How to Cook: Making a Great Sauce

In my opinion, one of the most underrated components of any meal is the sauce. Gravy, pan sauce, alfredo, tomato sauce, cheese sauce — they can make or break a delicious meal. Today, we’re going to learn all about how to make sauces that are balanced, bold, not overpowering, and, most important of all, delicious.

The 5 Mother Sauces

There are thousands of different sauces out there, but most of them can be connected back to the 5 “mother” sauces. The concept originated in the early 1800s, but they were modified and updated in the early 1900s to become the delicious sauces we know and love today. And yes, these are all French sauces, but the same principles apply across much of the culinary world.

  • Velouté: translates to “velvety,” it’s light in color and in flavor, and made from a roux and a light-colored stock (chicken, vegetable, fish, white veal)
  • Béchamel: classic white sauce, ultra creamy, made from a roux and milk
  • Espagnole: a richly flavored brown sauce made from a dark roux plus brown veal or beef stock, sometimes with tomatoes
  • Tomato: or “sauce tomat” if you want to be fancy, it’s exactly what you think it is (the traditional French version is thickened with a roux, but that’s become rare)
  • Hollandaise: melted butter and egg yolks, cooked gently while whisking until it thickens up, brightened with a squeeze of lemon

If you’re new to cooking, that might not have made much sense. That’s okay! We’re here to learn. If you can understand these 5 sauces, then you can make any sauce with ease. Pretty much everything else is just a derivative of one of these mother sauces.

What’s a Roux?

First off, you need to know how to make a roux. It’s the ultimate sauce-maker. It can turn beef stock into beef gravy. It can turn chicken soup into a chicken pot pie. It’s basically just flour and fat, usually in equal amounts, whisked together until smooth and cooked in a saucepan until it’s thick. You can modify which fat you use and how long you cook it to make a whole variety of different flavors that will form the base of your sauce. The most common (and versatile) version uses equal amounts of all purpose flour and butter. Other commonly used fats include bacon fat, olive oil, vegetable oil, and ghee. A whisk is really helpful here, because it will help to break up any lumps. Cook it, stirring constantly, until it’s thick and the color you’re looking for, then SLOWLY add your liquid (milk or stock) while whisking constantly. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of adding your liquid slowly. The roux will soak up the liquid and slowly start to thin out, turning itself into a creamy thick sauce. If you go too quickly, the roux won’t be able to soak up the liquid evenly and you’ll get a soup with pasty lumps of roux. Gross.

If your roux looks like this, you’ll have enough sauce to feed a small army.

When you’re making your own roux, I recommend 1-2 tbsp each of flour and butter for most applications unless the recipe you’re following says otherwise (I like to wing it). A small amount can thicken a lot more liquid than you think. You can thicken or thin it down later if needed.

If you’re making a derivative of a velouté or béchamel sauce, you’ll want to cook your roux until it’s thick, and then add your liquid. If you’re making an espagnole sauce, you’ll want to cook the roux until it’s a dark golden color before adding liquid. Alternatively, you can toast the flour in your saucepan until it turns golden brown, then add your fat and continue cooking until it’s the color you want.

What Does It All Mean?

So that’s cool and all, but what can you do with this knowledge? What kind of meals can you use these sauces to make? Fear not! We’re going to learn how to use these base sauces to create an amazing meal. Many of these aren’t even used as a “sauce” so much as they’re used as a base for the whole meal. So what can you make with these base sauces? Here are some foods you’re likely familiar with that come from one of the mother sauces:

  • Velouté: white wine sauce, pan sauce (for chicken), chicken/turkey gravy, chicken pot pie
  • Béchamel: mac and cheese, alfredo, croque monsieur (a delicious grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich with a béchamel sauce), cheese sauce, biscuits and gravy
  • Espagnole: pan sauce (for steak), demi-glace, red wine reduction, beef gravy
  • Tomato: pasta, pizza, shakshouka (a tasty breakfast dish of eggs cooked in tomato sauce), vodka sauce, BBQ sauce
  • Hollandaise: eggs Benedict, béarnaise sauce (a creamy, herby sauce usually served with steak)

