Which is the champion of the sauces? Which you could least do without in your kitchen? We pitched 16 classic sauces against each other and asked leading chefs, if they had to lose one from their kitchen, which sauce they would keep and why. Tom Vaughan follows the action
Literally meaning “virgin sauce”, it was popularised in the 1980s by Michel Guérard at Eugénie-les-Bains. The sauce can be plain, with just butter, lemon juice and some salt and pepper or can include chopped tomatoes, garlic and chopped herbs. It can be eaten cold or hot with shellfish or white-fleshed fish.
Originating in Genoa, the name pesto comes from pestâ – meaning “to pound” or “to crush”, in reference to the sauce’s crushed herbs and garlic. Large quantities of basil are ground with garlic, pine nuts and Parmesan cheese, with olive oil added gradually. It is served with pasta, fish, poultry or meats.
A rich brown sauce in French cuisine used by itself or as a base for other sauces. The term comes from the French word glace, which used in reference to a sauce means icing or glaze. The recipe, according to Escoffier, involves combining equal parts of veal stock and sauce espagnole.
Used in China for the past two millennia, soy sauce is made from a fermented mixture of soya bean, wheat, water and sugar and comes in light and dark varieties such as tamari, a dark sauce made without wheat. It has the same nutritional value as meat extract, improves with age and is also used as a marinade.
Another French mother sauce, it first appears in cookbooks around the 17th century and, apparently, mimicked a Dutch invention. An emulsion of butter and lemon juice using egg yolks, it should be made in a well-tinned copper or stainless steel sauté pan as aluminium will turn it greenish. It also forms the backbone of classic dishes such as eggs Benedict and brill cherubin, and the foundation of other sauces including Chantilly, maltaise, Mikado and mustard sauce.
Another bastion of the English table, the sauce is a sole survivor of the medieval bread-thickened sauces. Traditional British bread sauce is made with milk, butter or cream, and breadcrumbs, flavoured with onion, salt, cloves, pepper and bay leaf, with the fat from roasting often added, too. It typically accompanies turkey, chicken or game birds. The use of slightly stale bread is optimal, making it an economical way of using up leftover bread.
The sauce tomate of classical French cooking, as defined by Escoffier, consists of butter, salt belly of pork, flour, carrots, onions, bay leaves, thyme, tomato purée or fresh tomatoes, white stock, garlic, salt, sugar, and pepper. It plays a large part in Italian cooking, with varieties ranging from Puttanesca to Bolognese.
One of the French mother sauces, made by thickening chicken, white veal or fish stock with a golden roux. Not only does it provide the base for a whole host of other sauces, including allemande, caper, poulette and mushroom sauces but it can also be used to make smooth, fine but rich soups.
Another mother sauce of French cuisine, Larouse Gastronomique defines it as a brown stock to which a brown roux and a mirepoix are added, followed by tomato purée. Cooking takes several hours and the sauce needs to be skimmed, stirred and strained. It is the basis for a large number of derivative brown sauces such as Robert, genevoise, bordelaise, Bercy, Madeira and Périgueux.
Gravy may seem as English as cricket but, in fact, it first appeared in Middle English as gravé and is a French derivation. The original medieval meaning was almost identical to today; the gravé consisted of the natural cooking juices that flowed from spit-roasted meat, although these days flour, wine, champagne, chicken stock are often added.
One of the mother sauces of French cuisine, béchamel, also known as white sauce, is a basic sauce that is used as a base for others, such as Mornay sauce. It was named after Louis de Béchameil (1630-1703), a rich tax farmer who based his creation on an earlier sauce made from cream. It is a big hitter with egg, vegetable and gratin dishes.
Known to practically every Briton since birth, custard has been a part of the English cuisine since the 14th century. Recipes for custards baked in pastry appear in early cookery books, while others include ingredients such as meat, fish and fruit. The French call it crème anglaise, and it’s a mix of sugar, egg yolks and hot milk, often flavoured with vanilla.
The most likely etymology of mayonnaise is that it is a corruption of moyeunaise, derived from the old French word moyeu, which means yolk of egg. Mayonnaise is made by simply adding oil very slowly to an egg yolk, while whisking vigorously to disperse the oil. From it come a whole family of sauces, including aïoli, tartare sauce and ranch sauce.
Sauce gribiche is a mayonnaise-style cold egg sauce in the French cuisine, made by emulsifying hard-boiled egg yolks and mustard with a neutral oil such as canola or grapeseed. The sauce is finished with chopped pickles, capers, parsley, chervil and tarragon. It also includes hard-boiled egg whites cut in a julienne. It is served with chicken and fish.
