If I say “sauce” to you, would you automatically think of the little 8 ounce cans of Hunt’s tomato sauce? Or would you think of tartar sauce that you buy, already made up, in a jar at the supermarket? Or maybe the bottle of A1 steak sauce comes to your mind. Or what about Worcestershire sauce? (Speaking of which – Worcestershire sauce, which we Americans tend to mispronounce, is a prime ingredient in many other recipes. First made in Worcester, England, by two chemists, John Wheeley Lea and William Henry Perrins, the Lea & Perrins brand was commercialised in 1837 and has been produced in the current Midlands Road factory in Worcester since 1897. It was purchased by H.J. Heinz Company in 2005 who continue to manufacture and market “The Original Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce”, under the name Lea & Perrins, as well as Worcestershire sauce under their own name and labeling. Other companies manufacture similar products, often also called Worcester sauce, and marketed under different brands.)

For many Americans, “cranberry sauce” comes in a can that you chill in the refrigerator before opening, Thanksgiving Day, and plop out on a dish. (Personally, I don’t care for this kind of cranberry sauce—but I really enjoy making cranberry relish with fresh cranberries). And what about apple sauce? (We had a single apple tree at our old house—it produced enough apples to convert into at least 30 quarts of applesauce a year).

And getting sauced” whether you live in the USA or Canada means something else entirely and starts with drinking too much of an alcoholic beverage.

I found some great information about sauces in a book titled “RARE BITS” by Patricia Bunning Stevens. “Rare Bits” is a book ABOUT food, not a cookbook – and even though I have managed to fill 3 bookcases with books ABOUT food, “Rare Bits” is one I often come back to when I am searching for background information. Stevens starts the chapter on “Sauces” out with: “The Romans went to the ends of their earth, searching for new, exotic meats, and then made them all taste the same by dousing them all with the same sauce. The sauce, known as garum or liquamen was actually more of a condiment, to be added by the diners as desired at the table…” (Sort of like A1 sauce perhaps?)

Stevens continues, “The scale of the Romans’ consumption of GARUM can perhaps be judged by the fact that they produced it in factories. Small fish such as anchovies and the offal of larger fish, such as tuna were put into a large trough and thoroughly salted; sometime shrimp or oysters were added. After twenty-four hours, the concoction was transferred to an earthenware vessel and set in a sunny spot to ferment for two or three months. The resulting liquid was clear and golden in color, with a salty, mildly fishy, and somewhat cheesy flavor. It was sealed in small pots, much as mustard is today; one of these pots was found in the ruins of Pompeii, bearing the legend, “Best strained liquamen. From the factory of Umbricus Agathopus….”

Stevens also notes that “the sauces favored in the early middle ages were sharp and acidic, deliberately made so by the addition of vinegar or verjuice, the juice of sour crab apples or sour grapes. From these medieval dishes come our words “saucy” or “sassy” meaning sharp, pert, or impudent…”

“Cooking changed tremendously in the seventeenth century,” Stevens writes, “especially in France, when French chefs began using sauces” (I was always under the impression that their use of sauces was to disguise rancid meat).

But, Stevens explains that it was the great French chef Careme who first tried to bring order to this plentitude (i.e., that of having dozens and dozens of sauce recipes) early in the 19th century. Careme’s idea was to classify the sauces of the time into four families, each headed by a “mother” sauce (espagnole, velote [velvety], allemande, and béchamel from which numerous variations could be devised. A century later, Escoffier followed the same sort of arrangement but sensibly omitted “allemande” which is itself only a variation of “veloute” and added hollandaise and tomato. (Irma Rombauer, author of Joy of Cooking remained true to this classification of sauces).

It may surprise you to learn there are many different recipes for making sauces, many of which may be becoming lost arts. I wonder how many cooks make their own shrimp cocktail sauce or tomato sauce, from scratch…ham sauce or steak sauce or chili sauce or just your basic cream sauce?

The basic sauces are brown, butter, white or cream sauce—none of which are hard to make. Hamlyn’s Illustrated Cook’s Dictionary by Marion Howells, (published in London) provides the following definition for a sauce:

“Sauce: a sauce is used to add to the food value of a dish or to enhance its flavor and appearance. It can be hot or cold, sweet or savoury (sic). The liquid for a savoury sauce can be water, stock or milk. It is thickened in various ways according to the nature of the sauce…”

Frieda Arkin, author of “KITCHEN WISDOM” published in 1968 by Holt, Reinhart and Winston, devotes several pages to sauces—including a lot of simple tips that will have you wondering why you didn’t think of doing that.

But as I delved into my cookbook collection searching for sauce recipes, I was most non-plussed by Marguerite Patten’s “AMERICAN EVERYDAY COOKBOOK” which struck me as absurd—on a par with me trying to write a book about British cuisine—until I began reading American Everyday Cookbook and had to acknowledge – not bad, Marguerite. Not bad at all. Not only that, but pages and pages have been devoted to sauces in Marguerite’s book. She starts out with directions for making a perfect sauce, followed by recipes for white and brown sauces, with numerous variations. For instance, Anchovy sauce, Béchamel, caper, cheese, horseradish, and tartar sauces are all variations of the basic white sauce. Madeira sauce, Espagnole and Poivrade are all variations of brown sauce. These are followed by recipes for all the sauces you can imagine, from apple sauce to barbeque sauces, Bearnaise and Hollandaise sauces—even chocolate and lemon sauces.

