On the sauce: introduction

Categories: Expert guidance

In a new series, Angela Clutton—Cookbook Club host, food writer and author of The Vinegar Cupboard—will be navigating her way through the myriad iterations and uses of sauces

Image: Kim Lightbody

A bit like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, I spent my twenties asking waiters in restaurants to ensure sauces were served on the side of whatever I was having. ‘On the side’ was a very big deal and looking back, I feel faintly ridiculous about it. But with age has come wisdom. Whatever my reasons were then, I now appreciate just how important a sauce can be in bringing together everything else on the plate.

“In the orchestra of a great kitchen, the sauce chef is a soloist” wrote Fernand Point, 20th century chef, restaurateur and (arguably) the father of modern French cuisine. I can see that he’s right. But with no disrespect intended to the greatness of your kitchen at home or to mine, the point is this: a sauce doesn’t really need great skill and doesn’t have to be fancy or a faff. It certainly can be all those things, if you want it to be—but it doesn’t need to be. And in this series, I endeavour to prove that.

First, we’ll be thinking about using seasonal fruits in sauces. Back in the day, they’d most likely have turned up as a sort of savoury fruit jelly, but the more modern take on it is to just cook the fruit down. Herbs can be treated similarly simply—in my sauces we’ll be finely chopping all kinds of fabulous herbs to run through yoghurts, creme fraiche, and simple butter sauces.

Laden with deliciousness
Mention of butter sauce takes us to the next instalment of the series: the French sauces so beloved of Monsieur Point. Here lies bechamel, hollandaise, velouté and more; sauces that are laden with deliciousness but do admittedly need a modicum of skill and maybe more than a little demystifying as to why any modern home cook should bother making them at all. (Spoiler alert—we all should because they are fabulous and surprisingly hard to muck up.)

In stark contrast are the range of Japanese, Chinese and Thai sauces we’ll be exploring. Each make use of bases such as soy, mirin, fish sauce and rice vinegar as a platform for ginger, chillies, lime and so on. These sauces are all about simplicity and direct flavour impact.

We will also be making gravy and other sauces, deglazing pans or using the juices from a roasted joint or bird. We’ll be getting out our pestles and mortars to delve into sauces whose heritage is grounded (pun intended) in whatever is being pestled. That could be nuts—from Italian pesto, to French aillade, to Georgian satsivi—or anchovies, garlic, herbs, or spices. The bases of South American salsas are traditionally made with a pestle and mortar. What they all share is a thicker, grainier, more substantial texture and flavour than some of the other sauces we’ll be encountering.

A drizzling of caramel
We’ll finish it all off with sweet sauces: from a light drizzling of caramel, chocolate, fruit or butterscotch sauce, to indulgent custards of various kinds. I don’t think even I ever ordered a pudding with its custard on the side. Or at least, I really hope not.

The glorious diversity of recipes that stretch ahead will demonstrate how even the simplest of sauces can elevate a dish—how they can be the difference between ordinary and ‘wow’.