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CHEF DEZ: A crash course in sauce making


Today's marketplace is saturated with almost every type of bottled or canned sauce imaginable. Homemade sauces, in many households, have taken a "back seat" to the readymade varieties that seem to fit into our hectic lifestyles.

When we think of making sauces from scratch, many people conjure up the image of a thick gelatinous mass from one of our worst school cafeteria nightmares. However, sauces from scratch don't have to be difficult, and can easily be the best part of a dish.

Traditionally, any sauce is usually made up from one of five leading sauces or "mother sauces". These leading sauce categories are Béchamel, Velouté, Brown, Tomato, and Hollandaise.

Don't let any fancy French names scare you. Béchamel is merely a white sauce made from adding milk to a white roux (a mixture of fat and flour that has cooked just long enough to eliminate any starchy taste). Velouté is made from adding a white stock (such as chicken, veal, or fish) to a white roux. Brown sauce is made by adding a brown stock (beef) to a brown roux (fat/flour mixture that has cooked over low heat to intensify color and taste). Tomato sauce is a mixture of tomatoes, stock and sometimes a roux, and Hollandaise is a mixture of butter and egg yolks.

Although there are techniques and flavourings that also go along with creating any of these base sauces, they are basically the foundations of many corresponding sauces. For example: a cheese sauce is originated from adding cheese to a béchamel, and a hollandaise sauce with shallots, white wine vinegar, and tarragon is a béarnaise sauce.

Sauce making however, is not always confined within the parameters of these leading sauces. There are many sauces that do not fall into the gamut of these five main categories. Some examples would be pan gravies, reductions, compound butters, and purees.

Pan gravies are just sauces that are made from the drippings from cooked meat or poultry. Extra stock/broth and a thickener are added to extend the flavours and to coat the finished meat product. Meat that is served "au jus" (pronounced "oh zhoo") means that it is served with its natural clear unthickened juices, however extra stock/broth is usually added to ensure there is enough to go around.

Reductions are simply what their name indicates; liquids that are naturally thickened and intensified through the evaporation of water to create a sauce. Some of the best sauces result from letting naturally occurring liquids in a pan to just cook down. Simply season with salt & pepper, and serve.

Many people don't consider compound butters to be a sauce, but when melted, it is a flavourful liquid that enhances a finished dish. The most popular of all flavoured butters in the chef industry is "maitre d'hotel" butter (pronounced "may truh doh tel"). It is solid butter that is traditionally mixed with chopped parsley, lemon juice, and white pepper. It is then rolled into a cylindrical shape and stored in the refrigerator or freezer until needed. This allows one to cut off circles of the butter to melt on top of a finished product, traditionally steak. Endless creations of compound butters can be made however, for many other dishes besides steaks.

Purees also, don't conform in the definition of the five leading sauces. They acquire their thickness from the maceration of a vegetable, fruit, or an array of ingredients, like pesto for example.

Dear Chef Dez:

I like making spaghetti tomato sauce, but it always seems to be lacking something, and always too bland. I've tried just adding more salt, but then it just tastes salty. What are some ideas that I can do?


Robert D.



Dear Robert:


Good sauces require depth of flavour. There are many things you can add to create this, but for a tomato pasta sauce I recommend starting with a sautéed seasoned mixture of extra virgin olive oil, mire poix (celery, onions, and carrots), and lots of fresh garlic. Add the tomatoes with red wine or stock and cook down until the flavours have intensified and the sauce has thickened. Dried herbs can be added at the beginning, while fresh herbs should only be added just prior to finishing. Also, since tomatoes are acidic a couple teaspoons of sugar will help balance everything out. Before serving, make sure to taste and re-season (salt & pepper).


Chef Dez is a Food Columnist, Culinary Instructor & Cookbook Author. Visit him at

Write to him at or P.O. Box 2674, Abbotsford, BC V2T 6R4