What Not to Do When You Make Sauce

What Not to Do When You Make Sauce

If you’re like me, you don’t like being told what to do. “Nobody puts Baby in a corner…” Right? (Miss you, Patrick Swayze.)

But when it comes to learning how to make sauce, there are some rules you just can’t ignore. In today’s post on sauce (the fourth post in a series of epic posts on sauce), we talk about what you shouldn’t do in sauce making.

And if you do break these rules, then you might get put in the corner and the sauce may end up in the trash.

Don’t buy some store bought sauces

This statement isn’t exactly true. Some sauces are worth buying, including fish sauce, hot sauce, and even barbecue sauce. Just ask Chef Caitlin MacEachen Steininger of the Cooking with Caitlin media empire in Cincinnati:

“I would rather buy BBQ sauce than make it,” she said. “I don’t live in a super passionate BBQ region, so I’m pretty flexible as to what goes on my pulled pork. [Although,] I will never buy any of the mother sauces. It’s too easy to make these sauces from scratch, [and] once you’ve tasted homemade, there is no turning back!”

Chef Chuck Kerber Executive Chef of Chaz Catering LLC and author of the site Pittsburgh Hot Plate said that while he doesn’t dislike any store-bought sauces, he chooses not to use them, because of the chemicals, stabilizers, and unnatural additives.

Chef Dennis K. Littley, the chef at Mount Saint Joseph Academy in Flourtown, Pennsylvania, and blogger at More than a Mount Full understands why many home cooks don’t want to expend the time, labor, and electricity to make a sauce when it’s easier to take the lid off the jar. However, he draws the line at hollandaise.

“I would never buy a canned hollandaise sauce,” he said “You cannot repair a canned hollandaise enough.”

Speaking of repairs…

Don’t walk away from a broken sauce…or do

No, this isn’t about taking your sauce dish and throwing it at your spouse’s head…as tempting as that may be. This is about breaking an emulsion.

“An emulsion is simply the combination of oil and water; two liquids that usually don’t go together,” said Chef Kerber. “In my opinion, the best thing to do if your sauce breaks is start over!”

But if you don’t want to walk away, there are a few ways to fix a broken emulsion. 1) If it’s a hot sauce, use a few ice cubes to bring it back. 2) If it’s a cold sauce, add hot water and stir vigorously. 3) Depending on the type of sauce, you can also add softened butter or egg yolk as you whisk.

Don’t abuse the roux

“The best tip I can give when it comes to making most of the mother sauces would be mastering the roux,” said Chef Steininger. “A roux is always described as equal parts fat to flour, but I never stay precise to that equation. I add a little flour at a time until the fat can’t take anymore and then I saute together. If there isn’t enough flour, the roux will break and you’ll get a floating island of butter on top of your soups. I know this well. I never truly knew how to make a roux until attending culinary school.”

Chef Littley echoed her sentiments.

“When I teach the girls at school, one of the things I see abused most often is the roux,” he said. “Here’s my recommendation: You can use oil, but I prefer butter. Heat your butter and flour together for awhile before you add hot liquid. The flour will never properly cook if you don’t wait until it smells a little like bread, which could even be 5 to 10 minutes.”

There are three types of roux, which are defined by the length of time cooked and the ensuing color. They include white, blonde, and brown. The darker the roux, the nuttier the flavor.

Chef Littley's Marinara Sauce

Don’t forget to put your sauce to work

According to Chef Amy Vitale of TABLES, an adorable Denver restaurant that serves fresh American dishes, you should never make a sauce simply for decorating a plate.

“Every sauce (and item) on the plate should have a purpose to the palette. I think the amount of sauce that should be on the plate depends on the balance of the dish.”

Don’t over season your sauce

A few times now I’ve made a delicious-looking sauce only to find out that I completely over seasoned that puppy. The seasoning process is fun…what can I say?

Chris Perrin of Blog Well Done nailed it on the head.

“Take it easy on the salt,” he said.  “The skillful application of salt is one of the best tools in a chef’s arsenal, but when you make a sauce you are often starting with a salt base (like fond), adding butter (which has salt), then stock (which has salt), and then reducing the sauce before you serve. If you add salt too early in the process, your sauce will taste salty.”

Because I often make this over-seasoning mistake, you bet I asked the chefs how to remedy the problem.

“If I over spice a sauce I will usually try two different things,” said Chef Steininger. “First, I will try to add the opposite flavor of whatever I added too much of. If I added too much acid, I’ll add some sugar or honey to balance it out. If I add too much spice, I’ll add an earthier, heartier herb to try to make the heat [not-so] overwhelming. If this doesn’t work, I’ll dilute the sauce with water and adjust the seasonings to make it taste good. If by adding the water makes the sauce too runny, I’ll add a thickening agent (i.e. roux or slurry) to tighten it up.”

That advice is worth the cost of admission.

opera cream sauce

Chef Steininger's Opera Cream Sauce

Don’t use an itty bitty pan

The larger the sauté pan the more surface area that your sauce has on the heat, which means it will reduce faster. Reduction reveals the flavor and consistency you want in your sauce.

Chef Steininger said the right consistency is when the sauce coats the back of a spoon. If your sauce doesn’t pass that test, then work in your thickening agent. (See roux above).