So do you need to know the exact recipe to make a classic French Espagnole sauce? No. Absolutely not. Do you need to know that you can make a roux, cook it until it’s dark gold, add beef stock, and get a delicious sauce? For sure. When you know that, you can add other ingredients for flavor. A sprig of thyme? Delicious. Shallot? Yes. A little red wine? Yum (just be sure to cook the alcohol out for the best flavor). If you make it in the same pan you used to cook your steak, you’ll get the added umph of beef from what’s stuck to the bottom of the pan. Taste it as you go, and don’t forget the salt. You’ve just made a delicious pan sauce for your steak dinner!

If I’m making a chicken pot pie (a family favorite — it was even tasty that one time I forgot to add the chicken 🤣), I never use a recipe. It’s not because I have the recipe memorized, it’s because I know how to make a velouté sauce. Sauté your veggies, cook your chicken, pour everything into a bowl, then make your velouté in the same pan. Toasting the roux to get a little color improves the flavor, but feel free to cook more or less depending on how you’re feeling. So long as the roux is thick and you add the liquid slowly, you’ll get a tasty sauce. I like to add a little white wine to my roux first, let the alcohol cook off, then add my chicken stock. Pour all your ingredients back in the pan and see how it looks. Does it need a little more chicken stock to cover all the veggies? If it’s too soupy, let it cook down a little. Taste it. Does it need something? Salt? Herbs? Add something and taste it again. Maybe a splash of heavy cream to give it some body. I like to put a single pie crust on top of the cast iron pan I cooked everything in and bake until it’s golden brown, but you can certainly cook it in a traditional pie pan with a double crust. You do you!

Do you get it? It’s not about the recipe, it’s about using the idea of a mother sauce to create something that’s entirely your own. We’ll get into the weeds with specific sauces later (eggs Benedict, anyone?), but for now I want you to get out there, use what you know about balancing flavors, and get saucy!

Cinnamon Rolls

Remember that sandwich bread recipe I posted way back? If not, then definitely check it out, because it’s super easy and oh so worth it. Because my recipe makes enough for 2 batches of dough, I mentioned at the end of that post that I usually freeze the second batch of dough after the first rise to use later. While you certainly CAN use it to make another loaf of bread, I’ve found that it’s more fun to use it for something else. Cinnamon rolls!

Fresh, homemade cinnamon rolls are one of the best breakfasts out there in my opinion. But who wants to get up early to spend 3 hours making breakfast? Yes, most of it is hands off “rising” time, but still. I’m hungry. Instead, try this!

This seems like a lot of directions, but that’s only because I want it to be fool proof. Here’s the cliff notes:

  • thaw dough overnight
  • roll into rectangle
  • spread with cinnamon sugar butter
  • roll and cut
  • rise
  • bake

The night before you want your cinnamon rolls, pull the dough out of the freezer and set it on the counter to thaw overnight. I keep mine in a ziploc bag, but if you keep yours more tightly wrapped then you’ll need to move it to a bag so that it has room to expand as it thaws.

In the morning, flour your counter or large cutting board, take the dough out of the bag (I find it’s easiest to cut the bag open – it can be a little sticky), and dust the top of the dough with flour. Using a rolling pin or your hands, roll the dough into a large rectangle. You may need to use your hands to pull the corners to make it rectangular rather than an oval. The exact size isn’t super important. The larger you make it, the more swirly your rolls will be.

Do what you can to make it an even thickness, but it really doesn’t matter too much. There’s a lot of wiggle room in this “recipe,” so don’t worry about getting it perfect.

