Savoury sauces

Savoury sauces

Justin North
42 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Steve Brown

If stocks are the foundation stones of French cooking then sauces are the essential finishing touch that brings the whole dish together in a unified coherence.

Just as an undecorated house feels bare and unfinished, so, too, does an unsauced dish. A sauce complements the basic architecture of a particular dish, and the vast range and variety of sauces in the French chef’s repertoire means that almost every conceivable taste preference can be accommodated.

At this point, you might be asking, what is the point of a sauce? Well, the ideal sauce is a lightly thickened, flavoursome liquid that adds moisture, mouth-feel and an extra dimension of flavour to a dish. Sauces may be hot or cold, savoury or sweet. In classical French cuisine, the range of sauces encompasses those made from stocks, which may be given extra body with a flour-and-fat roux, or emulsified with egg yolks or butter; it includes purées made from fresh herbs or vegetables, and vinaigrettes and mayonnaise-style dressings for salads. I also include compound (flavoured) butters in this chapter, as they are a simple and effective way of adding instant sauce to a plate!

Sauces are treated with great reverence by the French and they are generally considered to be the crowning glory of its cuisine. But as is the case with stocks, they are often thought of as being mainly the domain of the professional kitchen. Many home cooks seem to be frightened of sauces – even of knocking up the simplest pan gravy (or jus gras, as it is known technically). Perhaps it’s a deep-seated fear of lumps, or the misconception that sauces are too rich and heavy and will drown the other ingredients on the plate.

Well, there may have been some truth to this in the ‘bad old days’. But modern French cooking is all about embracing purity of flavour. These days there is less interest in making the traditional roux-based sauces or a thick, overly concentrated demi-glace (or sauce espagnole, as it used to be called). Instead the focus is on lighter sauces that are less rich, less complex and easier to prepare. I revel in these wonderful emulsions, vegetable-based sauces and delicate stock reductions, which typify sauce making in the twenty-first century.

Whichever sauce you make, remember that its function is to enhance and complement the ingredients it is accompanying. Once you’ve familiarised yourself with the various techniques in this chapter you will know the fundamental principles of good sauce-making. In the end, your own taste buds will determine the final flavour of your sauce, through careful and frequent tasting and seasoning. With time you’ll learn how to develop a sort of mental ‘palette’ of flavours. And you’ll learn how to achieve what you want through constant tasting, skimming, reducing and seasoning. Creating a well-balanced, good-textured and beautiful sauce is something of an art. But it is a simple art that is well worth learning; the results will repay your effort ten-fold.

Cold sauces

The most obvious cold sauces are vinaigrettes, dressings and mayonnaises that are used with cold dishes such as salads.

But the range also extends to dipping sauces, to condiments, to flavoured oils, creams and butters – some of which are also used to provide a delicious temperature contrast with hot dishes.

In my view, many of the cold sauces are sublime examples of the new flavour-based approach to French cooking. They are about extracting maximum taste from fresh-tasting ingredients – be they vegetables, herbs or other flavourings. Unlike most hot sauces, cold sauces can usually be made in just a few minutes and with minimal fuss. They are a wonderful way of using up any extra vegetables or herbs that you have in the refrigerator, instead of leaving them to rot!


These simple, tasty sauces are most often used for salads, to bring out the flavour of delicate leaves and herbs. All vinaigrettes use the same basic ingredients, good-quality vinegar and oil, which are whisked together with seasonings to form an emulsion.

But the vinaigrette is endlessly versatile; you can alter the flavour and acidity by using different vinegars or citrus juices, and the oil can also be varied, from a full-flavoured fruity extra-virgin olive oil to more delicate nut oils. When you throw mustards, herbs and spices into the equation, you’ll start to use this type of dressing for all kinds of dishes, hot and cold.

Cold emulsions

Emulsified sauces can be hot or cold, but all depend upon the magical ability of egg yolks to absorb fats such as oil or butter, and to hold them in a thick, smooth, glossy suspension. People are often scared about making emulsified sauces because of their reputation for ‘splitting’ – separating and curdling. The secret is to make sure all the ingredients are at room temperature, and to add the fat very slowly.

Hot sauces

In classical French cooking, hot sauces are based on the sauces mères – mother sauces – and are either white or brown. Old-fashioned white sauces are based on a basic béchamel, which is made from milk that is thickened with a white roux. In contemporary kitchens though, white sauces are increasingly based on a velouté, which is made from a chicken, veal or fish stock and is then lightly enriched and thickened with cream.

Brown sauces are all based on good-quality brown stock, which acquires its dark colour and richer flavour by roasting the bones. The original brown sauce – the espagnole – was always considered the cornerstone of the classic French repertoire of sauces. In its simplest form, it was made with a rich brown stock, thickened with a brown roux (where oil replaces butter), enriched with additional flavourings and simmered slowly for 2–3 days.

But contemporary cooking has again parted company with tradition. The espagnole is time-consuming and too rich and heavy for modern palates. Today, most brown sauces tend to be either rustic pan sauces or more refined jus-based sauces.

Pan sauces are simplicity itself, made from the caramelised sediment in a roasting pan and a generous splash of stock. More refined sauces will be skimmed of much of the fat and given body and a lovely sheen from the addition of jus – a lovely reduced veal glace.

The modern-day trend away from roux-thickened sauces is further exemplified in emulsified sauces, which instead rely on butter or egg yolks for body and texture. The stars of this type of sauce are the hollandaise and béarnaise, and the simpler beurre blanc.

White sauces

I have a bit of a horror of that kitchen basic, the béchamel, as I find the flour, however well cooked out it is, always dulls the flavour of the other ingredients. My cooking is all about maintaining and intensifying the purity of flavour, so all my white sauces are stock-based, and only lightly thickened with a little cream.

Hot emulsions

As is the case with cold emulsions, hot emulsions depend primarily upon the magical binding properties of egg yolks.

The best known is the hollandaise, a smooth, light-as-a-feather sauce that is also addictively rich. It’s a bit like a hot, looser mayonnaise, and like mayonnaise is the perfect accompaniment to poached fish and vegetables. Hollandaise sauce can be flavoured with all sorts of other ingredients, most famously perhaps with tarragon to create béarnaise sauce – the classic French accompaniment to grilled steak.

Hollandaise and other emulsions can be made with melted butter, but I prefer to use clarified butter as it gives a purer, smoother flavour. Clarified butter is simply normal butter that is melted gently until the white milk solids separate and sink to the bottom of the pan. The vibrant yellow clarified liquid is then skimmed off and the solids discarded. The great virtue of clarified butter, apart from the flavour, is that it can be heated to higher temperatures than regular butter without burning.

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