Don’t give up and don’t stop trying new things

I’ve had a few moments where I thought about giving up on the Saucy Dipper and sticking with takeout. A totally over-salted marinara sauce, an underdone slow cooker soup (You thought it was impossible!), and a trip to the emergency room really got me wondering if it was all worth it.

But the truth is that it is worth it, especially if you think of sauce making as an adventure where the mistakes don’t really matter. Chef Matt Selby of Denver’s Vesta Dipping Grill and Steuben’s had a very nice take on the topic.

“There are many mistakes and you can categorize them by the technique being used, and you can name those mistakes all day long, and still not avoid them,” he said. “To me, the only mistake is not being able to roll with the punches. As long as your ingredients are awesome, and you have seasoned the base well, so what if your aioli doesn’t emulsify. Use the sauce, and serve it to your guests with confidence as ‘broken garlic mayonnaise,’ or ‘deconstructed garlic aioli.’”

Well said.

A recap: What to do when making sauce

  • Some store bought sauces will work as long as they don’t have fillers and chemicals.
  • Fix broken cold sauces with hot water and broken hot sauces with a few ice cubes…or throw it away and try again.
  • Master the roux. Slowly add flour to butter until the flour just can’t take any more. Then, let the mixture cook for several minutes before adding the remaining ingredients.
  • Make a sauce that adds to the flavor and experience of the meal. Don’t use sauce as a garnish alone.
  • Remember not to over season your sauce, and if you do, remedy the problem by adding the opposite flavors (e.g., if you add too much hot spice, add an earthy herb).
  • When reducing a sauce, use a larger pan for maximum surface area. When the sauce coats the back of a spoon, you’re done.
  • Roll with the punches and don’t look at a mistake as a failure. Modify and keep making sauce.

For more sauce tips, check out the How to Make Sauce page and check back next week when we talk about the tools you’ll need for making sauce.

ps – The very first picture of this post is of an enchilada sauce I made awhile back. Click here to read about how to make enchilada sauce.

18 Responses to “What Not to Do When You Make Sauce”

  1. Hi Sara
    Another very imformative post! thanks so much for the mention and allowing me to be a part of your culinary team!

  2. Elaine says:

    I am learning so much from my visits here! Thank you for your great sauce tips. I made hollandaise sauce for the first time at Christmas, but it didn’t turn out as well as I would have liked. I really wasn’t sure I wanted to attempt making it again, but after reading this post I think I will. Thank you!

  3. Sara says:

    @Chef Dennis – I sooo appreciate you.

    @Elaine – Glad you’re learning a bit. I certainly am as well. And I’m with you on the hollandaise. It’s not easy!

  4. What a great tutorial on sauces! I learned a couple of handy tips in there. Thank you.

  5. Thank you for such an educational entry. Terrible me always buying those sauce premix….;-(

  6. Drick says:

    what a great article on sauces… esp the roux, down here, everyone has a way with making a good roux, which ya gotta have for a good gumbo

  7. briarrose says:

    Great post. 😉 I so lean towards over seasoning my sauce…not salt…more like pry the cajun seasoning and red pepper flakes from hand…ehehehe.

  8. Claudia says:

    Very informative! In spaghetti sauce, if I find it too salty, I add vermouth and that often cuts the salt. (So it’s an alcoholic remdy…)

  9. Velva says:

    Awesome post! I have learned a lot of new tips on sauce making. Thanks for sharing this with us.


    • Mary says:

      Is there a way to reduce the spiciness of a premade dish? I found a line of Cajun dishes that are really good, just way too spicy. I tried adding sugar and it didn’t really help. Any suggestions would be appreciated. Thank you.

      • saral says:

        Hi Mary – Dairy products are notoriously good for cutting spice. Yogurt, sour cream, and milk are all good options. BUT, I could see that for some dishes dairy wouldn’t really be appropriate. In that case, you could try and dilute the food by adding something without any spice at all, like rice, potatoes, lettuce, etc. Hope that helps.

        • mary says:

          Thank you Saral. I’m not sure if a dairy product would be good in a roux, which is where all the spice is coming from. I’ll try adding some rice or potatoes next time. It’s a shame it’s so spicy, because it is authentic in every other way.

  10. sweetlife says:

    another great post, a good roux is a great tool for a new cook..


  11. Lots of great tips, and I love how you got input from the various chefs. I am with Dennis…Hollandaise should never, ever be storebought. Yuck!

  12. saral says:

    @My Man’s Belly & @Velva – Thanks so much for stopping by!

    @Angie’s Recipe – Some premix sauce works great…but if it takes less than 10 minutes to make from scratch, then I say definitely do it.

    @Drick & @ BriarRose – Bring on the cajun! I like it spicy, too.

    @Claudia – Vermouth?!?! Love it. I always vote in favor of alcohol.

    @Sweetlife – Agreed. What do you use for thickener?

    @FoodDreamer – Never. Ever. Indeed. I vote for getting it when you go out. Hollandaise is fun to make, but I don’t like to SEE all that butter. Ignorance is bliss 🙂

  13. Jen says:

    I appreciate the tips on how to fix sauce, especially broken sauces. And I should learn how to make roux. Do the three types of roux correspond to how long the roux is cooked?

  14. Cris says:

    This is so helpful. Love it… off to share it on twitter… and facebook!

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