SAUCES. Sauces are food preparations with a fluid consistency, often with nutritional richness and a relatively pronounced taste, that are used to complement other foods. Although they typically stand out as a special development of cookery, their social and historical importance tends to be underrecognized.
Sauces may be divided into two broad categories. First, they can be essentially nutritious partners to a staple, such as the sauces eaten with pasta, corn chips, rice, and so on. Historically, this group arrived with settled society, when communities relied on perhaps only one cereal (such as barley, wheat, rice, or maize) or tuber (potato, taro, yam, or cassava). These foods could be cultivated in bulk and stored from one crop to the next. However, they were starchy foods that were nutritionally incomplete, requiring the addition of vegetables, legumes, meat and other animal products, often cooked separately as a sauce.
A second category primarily imparts flavor and is often served separately on, or in addition to, meat and vegetables rather than the staple cereal or tuber. These sauces range from relishes, such as tomato ketchup, which are often preserved, to subtle compositions often based on stocks and egg emulsifications and slightly sticky to form a coating. Because they are so refined and velvety, sauces became the pride of French cooking. Just as the first category of sauces catered to the culinary needs of civilization, the second brought to dining a certain luxury and high standard of taste.
Sauces are not normally eaten by themselves, generally require some sort of preparation (a raw ingredient, such as poured cream, is not conventionally considered a sauce), often have a homogenous look and texture, and are usually soft or runny in consistency. However, the boundaries are blurred, variations are many, and language is imprecise.
Some sauces merge with soups and stews, which differ in that it is possible to eat either alone. On the other side of the spectrum, some sauces merge with relishes and condiments. A fluid state is normal, although many pounded compositions are considered sauces (e.g., Italian pesto consisting of basil, Parmesan, garlic, and olive oil), and chopped ingredients often act like sauces. For example, pizza toppings are virtually identical to pasta sauces. Although sauces are usually placed on top of other foods, they can also bind other ingredients or function as fillings, encased in buns, pastry packets, sheets of pasta, rice balls, and so on. While the range includes sweet toppings (such as chocolate sauce), soft, sweet pastry fillings are more likely to be called creams or crèmes. Runny custard (crème anglaise ) can be a sauce, but usually not a set custard or ice cream. Nonetheless, one's definition of the "sauce" category should be flexible, especially for sauces that fill the two roles already described, namely, as a nutritional complement to a staple, or a taste complement to a nutritional complement.
Reasons for Sauces
The role of sauces may be hedonistic; they are clearly designed to be pleasurable. A more disparaging view is that sauces simply exist to make people overeat, and such an assumption lies behind the familiar saying, "hunger is the best sauce" (perhaps first used by Cervantes in Don Quixote ). Yet another line of argument suggests that certain sauces are used repeatedly within a cuisine to mark a food as familiar and generally "safe," so that cultural knowledge replaces the eaters' own instincts.
In a more specialized sense, sauces may put the salt back into cooked food from which it was leached. The modern words "sauce," "salsa," and so on derive from the Latin word sal for 'salt', which highlights the fact that many sauces have frequently been too salty, often as a result of added ingredients that have been preserved with salt.
Apart from any of this, sauces' historical origin was as a nutritional accompaniment to complex carbohydrates. The ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Chinese civilizations, and subsequent ones, were based on basic agricultural products, the progenitors of wheat and barley, and so on. In all cases, these staples were complemented by what might, broadly, be termed "sauces." Accordingly, the Chinese speak of supplementing fan with ts'ai, that is, supplementing cereal and starchy dishes (porridge, steamed rice, dumplings, pancakes, noodles) with vegetables, meat, or fish. The two have to be in balance, although more fan might be prepared for everyday meals and more ts'ai for feasts. Many of the ts'ai preparations are recognizable sauces, served in separate dishes or contained within the staple, such as pork buns.
An Indian meal is focused on a bowl of rice (in the south) or bread (in the north), surrounded by small bowls of vegetables, extra ingredients such as lentils, and possibly meats. These are typically cooked with a careful blend of spices and herbs to make what is called a masala, and the best known is garam masala from the north. Particularly in southern India, where a more liquid stew better accompanies a larger portion of rice, a wet masala is made by adding yogurt, coconut milk, and other liquids. English "curry"—which is based on Tamil kari, a sauce in which meat, fish, or vegetables are stewed —often results from the addition of a dry powder by the same name, but this is a mere caricature of the richer, more flavorful Indian curry sauces, which vary depending on the cook's social status, religion, and geographical location.
