Our culinary expert, YohannSetna is back with a master guide to nailing the new mother sauces for that 5-star experience at home

Words Yohann J Setna

Back in January of last year, I wrote about the 5 Mother Sauces, Béchamel (White Sauce), Velouté, Espagnole, Hollandaise and Tomato Sauce. These are what any classically trained (and by that, I mean trained in French cuisine) chef sees as the baseline of all that emanates from the kitchen. After all, French cuisine is all about the sauce. The protein, the carbs, the veggies are all very well, but the essence, the very being of a French kitchen is the sauce. The right sauce can elevate any dish — improving and balancing flavour, compensating for under-seasoning or adding a striking visual contrast. In a traditional French kitchen brigade, probably the most critical contributor is the Sauciér. All he does is make sauces. That’s the be-all and end-all of his life, but without him, the French kitchen does not exist.

However, in today’s culinary landscape, ask a current top-line chef to make you a Velouté, and I doubt he will be able to produce anything you’d relish. Ask him to make you an Espagnole and you probably will get a blank look in return. Times have changed and so has a modern kitchen. The defining line between cuisines is blurred. Many restaurants are not classified by their cuisine anymore, but just by the limitations of their chef’s imaginations, and more often skills. I believe that this ‘fusion’ more often than not leads to ‘confusion’, but that’s just my personal view, one which I’ve already written about, a year earlier than I wrote about the 5 classical mother sauces.

As the culinary landscape has changed, so have some of the basics of cookery. Most of the classical mother sauces were thickened with roux, a combination of flour and butter. Modern cuisine doesn’t need the heavy, rich classical sauces anymore, and so, a whole new range of 5 mother sauces have emerged. These sauces appear over and over again on menus and in cookbooks that feature the kind of vegetable-heavy, flavour-dense foods that cooks and eaters favour today; yoghurt sauce, pepper sauce, herb sauce, tahini sauce and pesto. Master each one, and you’ll immediately have access to the dozens of variations that descend from them.

Plain yoghurt itself is already a simple sauce, but with a few minutes more, you can use it as the base of a sauce to spoon over lamb, chicken or fish; or even rice, quinoa or couscous. Spoon it into puréed soups just before serving, or thin it with a little water to make a creamy dressing for your salad. Make carrot raita to drizzle over spicy roasted vegetables, or serve a bowl of tzatziki alongside grilled chicken or lamb.

For millennia, dried peppers have found their way into sauces around the world, and the method for using them is more or less the same. Toast them, or not. Seed them, or not. Then rehydrate, purée with a roasted tomato or two, and strain. Spoon this sauce over eggs, beans, pork chops or roast chicken. Or toss stewed shredded chicken, pork or beef with an abundant amount of sauce for a spicy filling for tacos or enchiladas. Add a few chopped onions and chillies, and you’ve got yourself a delicious salsa. Add olive oil, caraway, cumin and vinegar for Moroccan harissa. Or add chopped, toasted hazelnuts and almonds for a brilliant Romesco sauce.

Cooks around the world have long known that chopped herbs mixed with oil, acid and a pinch of salt will improve pretty much any dish. Start with this basic herb sauce, which can be served alongside any grilled fish, shellfish or meat, think chimichurri. Use it as a garnish for rice or quinoa. Drizzle it over roasted potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots and beetroots. Spoon it over poached eggs. Then start tinkering. Add capers and anchovies for an Italian salsa verde. Or use chopped olives and preserved lemon to make a Greek-style tapenade. It makes a great accompaniment for grilled lamb or even octopus. Switch out the parsley and vinegar for cilantro, lime, ginger and cumin and you’ve got yourself a North African chermoula sauce, to serve alongside spicy chickpeas, shakshuka or couscous.

Tahini, or toasted sesame seed paste, and the basic emulsified sauce made by whipping it together with lemon juice, garlic and water, are staples throughout the Middle East, Turkey, Greece and Cyprus. It’s eaten all over the region; with grilled meat, on vegetables, or as a salad dressing or mayonnaise substitute. It’s also the essential ingredient in any hummus, and hummus can be considered a mother sauce in itself!

You could use the sauce as a garnish for roast chicken and lamb. Dress raw kale and toasted pumpkin seeds with it for a simple salad. Drizzle it over sliced tomatoes and cucumbers. Or serve with grilled zucchini and peppers, or roasted carrots and cauliflower. Blend in some herbs to make a refreshing green tahini sauce. Or give it a Japanese cuisine twist by combining tahini paste with rice wine vinegar and a few drops of toasted sesame oil to make a dressing for blanched green beans, broccoli or spinach.

Named for the pounding involved in its production, pesto is the most rustic of the new mother sauces. The key to making creamy pesto is to add the ingredients to the mortar and pestle (or in the modern age, the food processor) in the right order to ensure that the nuts break down to a fine paste before the greens have a chance to turn brown. Based on a 130-year-old recipe from Liguria, the birthplace of pesto, the classical version of the sauce is packed with nuts and cheese. As a result, the texture is lush and the flavour balanced; the salt and acid from the cheese balances the sweetness of the basil and the richness of the olive oil.

Use basic basil pesto as a pasta sauce, or thin it out with a little oil to drizzle it over steak, chicken, fish, pizza or tomato salad. Replace the basil with kale, arugula or cilantro for a heartier sauce. Make mint-pistachio pesto to add vibrancy to spring vegetables and shellfish dishes. Tinker with the herbs and nuts and add various spices to evoke the flavours of cuisines from all around the world.
Once you’ve mastered these 5 new mother sauces, go on and cook what you’re most comfortable cooking: roast chicken, grilled steak or fish, roasted vegetables, a pot of beans or rice. Pair it with a new mother sauce to add vibrant flavour, texture and colour. Like an artfully chosen belt or pair of shoes, the right sauce will transform the distinct elements of a dish into a unified statement of taste. Eventually, you’ll start thinking of meat and vegetables as accompaniments to the sauce, instead of the other way around.