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Six Secrets to Simple Sauces

Created January 7, 2020
Making a basic white sauce with Gold Medal™ Flour
The secret is in the sauce—but not for long! Betty’s sharing the six secrets you need to make the perfect sauce for any meal.
A sauce can make a meal—think of the pesto coating your pasta or the gravy dressing your turkey. So it might surprise you to learn that, some of the best sauces start with practically nothing: the simple combination of butter and flour, the browned bits left in your frying pan after you’ve seared a steak or a bundle of forgotten cilantro in the back of your fridge. From these humble beginnings, it’s often just a matter of balancing flavor and/or perfecting texture. And we’re here to explain exactly how that’s done, so you have the power to make your home-cooked meals just as delicious as they can be!

The Classic Thickener: Roux

Making a basic roux with Gold Medal™ Flour.

What is it? A roux is an all-purpose thickener made of equal parts flour and fat (typically butter but oil, lard, bacon fat and any number of other fats could be used) and cooked over low to medium heat until smooth.

When to use it? It can be used as the base of almost any sauce or gravy that you want to turn out thick and creamy.

How to make it: It’s easy to make an ultra-smooth roux, so long as you take your time. If you rush it, the sauce could curdle or separate—not ideal! Here’s what you need to know to make a lump-free roux:

  • Gather all the ingredients before giving your full attention to the sauce.
  • Use the heat specified in the recipe
  • Use a whisk to mix sauces and stir constantly to avoid lump.
  • Finish sauces with a bit of butter to enhance flavor and give the sauce a velvety texture

For food safety reasons and to eliminate any floury taste, a roux must be fully cooked before any liquid is added. Sometimes a recipe will require a longer cook time in order for the roux to develop a richer color and a deeper flavor. The shortest-cooking roux is a white roux, then, blond, brown and dark brown.

The Savory Scrap-Saver: Deglazing

making gravy out of turkey drippings in the roasting pan

What is it? Deglazing is a simple technique that adds incredible depth of flavor to your sauce by capturing the flavorful bits, also called fond, that stick to your pan when you sear or brown. Those forgotten bits are too flavorful to wash down the drain. Instead, use them as the base of a delicious pan sauce.

When to do it? This technique is most often used after searing a piece of meat in a skillet—think pork chops, steaks, chicken breasts. Though, you could use it any time you have developed a fond on the bottom of your frying pan—say after you’ve caramelized onions. Taking this step will amplify the flavors you’re working with (and as a bonus, it saves you from scrubbing a pan).

How to do it: Deglazing is an extremely satisfying and easy technique. It goes surprisingly quick, which is good because you’ll need to stir constantly. Before you begin, let your pan cool a bit and use a paper towel to blot away any burnt, fatty bits—this will help avoid bitter, greasy sauce.

  • Set your burner to Medium-High and add liquid to your pan. Water or broth works well. You could also take this opportunity to add flavor by choosing one of these acidic ingredients: wine, vinegar or tomato juice.
  • Let the liquid come to a boil.
  • As it heats up, you’ll be able to scrap up the browned bits from the bottom of your pan with a wooden spoon. The longer you let it cook down, the more concentrated the flavors will become.
  • For additional flavor, throw in aromatics, like garlic or shallots, herbs, like thyme or rosemary or both.
  • For a richer sauce, whisk in a couple tablespoons of butter.
  • For a thicker sauce, let the liquid cook down. And if you want it thicker still, add a shake of Wondra®.

Experience the delicious benefits of deglazing by trying our Slow-Cooker Short-Rib Goulash, Slow-Cooker Mongolian Beef, Slow-Cooker Irish Stout Beef Stew or One-Pot Creamy Shells and Sausage.

The Pop of Color and Flavor: Herbs

parsley, basil, cilantro, mint

What is it? Fresh herbs are easy to blend into eye-catching sauces that will truly set off a meal. Think of pesto with pasta or chimichurri with beef. In both cases, these sauces add bright contrast to a starchy or rich food for a meal whose flavor is perfectly balanced and satisfying.

When to Use? The thing about fresh herbs is when you’ve got them—you got a lot of them. If you’ve ever struggled to use up an entire bunch of fresh herbs from the grocery or walked out into your backyard garden to find the basil, parsley or mint—especially mint—plant seems to have tripled in size over night—then you know exactly what we’re talking about. When fresh herbs are abundant, sauce is the answer.