Foods to accompany staples have often been preserved. Among the various cheeses, dried fruits, pickles, and other relishes that fall in this category, many are readily classified as sauces. Fermented fish sauce, known as garum or liquamen to the ancient Romans, appears in Asian variants, such as Vietnamese nuoc mam. Soy sauce is a similar product (made from fermented soya beans), and Worcestershire sauce is a commercially successful English variant. Bottled sauces have become important, too, notably any kind of tomato sauce.
Some of the sauces just mentioned are used more for their spicy or pungent flavor, rather than any nutritional value. Such flavorings can be considered a second category of sauces, often refined from the original more nutritious versions.
Kinds of Sauces
The primary sauces are pounded, stewed, stock-based, starch-thickened, emulsified, preserved, or sweet (which includes custards, syrups, and fruit purées).
Pounded. The mortar and pestle have been successfully used to produce an enormous variety of pastes across the globe, including the Italian pesto and Indian masala already mentioned. Purées, such as tomato sauce, are rubbed through a sieve or finely chopped in a food processor.
Stewed. Cooking meat, vegetables, legumes, and/or herbs in a pot with water or other liquid can produce soups, stews, and also sauces. An important example is the Italian accompaniment to pastasciutta, the meat ragù or sugo, known elsewhere as bolognese sauce. The mole sauces from Mexico are cooked mixtures of many ingredients, including chili and chocolate in the famous mole poblano used with turkey.
Stock-based. The roasting or baking pan may be deglazed (residues scraped up with liquid and then reduced) to provide gravy. Much more important, the fonds ("foundation") of French cooking is stock, which requires meat, bones, and vegetables to be simmered gently to extract flavor (often after browning the ingredients by baking or frying). Stock can be reduced and then reduced again. Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote in the Physiology of Taste, appearing in 1825, that Bertrand, the steward of the Prince of Soubise, used fifty hams for one supper, but only one ham appeared on the table, the rest being essential for his sauce espagnole, white sauces, and so forth (1949, p. 54). The secret is the large quantity of gelatin produced when collagen in animal connective tissue is heated in water. Gelatin is a wonderful thickening agent owing to its peculiar, long molecular structure.
Starch-thickened. Starch in wheat and corn flours is useful because of its behavior in hot water. Put starch into cold water and the granules slowly sink, but hot water disrupts the long starch molecules so that the granules become amorphous networks of starch and water intermingled. A little flour can thicken a great deal of liquid. Eighteenth-century England was accuse of having "sixty different religious sects, but only one sauce" (attributed to both Voltaire, 1694–1778, and Francesco Caraccioli, 1752–1799)—this was the ever-present "melted butter," which was butter and (usually) water, thickened with flour.
Emulsified. Some sauces acquire their velvety consistency as emulsions, which are suspensions of one liquid in another with which it does not ordinarily mix, notably oil in water. The simplest is a dressing of oil and vinegar (dilute acetic acid) called vinaigrette. In hollandaise, mayonnaise, and their variations, the heated butter and oil are suspended with the help of egg yolk as an emulsifier.
Preserved. Vegetables and fruits are cooked and then immersed in vinegar and spices to make pickles and chutneys. Fish sauces are fermented, and soy sauce comes from fermenting soya beans. Bottled sauces have become important, too, notably tomato.
Sweet. Custards are sweet, moist, tender gels of egg protein. A creamy rather than solid custard is made by stirring continuously during heating to prevent the proteins from bonding into a solid mass. Sugar syrup is sugar dissolved in water with heating to arrive at the desired coloring.
The French Triumph
One of the great French chefs of the twentieth century, Fernand Point, proclaimed the secret of his cuisine as follows: "Butter! Give me butter! Always more butter!" Much of it went into sauces, which, for him, were the mark of a good cook. Among the players in the kitchen, according to Point, "the saucier is a soloist." He also wrote in Ma Gastronomie (1969) that the making of béarnaise sauce is a virtuoso performance: "What is it? An egg yolk, some shallots, some tarragon. . . . Well, believe me, it takes years of practice for a perfect result. Lift the eyes for a moment, and your sauce is unusable."