Next, make a paste with butter, sugar and cinnamon. Most recipes I’ve seen have you melt the butter, brush it on the dough, and sprinkle on your cinnamon sugar mixture. While you certainly CAN do this, I’ve found that it makes a bit of a mess. If you use too much butter, it all spills out when you roll up the dough. If you don’t use quite enough, then it doesn’t moisten all the sugar and the layers of each roll don’t stick together. My personal preference is to use room temp butter (or only slightly melted), and to mix it with the sugar and cinnamon to form a thick paste. You want something that will really stick to the dough but won’t move around and get all drippy. I’ve found that a 2:1 ratio of sugar to butter works well. I don’t usually measure anything for this, but on my latest batch I used 4 tbsp butter, 7 tbsp sugar, and 1.5 tsp cinnamon. Feel free to adjust any of those to suit your own taste. Smear this sugar paste on your dough in an even layer (it doesn’t have to be perfect – you won’t notice a few bare spots here and there). Leave 1/2-1 inch of bare dough on all sides.

Next, roll it up! You can roll in any direction, but I like to roll starting at the short end. This gives me fewer rolls, but they have lots of layers. If you prefer to have fewer layers but more rolls, go ahead and start at the long end. When it’s all rolled up, pinch the roll closed to seal it all in. Now you can slice the dough! There’s 2 easy ways to do this. I use a sharp knife and just saw it back and forth without putting much pressure on the knife (you don’t want to squish your rolls). You can also use dental floss – wrap it around the dough and make like you’re going to tie a knot. As you pull the floss, it’ll cut through the dough on all sides at once, so you won’t squish it flat. The size of your rolls will depend on the size of the rectangle you rolled. I got 9 rolls out of mine, and each roll was cut a little over an inch wide. Feel free to discard the ends like I did. Unless you got a perfect rectangle, they’re going to be a little wonky.

Put your rolls in a greased pan. A cookie sheet works too, but rolls always rise higher if they’re touching something. If you can, put some parchment paper in the bottom of your pan (you’ll find out why when they’re done baking). Put the whole thing in a plastic bag (put it on upside down and tuck the ends under your pan) and go do something else for 30-60 minutes. Take a shower. Make some coffee while you catch up on the news. Complain to someone about how it’s way to freaking cold outside right now.

Preheat the oven to 375 when you’re getting toward the end of your rising time. You’re looking for rolls that are puffy, but they don’t have to be doubled. They should look like this when they’re ready to bake.

Pop those bad boys in the oven for 30-35 minutes until they’re golden brown. While they’re baking, feel free to make some frosting if you’re into that. Cream cheese frosting is a classic (just whip up some room temp cream cheese with powdered sugar and a splash of vanilla), or you can make an easy glaze of powdered sugar and a tiny bit of milk. Though, if I’m being honest, you don’t even need frosting with these. Because… drum roll please… they’re caramel cinnamon rolls! If you put parchment on the bottom of your pan, you should be able to flip the whole thing upside down and peel off the parchment. If you didn’t, make sure that you get those rolls out of the pan before they’re completely cool or they’ll be hard to remove. These rolls form a delicious layer of caramel on the bottom as they cook, and it’ll harden as they cool down.

Enjoy! This can be customized in any number of ways. Add raisins or nuts, increase the cinnamon, use a different kind of sugar, or add additional spices (ginger or nutmeg would be interesting). Have fun with it!

DIY instant oatmeal packets

So I know it’s summer, and it’s hot as all get out right now, but school is fast approaching (or has already arrived for some of you) and it’s always nice to have something fast and easy ready for breakfast. I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now, and it’s so quick and easy. I actually prefer it to the instant oatmeal packets you can buy at the store. “But Casey, it only takes like 5 minutes to cook oatmeal on the stove. Why go through the extra steps of making individually portioned packets?” Oh, hush. It may only take 5 minutes for oatmeal to cook, but you still have to assemble your ingredients (if you’re not putting anything in your oatmeal shame on you), and then you have to clean a pot.

I’m a fan of these things because they’re portable (all you need is a microwavable bowl or mug and a spoon), they’re quick, and they’re delicious. You can customize them to no end. They can have more or less sugar (whatever your preference is), and you can add in extra bits of whatever (flax, chia seeds, wheat germ, protein powder, etc) to make it even healthier if you’re so inclined.

I recommend setting up an assembly line to make things faster. This is something that kids can help with too! And if they help make it, they might actually eat it.