How to do it:

  • Soft herbs, like parsley, cilantro, basil and mint, make great sauces—think about pesto or chimichurri. Typically, the herbs will be blended or ground, with a food processor, blender or a mortar and pestle, together with oil, aromatics (onions, shallots, garlic pepper, chiles) and other ingredients. Here are a couple of herby sauces to get you started:
  • Pesto, the classic sauce made of basil, pine nuts, olive oil and Parmesan comes from Genoa, Italy. But in American cuisine, “pesto” is also a formula for turning any soft herb into a sauce—find Betty’s version of the classic, plus a couple of variations in our How to Make Pesto article.
  • Chimichurri is a brightly flavored, tangy and savory sauce from Argentina where it served as a condiment alongside grilled meats—kind of like ketchup to a hamburger in the U.S. It’s typically made with cilantro, oregano, onion, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, pepper and salt. Give the classic combination of beef and chimichurri a try with this recipe for Slow-Cooker Pot Roast with Chimichurri.

Other Types of Herbs:

  • Sturdy herbs, like rosemary and thyme, those herbs that have woody stems are wonderful for adding flavor to sauces, rather than serving as the base of a sauce itself. This is because they’re very strong and might be overpowering or bitter if blended into a sauce the way softer, milder herbs can be.
  • Dried herbs can work well as an aromatic addition to an herby sauce. See the addition of dried oregano to our chimichurri recipe. Keep in mind that dried herbs are stronger than fresh herbs. Typically, you’ll need three times the amount of fresh herbs to equal the same amount of dried. As a rule of thumb, 1 teaspoon of dried herbs equals 3 teaspoons of fresh.

The Blank Slate: White Sauce

Adding cheese to a melty milk mixture.

What is it? A roux with milk added, this is one of the four “Mother Sauces” from French cuisine. Béchamel, aka white sauce, is a thick, creamy sauce that can be the seasoned as desired and used in any number of dishes.

When to use it? When you’re making a dish that needs a creamy sauce, like homemade macaroni and cheese, a basic white sauce is perfect. One of the best things about this sauce is that you only need: butter, flour and milk. With those basics, you can customize the sauce however you wish with dried spices, fresh herbs, Dijon, Worcestershire, cheese and other flavorings.

How to make it:
The key to a perfect, lump-free white sauce is to stir constantly. Give it a try with our White Sauce recipe. When you’re ready to customize it, keep these tips in mind:

  • For a thicker white sauce, try increasing the butter and flour by ¼ cup.
  • For a thinner sauce, reduce butter and flour to 1 tablespoon each.
  • To customize the flavor, stir any of the following in with the flour: ½ teaspoon of curry powder, 1 teaspoon chopped fresh or ½ teaspoon dried dill.

The Quick Thickener: Wondra®

Shaking Wondra into a sauce to help it thicken.

What is it? The secret weapon every cook needs to thicken sauces almost instantly is Wondra®! A “quick mixing” flour that’s finely milled, it dissolves faster than all-purpose flour.

When to use it? Use it when your sauce is too thin or watery. It’s a miracle worker when your Thanksgiving gravy’s not coming together. It’s also useful in thickening stews, chowders and more. (And outside of the sauce realm, you can even use it to coat fish or meat for an ultra-light breading!)

How to use it: This one is simple: Shake it in and stir! Bring to a boil, as flour is a raw ingredient and must be cooked through for food safety reasons.

Give it a try in any gravy or sauce or in this homey Corn and Shrimp Chowder, which uses Wondra® for an extra creamy consistency.

The Flavor Booster: Acid

Acid from tomatoes and citrus fruits like lemons, limes and oranges can help boost flavor in sauces.

What is it? It’s the thing you’re missing when you’re cooking to taste and can’t quite figure out what’s lacking. Acid brightens up your food and adds a tangy contrast to a starchy or rich sauce—like the lime in your guacamole. Having a well-stocked variety of acidic ingredients like lemons, limes, oranges, tomatoes, wine and vinegar, will ensure a flavorful sauce is never far from reach.

When to use it? Any time your sauce is tasting flat, try a dash of vinegar, wine, tomato juice or a squeeze of citrus. Any time you want to balance the heaviness of a rich sauce, try adding an acid for the perfect tangy contrast.

How to make it: There are many ways to incorporate acid into a sauce. We recommend getting started with one of the recipes below.

  • For a perfectly balanced sauce that uses acid to maximum impact, we recommend trying our Lemon-Dijon Chicken Skillet, which features a luscious sauce that’s made bright and flavorful with the addition of lemon.
  • If you’re craving something rich and comforting, the velvety peanut-curry sauce used in our Slow-Cooker Thai Peanut Chicken recipe is set off perfectly by a squeeze of fresh lime juice.
  • Or, try smothering your pork chops in citrusy orange zest and orange juice for a dish that’s unlike anything you’ve tasted before.

So, there you have it; start your sauce with butter and flour, pan drippings or a bundle of herbs. From there, you can transform your roux into a creamy, rich béchamel; thicken your pan sauce with a shake of Wondra; or zhuzh up your herb sauce with a dash of acid. With these six secrets at your disposal, you have the power to make every meal just a little more delicious! (P.S. These “secrets” have long been codified and used by professional chefs and now they’re yours to use too. Delicious sauces shouldn’t only be the domain of professionals!)