(Some time ago, we were heading for the mountains to visit friends Mary Jaynne & Steve, and MJ asked me to bring along some Hollandaise sauce as she was serving fresh spring asparagus for dinner. First I couldn’t find it on the supermarket shelves and to request assistance. Then I was shocked to find such a SMALL can with such a BIG price tag. I vowed I’d make my own Hollandaise if ever I want any. I will admit, it was good on fresh cooked asparagus).
Everybody’s cooking bible, The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer, lumps salad dessings, sauces, gravies, marinades, glazes and seasoned butters all together but offers many sauce recipes – horseradish sauce or Cumberland sauces, a blender vegetable sauce to serve over bland foods, cold veal, or hot or cold fish. She also offers recipes for cocktail sauce and a cold mustard sauce, Remoulade Sauce and Sauce Louis which is to be served with stuffed artichokes, shrimp or crab. But don’t stop there – Rombauer offers many more recipes for sauces.

I thought you might find it necessary to turn to older cookbooks to find a great assortment of sauce recipes rather than cookbooks being published nowadays—but I stand corrected. If you are the proud owner of a copy of Ruth Reichl’s cookbook GOURMET TODAY, published in 2009—it contains a decent amount of sauce recipes, which have been divided into two groups –savory and sweet. And, Gourmet Today contains a few I wouldn’t have thought of. Of course, you can always Google a recipe and find dozens of recipes from which to choose.

Meantime, I would like to share with you a few of my own favorite basic sauce recipes.

White sauce, or Béchamel, according to Wikipedia, is the mother of French cream sauces. According to Larousse Gastronomique, the sauce is named after the “marquis de Béchamel”, actually Louis de Béchameil, marquis de Nointel (1630–1703). According to Larousse the sauce is an improvement upon a similar, earlier sauce, known asvelouté. Béchameil was a financier who held the honorary post of chief steward to Louis XIV. The sauce under its familiar name first appeared in Le Cuisinier François, (published in 1651), by François Pierre La Varenne (1615–1678), chef de cuisine to Nicolas Chalon du Blé, marquis d’Uxelles. The sauce originally was a veal velouté with a large amount of cream added. (And now you know why it’s also called Béchamel sauce).
To make cream sauce, or Béchamel, you will need the following:

2 TBSP butter
1-2 TBSP all purpose flour
1 cup milk

Melt the butter over low heat in a saucepan; gradually add the flour and stir, cooking over low heat, 3-5 minutes. Then slowly stir in the milk; continue stirring until the sauce thickens.

To make a thicker cream sauce use 3 TBSP butter, 3 TBSP flour and 1 cup of milk. Add salt & pepper to taste.

If you make cream sauce regularly, you might want to make up a batch of cream sauce mix; this recipe is from Joy of Cooking:

1 cup butter
1 cup flour
2 cups powdered milk

Mix together the butter and flour – the butter should be cold and it should be real butter, not margarine or a spread. When you have the butter and flour mixed together evenly, stir in the 2 cups of powdered milk. Keep refrigerated. To make a sauce, stir to a paste in a saucepan 1/3 cup of the above mixture with 1/3 cup water or stock; then add 2/3 cup water or stock gradually over low heat and stir constantly until the sauce thickens.

Many other sauce recipes can be made with cream or Béchamel sauce, such as Mornay sauce (good on fish, egg, or vegetable dishes), Nantua sauce, Newburg sauce or oyster or anchovy sauces. A good horseradish sauce can also be made with a cream sauce base; to make horseradish sauce, you will need:

1 cup of basic cream sauce as indicated above (2 TBSP butter, 2 TBSP flour, 1 cup milk)
3 TBSP prepared horseradish
2 TBSP whipping cream
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp dry mustard
1 TBSP white vinegar

Remove the cream sauce from the stove, then add remaining ingredients; reheat but do not boil. Serve immediately.

Joy of Cooking provides the following recipe for making 2 cups of cheese sauce:

3 TBSP butter
3 TBSP flour
1 ½ cups milk
1 cup or less mild grated cheese or diced processed cheese
½ tsp salt
1/8 tsp paprika
A few grains cayenne
½ tsp dry mustard

Melt the butter in a saucepan; stir in flour until blended. Slowly stir in milk. When the sauce is smooth and hot, reduce the heat and stir in the cheese, salt, paprika, cayenne and mustard. Stir until the cheese is melted.

What surprised me was not finding a basic cheese sauce in “Gourmet Today”; author Ruth Reichl does offer a recipe for Penne and Chicken Gratin in this cooking bible, which includes a cheese sauce but the recipe is a little more involved and might not be for families with young children-and I know that my reading audience has a lot of mothers with young children. Consequently, I lean more towards the kind of recipes, especially sauces, that I know my own children would eat—and believe me, we had some picky eaters in the family when my sons were growing up. Their father was the pickiest eater of all.

I make my favorite “from scratch” cheese sauce, to add to cooked macaroni, by making up 1 or 2 cups of basic cream sauce, and then adding shredded cheddar cheese to it. If you have some cheese on hand that has dried out a little, you can still shred and add it to your cream sauce. Other cheeses can be added—if nothing else is available, I will toss in some slices of American processed cheese. If you are making this for children, they usually don’t care for anything too spicy or zapped up too much—one reason, I imagine, why the Kraft macaroni & cheese in the blue and yellow box is so popular with children…but trust me, it’s really easy to make up your own mac and cheese. To make it a little fancier, you can poured the macaroni & cheese into a baking dish and top it off with a little more grated cheese or some cheese slices cut into triangles…bake until the top is crusty and golden. Yum!


Happy cooking!

–Sandra Lee Smith


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