a half of flour to make the roux, and then add 3 cups of chicken stock.
For a Chinese version (great for stir frying or fried rice), check out this video from the Art of Cooking.
Espagnol (Brown Sauce)
This is basically a simple brown gravy that can form the basis for steak sauce, mushroom sauces, madeira and more. Like the sauces above, you use equal parts butter and flour (or try making it with bacon fat instead of butter!). Then add mirepoix -- onions, carrots and celery -- and stir in tomatoes and beef stock.
There are lots of other ways to make brown sauce, but you get the idea. If you just want a quick sauce, however, consider just making a simple gravy from the pan drippings. As Alan says:
We talk a lot about how to make the perfect steak -- why let all of those delicious brown bits on the pan go to waste? Add some fat like butter, a little flour to thicken, salt and pepper, and something to deglaze the pan like wine, balsamic vinegar or sherry (or any other cooking wine). Scrub up those brown bits and stir until it's all smooth, and you're good to go. Honestly, I could go on about the myriad ways to make simple pan gravy -- everyone should do it at least once, if they haven't already for Thanksgiving or something. It's easy and super-fast, especially if you've already fried or cooked something in the pan, or you've roasted something and have drippings to spare!
Or, as the Reluctant Gourmet advises, make a brown sauce base quickly using demi-glace, a shallot, and red wine.
A basic spaghetti sauce, as we've mentioned before, not only is fundamental for many Italian dishes, it's also a great way to learn basic cooking techniques. This is Chef Anthony Thomas' roasted garlic and spaghetti sauce recipe, but again, there are tons of variations on this classic, which is part of what makes it so useful to know how to make. Above is Giada BKSP.de Laurentiis made-from-scratch, in-under-30-minutes instructions. (I'm a big fan of the Pioneer Woman's version, even though -- gasp! -- she uses a jar of premade sauce.)
Here's a simple sauce for garlic lovers. It's similar to a mayonnaise (which many consider an essential sauce), but lighter. Tony Tahhan says Arabs call it toum (toum being the Arabic word for garlic) and offers this simple recipe. You can make it with just garlic, lemon juice and oil, or, as the recipe shows, add egg white. Try it on grilled chicken, potatoes or just about anything you would put mayo on.
Of course, these five sauces are only scratching the surface of what you can learn and there are many other cuisines to explore. (Mexican mole, Thai peanut sauce, Indian curries, Chinese curries to name a few. Here are 12 more, including hummus, nut sauce and pestos.) Keep the pantry staples on hand to make these sauces, however, and you can make an array of delicious food. (Don't forget you can make your own Sriracha too.)