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Sauces, Glorious Sauces! Facts, History, and 5 Recipes

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

All about sauces—plus 5 delicious recipes to try out at home

All about sauces—plus 5 delicious recipes to try out at home

SAUCE, n. The one infallible sign of civilization and enlightenment. A people with no sauces has one thousand vices; a people with one sauce has only nine hundred and ninety-nine. For every sauce invented and accepted, a vice is renounced and forgiven.

— Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914)

When I Was Growing Up We Had Only 3 Sauces

When I was growing up, there were three sauces in our refrigerator:

  • Mayonnaise (it had to be Best Foods, nothing else would do)
  • Ketchup
  • Yellow mustard

How life has changed since those simple times in the 1950s. I look in my refrigerator today and find (in addition to the three items listed above):

  • Mango chutney
  • Seafood sauce
  • Tartar sauce
  • Dijon mustard
  • Grainy mustard
  • Soy sauce
  • Sweet and sour sauce
  • Teriyaki sauce
  • Oyster sauce
  • Huckleberry barbecue sauce
  • ... and a few more

England has three sauces and three hundred and sixty religions, whereas France has three religions and three hundred and sixty sauces.

— Talleyrand

A Brief History of Sauces

The word "sauce" is a French word that means a relish to make our food more appetizing. Today sauces are meant to enhance our foods—to make them more palatable, but long ago, that was not the case. In old Rome (200 A.D.), sauces were used to disguise food that might be a bit tainted.

According to the article Food & Cooking in Roman Britain by Marian Woodman:

The main course, or primae mensai varied both in the number and elaboration of dishes. Roast and boiled meat, poultry, game or other meat delicacies would be served. No dish was complete without its highly flavoured and seasoned sauce. Contrary to present day preference, the main object seemed to be to disguise the natural taste of food - possibly to conceal doubtful freshness, possibly to demonstrate the variety of costly spices available to the host. Sometimes so many ingredients were used in a sauce it was impossible to single out any one flavour. One Roman cook bitterly complained that some of his fellow cooks 'When they season their dinners they don't use condiments for seasoning, but screech owls, which eat out the intestines of the guests alive'. Apicius wrote at the end of one of his recipes for a particularly flavoursome sauce, 'No one at table will know what he is eating'. These sauces were usually thickened with wheat flour or crumbled pastry. Honey was often incorporated into a 'sweet-sour' dish or sauce.

Highly flavoured sauces often containing as many as a dozen ingredients were extensively used to mask the natural flavours of Roman food. The most commonly used seasoning was liquamen, the nearest equivalent today being a very strong fish stock, with anchovies as its main ingredient. This was so popular that it was factory-produced in many towns in the Roman empire.

1. Enchilada Sauce


  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1/2 medium onion, finely minced
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 2 cups water


  1. In a medium saucepan sauté onion in oil over low heat until softened and slightly golden—about 10 minutes.
  2. Add flour, chili powder, cumin, and garlic powder. Whisk to combine.
  3. Increase heat to high; stir in water and bring to a boil.
  4. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until sauce is slightly thickened about 15-20 minutes.
Low-sodium barbecue sauce

Low-sodium barbecue sauce

2. Low-Sodium Barbecue Sauce


  • 1 cup low-salt tomato sauce
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1/8 cup molasses
  • 1 teaspoon liquid smoke
  • 1/8 teaspoon powdered garlic, powdered onion, chili powder, and cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper


  1. Combine all ingredients in a deep (high-sided) saucepan.
  2. Bring to a simmer over low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 30 minutes. Be sure to keep the heat as low as possible and stir often so that it does not scorch.
Red bell peppers halved and ready to be roasted in the oven

Red bell peppers halved and ready to be roasted in the oven

3. Smokey Roasted Pepper Sauce


  • 4 red bell peppers
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • salt to taste


  1. Preheat oven to 450° F.
  2. Cut bell peppers in half from stem to bottom; remove the seeds and membrane. Place cut-side down on a shallow foil-lined baking sheet. Roast until the skin of the peppers is blackened and blistering (about 10 minutes). Remove from oven and set aside to cool.
  3. While the peppers are roasting, slice the onions and cook in a large sauté pan on low to medium heat in olive oil until soft and caramelized. Put into blender or food processor.
  4. When the peppers are cool enough to handle, remove the skins (the charred, blistered skin should peel off easily).
  5. Add the roasted pepper flesh to the food processor bowl.
  6. Add vinegar, paprika, and a pinch of salt to the onions and peppers and puree. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Sweet and sour sauce

Sweet and sour sauce

4. Sweet and Sour Sauce


  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1/4 cup distilled white vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce


  1. Combine brown sugar, flour, and water in a medium saucepan.
  2. Bring to a boil over medium heat.
  3. Stir in vinegar and soy sauce.
  4. Continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce is slightly reduced and begins to thicken about 20 minutes.
Arugula walnut pesto

Arugula walnut pesto

5. Arugula Walnut Pesto


  • 2 large cloves of garlic
  • 4 cups loosely packed rinsed and dried arugula leaves
  • 1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt


  1. Place garlic and arugula leaves in a food processor. Pulse several times until finely minced.
  2. Add Parmesan cheese and pulse several more times to combine.
  3. Use a rubber scraper to scrape down the sides of the food processor bowl.
  4. While the food processor is running, slowly pour in olive oil; when oil is incorporated, add lemon juice.
  5. Stir again with a rubber scraper and add salt to taste.

© 2014 Linda Lum