Mmm, sauce... I don't know about you, but there's nothing I love more than a good sauce. It's the best way to finish eating a dish: grab a piece of bread, soak it with the delicious sauce, mmm. I'll take that over any dessert.

Like anything else in cooking and in life, a good sauce is very easy to make if you know the basic principles underlying them. A good noder pointed out to me that pretty much all sauces are already noded and that there's little I could add to this already plethoric area of the database, and she's probably right. However, most of these nodes are recipe nodes, which tell you how to make one specific sauce or kind of sauce. I won't do that, except for the few great classic sauces.

What I'm trying to do instead is to write about the basic types of sauce and how to prepare them. The idea is that you will be able to use the advice in this write-up to make any sauce you feel like. I won't teach you how to make a mustard or tomato sauce, or rather I will teach you indirectly by giving you ideas about how you would make one if you wanted to. Maybe after reading this you'll now know why your mustard sauce is so good, or on the contrary, why you get it wrong every time, and hopefully now you'll get it right. Maybe you'll try a different way to make it. Maybe it'll be better, maybe it won't—either way, tell me how it turns out.

All sauces are basically the same thing: you start out with a water-based liquid, which tastes a lot like water, and a little like something else—most often a stock or a deglazing. This infusion is then reduced (i.e. boiled down) so there is less water and more taste, and something else is added to it. The idea is to bond the molecules of water with something else which will give it a good texture so it looks less like herbal tea, and will have enhanced taste. Most often it's going to be a form of fat, because it's a taste enhancer and not much else will bond with water—and as you'd expect, bonding water with fat is a pretty tricky deal in itself. This is the basic principle of sauces that you have to remember: sauce needs to have as little water in it as possible, because less water means more tastier. The three basic things you can add to an infusion to turn it into a sauce are flour, cream and butter.


Mixing flour into a sauce base under the form of a roux (pronounced "roo") is how mine and every French grandmother does their sauce. A roux is flour mixed with equal parts fat. The roux of most French grandmothers (and mine's) go somewhat lumpy, but, do not worry my dear noder friends, I will tell you the real tricks to make your roux work. Jinmyo's write-up in the roux node provides a great explanation of the types of roux (my commentary is non italicized):
White roux is usually made from clarified (I don't clarify mine, but I may be wrong) butter and unbleached white flour, so it has a pale yellow colour. It is used for Béchamel and other milk-based sauces and for thick soups. It is cooked only until it no longer has a raw taste and has a frothy and slightly gritty consistency, but hasn't begun to darken in colour.
Blond roux, sometimes called "pale roux", is made from equal portions of butter (not clarified butter) and unbleached white flour and used for veloutés, sauces based on white stocks. It is cooked slightly longer than white roux to give it a deeper colour. A blond roux is great for sauces to go with fish or seafood, especially crab and lobster, because it takes a nice orange, coral-like color when mixed with cream.
Brown roux is made from equal portions of flour and clarified butter (once again, clarified is optional, at least for me) and cooked until it turns a light brown colour and develops a nutty flavour. It's used for darker sauces, such as Espagnole and Demi-glace. Sometimes the flour is browned in an oven before beginning the roux. Since I'm from Burgundy I make a lot of red wine-based sauces and I use a brown roux so it it turns a deep, brown color instead of the ugly pinkish you get from a lighter roux.

First of all, use butter, because it tastes better, and the sauce will be less lumpy. But most of all, for flour to mix well with an other liquid, one has to be hot and the other cold. The temperature difference is really what matters: if the difference isn't big enough, your sauce will be lumpy; if it is, you won't even need a whisk to stir the roux into the sauce.

So, to make a roux, melt some butter in a pan, mix it with flour until the roux is homogenous, pull your cold liquid out of the fridge (or windowsill), pour it on the roux and stir it in.

The most basic and famous sauce based on a roux is of course the Béchamel sauce (also called a white sauce because it is, well, white). However, no offence but the node is full of bad tips: ccunning adds warm milk to his roux, and must get lots of lumps, like TheLady. Teiresias however has the good idea to infuse his milk with onions 'n stuff. Mmmm.

As I said before, the trick is the temperature difference. Make a white roux with butter and add milk straight from the fridge. Theoretically, you should add it bit by bit and whisk it in, but if your milk is cold you can just pour all of it in and stir with a wooden spoon if you like. You do need to stand by it and stir it continuously so the flour doesn't fall to the bottom of the pan and stick there, causing all kinds of woes such as a broken sauce, bad taste and/or lumps. Stir it slowly over a medium fire and your sauce will reduce and thicken according to the milk/roux ratio you have: if you're just making gravy for a roast you're going to need a little, but if you're baking lasagna for a hoard of ever growing sixth-graders you're going to need a lot. As in all things, use your judgement and experience.

The other way to make a flour-based sauce, if you want to mix it cold in a hot liquid instead of the other way around, is to use a beurre manié ("kneaded butter"), the cold equivalent of the roux. Leave some butter out or microwave it slightly so it's pommade, i.e. very soft, and mix equal parts flour into it. Then pour it into your boiling liquid and stir it in slowly and precautionously so it doesn't lump.