Instant Oatmeal Packets

  • 1/2 cup instant oats
  • 2 -4 tsp “healthy stuff” (chia seeds, flax seeds, etc)
  • 2 tsp dried milk (this is optional, but delicious)
  • 1 -3 tsp dried sweetener (brown sugar, granulated sugar, vanilla sugar, maple sugar, etc)
  • a pinch of salt
  • add-ins of choice (around 3 tbsp total is usually reasonable)

So what kinds of add-ins should you use? I’m a big fan of fruit and nut combinations, but I’ve also used chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, etc – just use a pinch, or it’s too overpowering) and coconut. If you use fruit, make sure it’s DRIED fruit of some kind. Make sure everything is chopped up into bite-sized pieces. Nobody wants to crunch down on a whole almond in their oatmeal (unless you do – you do you I guess).

My favorite combinations:

  • cranberry almond
  • chocolate walnut (chocolate chips)
  • cinnamon apple
  • coconut almond
  • caramel apple (butterscotch chips are the “caramel” here)
  • cinnamon raisin

Everything fits nicely in one of those snack-sized plastic bags. Or, if you’re opposed to plastic, you can make your own packets out of wax paper or parchment paper. Fold a piece of parchment in half, and then fold up the edges a couple of times to make a pocket (staple it to make sure it stays folded up). After you’ve filled the pocket, fold the top down a couple of times and secure it with another staple. Easy peasy.

To cook it, just add some water or milk (around 1/2 – 2/3 cup, but I don’t usually measure it) and microwave for 1-2 minutes. Delicious.

The best sandwich bread you’ll ever make

So guys, I’m seriously into bread making. I can count on one hand the number of times that I’ve bought bread from the store within the last two years, and those were all “specialty” breads. So, naturally, I have my favorite bread recipe. So why make bread yourself when you can buy it? It’s fun! It’s tasty! It’s versatile! If you just don’t get it, then I really wouldn’t worry yourself about it.

So here it is. My go-to recipe for the softest, most delicious sandwich bread you’ll ever eat. Ok, that’s a little extreme. It’s good, but it’s not “slap your momma” good. But it could be. You’ll never know until you try it yourself!

Basic Sandwich Bread

(Makes 2 loaves)

  • 2½ cups warm water
  • 1 tbsp. active dry yeast
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 6 – 6½ cups flour (either AP or bread flour work for this recipe)
  • 2 tsp salt
  • ¼ cup butter, softened

Pour  ½ cup of the water into a big bowl (stand mixer is easier, but it’s more fun to make a mess with your hands). Stir in the yeast and sugar and let it sit for 5 minutes until foamy.

Add the rest of the water and about half of the flour. Stir (or you can use the dough hook of your stand mixer) until well blended, then slowly add the rest of the flour, the salt, and the butter (I like to cut it up into chunks and add them one piece at a time). It gets a little sloppy during this phase, and that’s ok! Sloppy is good. Let the mixer go for about 8 minutes on a low speed (I use the first or second speed on mine), or knead by hand for 10-15 minutes. You can add a little more flour if you feel like it needs some, but it’ll start to hold its shape better as it keeps going. You’re going for smooth and tacky, but not “sticky.” if it is, add a touch more flour.

You’ll know it’s done when you form it into a ball. It should hold its shape nicely, and when you poke it there should be a good spring to the dough. Make a ball and pop it back in the bowl to rise. There’s no need to oil the bowl. Cover with a towel and let it sit in a warm spot for 1-2 hours until doubled in size. I’ve found that the oven is a perfect place for proving dough. Just turn on the oven light, and it gets nice and cozy in there.

Punch down the dough and knead it again until smooth. Divide in two and shape into a roll the length of your loaf pan. Place dough in greased loaf pan and let it rise in a clean plastic bag until it’s 1 inch above the rim of your pan.

I usually use half the dough to make a loaf, and stick the other half in the freezer after the first rise (more about what to do with the extra dough in a future post!)

When it’s ready to go, bake at 375 for 30-35 minutes. Remove from the pan and let it cool completely on a cooling rack. Yum!

So there you go. Easy peasy. Now stop making excuses and give it a go!