The Basics of Sauce Making

Oct 17, 2018 | Cooking Tips

Sauce making sometimes has this air of mystery about it. There is an implied complication that can deter people from making even the most basic sauces. Today, I am going to show you how uncomplicated sauce making can be. We are going to look at two types of sauces today. Barbecue sauce and pan sauce. It’s my hope that by the end of the post you will be inspired to get a little saucier.

Let’s Get Saucy

First of all, a sauce can be almost anything. If you put butter on a cooked steak, that’s technically a sauce. So, right off the bat let’s get rid of the idea that a sauce has to be a complex combination of twenty different ingredients that have simmered together for hours and hours. I mean yes, there are a lot of sauces that start that way, and that’s okay. Just because there are a lot of sauces that take a long time to make doesn’t mean that aren’t just as many or more sauces that take no time at all. Those are the sauce we are going to focus on today.

Barbecue Sauce

At its core, barbecue sauce is a mixture of sugar, vinegar, and ketchup. That’s really it. The flavour of a barbecue sauce is determined by the ratios of those three ingredients, the type of sugar or vinegar used, and the addition of secondary ingredients. So, that raises the big questions…

  • How much of each ingredient do I use?
  • How do I know what sugar or vinegar to use?
  • How will I know if it tastes good?
  • What else should I add? 

Here’s the thing, and I’m going to try to answer each of these questions in the most honest and thoughtful way I can.

  • How much of each ingredient do I use? It doesn’t matter at all. 
  • How do I know what sugar or vinegar to use? It doesn’t matter, use whatever you want. 
  • How will I know if it tastes good? Taste it. 
  • What else should I add? Whatever you want including but not limited to onion, garlic, cayenne pepper, soy sauce, liquid smoke, etc. 

Okay, maybe those weren’t the most helpful answers but they are accurate. The ratio of ingredients is 100% based on personal preference. If you like a sweet sauce, add more sugar than vinegar. Like a more acidic sauce? Add more vinegar than sugar. Like a balanced sauce? Add about the same amount of vinegar and sugar. The ketchup mostly controls the consistency of the sauce. Like a thinner sauce? Add less ketchup. Like it a bit thicker? Add more.

When it comes to what sugar or vinegar to use it again comes down to personal preference. For sugar, you can use white sugar, brown sugar, honey, molasses, maple syrup, or any other sweetener you can think of, or even a combination of two or more. And yes, whatever sweetener your thinking of that I didn’t mention, you can use it. Vinegar is that same thing. White vinegar, wine vinegar, cider vinegar, malt vinegar, whatever you want to use, use it. Whatever you like, use it. It’s that simple.

If you mix sugar, vinegar, and ketchup, and it doesn’t taste good you have seriously effed up. There are only two things that could happen. You either added too much or not enough of one ingredient or the other. If it’s too acidic, add more sugar. If it’s too sweet, add more vinegar. If it’s too thick, add a bit of water, or a bit more vinegar and sugar. If it’s too thin, add a bit more ketchup. Also, a little tip, if tastes good when you make it, it’s going to taste good when it’s cooked on to ribs or chicken.

In terms of what else to add to your barbecue sauce, I can’t give you specifics of what to add or when or why. What I can say is I usually find it better to add powdered onions, garlic, and ginger rather than fresh. Other than that it comes down to personal preference and trial and error. Just always start with little additions of things and add more are you go.

Pan Sauce

Let’s start with what’s a pan sauce?

Imagine you just cooked a steak in a frying pan. You take the steak out of the pan, and there are all these bits of meat, salt, and pepper stuck to the bottom of the pan. You drain off the excess oil that has accumulated and then you add liquid, usually booze of some kind. This liquid lifts all that stuff off the bottom of the pan. You reduce the liquid until it has almost completely evaporated. Then, you add a secondary liquid like beef stock. Not too much, about the same amount as the booze you added. You cook this down until it is almost evaporated. Now you add a sprig of thyme and a few tbsp of heavy cream. You cook that down until the cream is thick. Now, you pour that over your steak.

So, what is a pan sauce? It is a sauce made by using the flavours left in the pan after cooking to flavour the sauce.

I know some of you are thinking that the process I just described seems kind of complicated. But bear in mind that the whole process takes about three minutes depending on the temperature of your pan.

It is typical to use booze of some kind to deglaze the pan but stock works just as well. Deglazing is adding a liquid into a hot pan to lift up anything stuck to the surface of the pan. Now, what booze you choose depends on the dish. It’s most typical to use wine. For steak red wine would be more common, and for fish or chicken white wine would be more common. But you can also use brandy, whiskey, port, or anything like that. That just comes down to personal taste really.

The secondary liquid should generally be stock, which is just flavoured water. If you are cooking beef, use beef stock. Chicken equals chicken stock. Now, if you are making pork or fish and can’t find their respective stocks, use chicken stock. I prefer homemade stock, but there are good quality store stocks out there that won’t cost you much and are perfectly fine to use.

In the example I used above I added cream to the sauce. I did this for two reasons. The cream helps to thicken the sauce and it enriches the flavour. If you wanted to you could add cornstarch or a roux to thicken it. Alternatively, once the liquids are reduced, you can remove the pan from the heat and whisk in a few tbsp of cold butter. This will thicken and enrich the sauce as well. I prefer to use butter or cream for pan sauces over cornstarch or a roux because they are quicker, and because the batches are so small.

You can also add, chopped shallots, or onions, a bit of garlic, fresh herbs, a bit of lemon juice. It comes down to the flavour you want, the item you are making the sauce for and your personal preference. But, the technique remains the same.

This technique is important to know because it is so versatile. You’ve probably already done something similar to this when making gravy at Thanksgiving or Christmas and not even realized it. But whether it’s beef, pork, chicken, fish, or whatever you can make a very delicious sauce, very quickly, and with only a few ingredients.



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