Beginner, or even moderately experienced, cooks have difficulty not only preparing grand French sauces, but also differentiating the vast array of sauces, often with distinguished-sounding names, such as périgueux, financière, and grandveneur. Some chefs have attempted to identify the basic sauces (sauces grandes or sauces mères, meaning "great" or "mother" sauces), which, with various additions, become compound sauces (sauces composées ). Soubise sauce has onions, Robert mustard, and madeira, the fortified wine of the same name. The "mother" sauces generate brown sauces (sauces brunes ), derived from meat stock, and white sauces (sauces blanches ), derived from béchamel sauce (milk thickened with flour). Nonetheless, both stock and flour have thickened many sauces, and the browning of their original ingredients helps determine color, as when roux (equal quantities of butter and flour) is browned to a required extent. For a third family tree, hollandaise is the primary egg and butter sauce; béarnaise is its popular offspring. Then, there are cold sauces based on mayonnaise (yolks and oil).
An often-cited delineation of sauces is that of the renowned chef Auguste Escoffier, who wrote in his Guide Culinaire (1903), of five leading sauces: espagnole (brown stock, brown roux, and tomatoes), velouté (white stock, yellow roux), béchamel (milk, white roux), tomate (tomato), and hollandaise (butter, eggs, vinegar or lemon juice).
The nouvelle cuisine of the 1970s gave new life to sauces: by favoring "lighter" (less thick and flour-enriched) renditions, by rediscovering more rustic versions such as beurre blanc (butter, vinegar, shallots), and by featuring colorful purées, using one of the few important twentieth-century contributions to good cooking, the food processor. Though nouvelle chefs were also more likely to place the sauces underneath the food rather than on top of it, the goals remained the same. The first aim is a slightly sticky consistency that will coat other foods even when they are picked up with a fork. Thickening is achieved by the gelatin in stock, starch in the roux, reduction (evaporation), cream, egg emulsification, sugar syrup, and so on. The second aim is an intriguing flavor. Third, the sauce should look glossy, which usually means a long and careful clarification.
Jean-François Revel recounts in Culture and Cuisine (1982) that French chefs took flavor to a new level in the eighteenth century. They replaced "old-style cuisine of superimposition and mixture" (i.e., crude additions of flavors) with the "new cuisine of permeation and essences" (subtle combinations). He bases this view on the foreword to François Marin's Les Dons de Comus [which means the Gifts of Comus, the Roman god of feasts], published in 1739. The author (thought to be two Jesuit priests) explained that the science of cooking was to mix and blend foods to make a harmonious whole, not dominated by any one ingredient.
English gastronomic writer Launcelot Sturgeon sought to relay his enthusiasm for the art that "binds the whole fabric of society" in two chapters, "On the Physical and Political Consequences of Sauces" and "On the Importance of Forming Good Connexions [Connections]," in his Essays, Moral, Philosophical, and Stomachical, originally published in 1822. He spoke of two primary indications of "the connexion [connection] of sauces," namely, the harmony of the sauces and the social harmony they produced. Sauces, which are ingredients combined in "exquisite concord," draw people together around a table, connecting them "by ties which no one ever wishes to dissolve."
Modern chemistry took Sturgeon's work one step further by showing how molecules tie sauces together. Culinary investigator Harold McGee details starch-thickening, emulsification, and other methods in On Food and Cooking (1984).
See also Condiments ; Cooking ; Nouvelle Cuisine ; Preparation of Food ; Serving of Food .
Brillat-Savarin, Jean Anthelme. The Physiology of Taste: Or, Meditations in Transcendental Gastronomy. Translated by M. F. K. Fisher. New York: Heritage Press, 1949. Originally La Physiologie du goût, Paris, 1829.
Escoffier, Auguste. The Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery. Translated by H L. Cracknell and R. J. Kaufman. London: Heinemann, 1979. Originally published as Le Guide Culinaire, 1903.
McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: Science and Lore in the Kitchen. New York: Scribners, 1984.
Point, Fernand. Ma Gastronomie. Paris: Flammarion, 1969.
Revel, Jean-François. Culture and Cuisine: A Journey through the History of Food. Translated by Helen R. Lane. New York: Doubleday, 1982. Originally published as Un festin en paroles, 1979.
Sokolov, Raymond A. The Saucier's Apprentice: A Modern Guide to Classic French Sauces for the Home. New York: Knopf, 1976.
Sturgeon, Launcelot. Essays, Moral, Philosophical, and Stomachical, on the Important Science of Good Living, 2nd ed. London: G & W.B. Whittaker, 1823. Originally 1822.
Symons, Michael. A History of Cooks and Cooking. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000. Chapter 6 is devoted to sauces.