As you can see, mixing flour into a sauce is very easy if you know the basic principles on how to do it, and most people don't. Most chefs, when writing their cookbooks, skip over such things, either because they take it for granted or, what I think is more likely, so they can appear to be wizards who get it right every time for mystical reasons. Flour amalgamates very easily, so flour-based sauces can lump very quickly if you don't take your precautions, but if you do you should be fine: remember the temperature difference, don't cook the sauce on too harsh a fire or it will separate, and stir it slowly and continuously, no matter how much of a hassle it is, so you don't give the flour the opportunity to lump, and you should be fine.

The roux is the most traditional form of making a sauce and has thus been shunned by most chefs who came after the nouvelle cuisine school of thought. I agree that it is inferior to the other methods but I still use it for traditional recipes.


Cream tastes good, looks good, and mixes well with water: it's the obvious choice to make a sauce with. It's also very simple to do it, so this section will be short.

Chemically milk, and therefore cream, is basically fat and water (it also has proteines and stuff, and tasty bacteria if you're lucky, but that's negligible as regards this section). As you know, water doesn't mix well with fat, but milk is homogenous: it is because (and IANAC—I Am Not A Chemist) of molecules which are called "tensio-active" (I may not be spelling this right). These molecules are two-sided: one side bonds with water while the other bonds with fat. As you probably know if milk, especially unpasteurized, is left still, the fat and water progressively separate: this is how you get cream, butter and cheese (mmm, cheese) out of it; it happens because the tensio-active molecules slowly stop being active.

When you mix cream into a sauce while heating it, the water in the cream is going to evaporate and the tensio-active molecules are going to bond the milk's fat with the tasty water-based liquid you're basing your sauce on. So what you need to do is simply to boil your liquid over a strong fire, stir the cream in until you get a homogenous sauce and wait till it reduces enough so it's nicely thick and tasty.

However, if you boil your sauce too much, the fat in the cream is going to turn to butter, and you'll have butter on one side and a liquid on the other of your pan. Congratulations, you've been touched by the curse of every sauce maker: your sauce has separated. A good rule of thumb to remember to prevent this is that liquid cream can be reduced by about two thirds, and thick cream by one third. Once it's reduced by that much, take the pan out of the fire, make sure it looks the way you want it, and you've got yourself a great cream-based sauce. But if you're like me you're going to want to give it that extra little something which makes it all shiny and slippery: you do that by adding


Now, this is the real deal. Butter-based sauces are just delicious, and they look great too: slippery, thick texture, and shiny too. This is what the nouvelle cuisine chefs replaced the roux with, and they're my favourite kind of sauce.

The principle is basically to just mix butter into your liquid, either by using something with tensio-actives to make it hold, or by whisking it into an emulsion and serving it before it separates. Once again, the trick is the temperature difference: your butter has to be very cold when you put it in the boiling pan. Professional kitchen teams keep their butter cut up into tiny cubes; this makes it easier to measure and scoop up precise amounts by eye. You don't need to always keep your butter in cubes, but for the butter to mix in well you'll need to mix in tiny amounts progressively. The best thing is to prepare beforehand, cut up some bits of butter, put it in a cup and keep it in the fridge, or even the freezer if you've only got a few minutes.

When your sauce is called montée ("risen") with butter it means you've mixed the butter with an egg yolk. Yolks are chock full with tensio-actives: this is why they're the base ingredient of the mayonnaise. Well, think of a sauce montée as a warm mayonnaise: you use an egg yolk to mix a lot of fat in a liquid and make it hold. What you do is mix a tablespoonfull of water or water-based liquid with an egg yolk in a pan and whisk (this time the whisk is important) tiny amounts of cold butter in. Most people miss their risen sauces because they're always afraid that they'll overcook the yolk and thus separate their sauce. They're right—if they overcook the sauce, it will separate, as with every other sauce, but if they don't cook it enough the sauce won't be light and won't rise well. Don't stress it, if you heat it enough you'll know when your sauce is risen enough. And if you don't, well, the best way to learn is by making mistakes. Don't be afraid.

The two most famous sauces risen with butter are the béarnaise and the hollandaise. For a bearnaise, cut up some shallots, and stick 'em in a pan with vinegar, which you boil down until only a tablespoonfull is left, so the vinegar is thick and tasty, and the shallots nicely marinated. Then add the yolk and whisk in the butter. I once did it with balsamic vinegar: the sauce was dark and had a nice sweet and sour flavour; not exactly a traditional béarnaise, but I recommend you try it. A hollandaise is even simpler: add the yolk and butter to a tablespoonfull of water. Then whip the egg white you've got left until it's firm and delicately mix the sauce in like you would for a cake or a soufflé.

Your other option is to make what is known as a jus (literally: "juice"), which dispenses with the yolk: you just boil the liquid as strongly as possible and mix in the cold butter. This is always what I do after frying some meat and deglazing. If you mix the butter in with a wire whisk and it's cold enough you'll be fine, but once you've got the hang of it you'll be able to show off to a date by slowly shaking the pan over the fire (it's all in the wrist, you know) and watching the butter mix itself in.

Now that's what I call cuisine, baby.


wrinkly informs me that saying stuff bonds with water molecules is, as I'd guessed, pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo. What really happens is that "we got emulsions; we get solutions and we get suspensions, but we don't get peroxides and hydroxys which come from -OH and H2Os reactions..." That's to appease the chemists, but as far as the cook is concerned it's the same.