The word means “sauce” in Spanish. Mexican salsas were traditionally produced using the mortar and pestle-like molcajete. Salsas include salsa roja, usually made with cooked tomatoes, chili peppers, onion, garlic, and fresh cilantro and pico de gallo (“rooster’s beak”) made with raw tomatoes, lime juice, chilli peppers, onions, and cilantro leaves.
A classic hot creamy sauce made from egg yolks and reduced vinegar, whisked together over a low heat and mixed with butter, usually served with grilled meat or fish. Sauces derived from it, such as arlesienne, Choron and Foyot, involve extra ingredients. The name is probably derived from King Henry IV of France, who was born in Béarn.
THE COMPETITION – ROUND ONE
VIERGE vs PESTO
Judge: Steve Love, former head chef, Juliannas at Cotswold House hotel, Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire
“I prefer sauce vierge for its fresh, light taste, it’s a good option for people with dietary needs. Also my brassiere chef likes to put pesto on everything and losing that, if only for a short time would be good therapy for him.”
Winner: Sauce vierge
SOY vs DEMI GLACE
Judge: Pete Weeden, head chef, Paternoster Chophouse, London
“Well for me it’s simple, even for a British restaurant we need soy for those impromptu sashimi moments with our stunning Kernow Sashimi fish.”
HOLLANDAISE vs BREAD SAUCE
Judge: Martin Burge, executive chef, Whatley Manor, Wiltshire
“Guests would miss it big time and chefs would be scratching their heads with menus. Imagine no eggs Benedict for breakfast, or English asparagus without it. It’s a great base ingredient too.”
VELOUTE vs SAUCE TOMATE
Judge: Will Holland, head chef, La Becasse, Ludlow, Shropshire
“Keep the velouté, definitely! A sauce like that from the classic repertoire is so important as a base in any kitchen, before any modern interpretation can take place.”
ESPAGNOL vs GRAVY
Judge: Matthew Tomkinson, head chef, Montagu Arms, Beaulieu, Hampshire
“I don’t think I have ever made espagnol but I make gravy every Sunday so not too difficult a choice! The gravy has to stay.”
BECHAMEL vs CUSTARD
Judge: Henry Dimbleby, co-founder, Leon
“A total mismatch. Custard every time. Béchamel is the ‘Walkman’ of sauces – the height of refinement in its day, but now too heavy and not as much fun as it seemed at the time. Whereas custard is a timeless pleasure and surely a shoe-in for the final.”
MAYONNAISE vs SAUCE GRIBICHE
Judge: Andrew McLeish, executive chef, Chapter One, Farnborough, Kent
“Mayonnaise is the king of sauces, we make it on site here and from it we make the sauce gribiche. Bought mayonnaise is never a patch on the real McCoy – there is nothing better than dipping fresh prawns in mayonnaise.”
SALSA vs BEARNAISE SAUCE
Judge: Bjorn van der Horst, chef-proprietor, the Eastside Inn, Clerkenwell, London
“Salsa: I like to dance!”
Winner (dubiously): salsa
GRAVY vs CUSTARD
Judge: James Mackenzie, chef-proprietor, the Pipe and Glass Inn, South Dalton, Yorkshire
“It’s got to be gravy. Where would roast beef and Yorkshire puddings be without that?”
MAYONNAISE vs SALSA
Judge: Shaun Rankin, chef, the Bohemia restaurant, Jersey
“I’m much more of a mayonnaise than a salsa man, because it’s so varied. I use it a lot with seafood and you can spice it up, make saffron or herb mayonnaise, put in some wholegrain mustard. The eggs you use are very important.”
HOLLANDAISE vs VELOUTE
Judge: David Cavalier, director of food, Charlton House
“Velouté is more versatile and can be used for chicken, veal and fish. The traditional and more modern way of making it means it’s very versatile. It can even be turned into soups.”
SAUCE VIERGE vs SOY
Judge: Jason Atherton, executive chef, Maze, London
“Vierge was made famous by Marco Pierre White in the 1990s, yet soy has so much heritage that it’s never going to fall out of favour – whereas vierge has to some extent. Soy will never stop being used, it will always be there even after we’re long-gone off this planet!”
GRAVY vs MAYONNAISE
Judge: Bruce Poole, chef-proprietor, Chez Bruce, Wandsworth, London
“Mayonnaise is quicker and more satisfying to make, whereas gravy takes donkeys’ years. We always make it by hand with raw egg yolks, and it’s pleasing to make because it’s so quick. Nice quality white wine vinegar, decent fresh mustard and nice fresh vegetable oil are crucial and it’s a nice vehicle for other things.”
VELOUTE vs SOY
Judge: Anton Edelmann, chef-patron, Anton’s, Bishops Stortford, Hertfordshire
“The winner hands down has to be velouté, just because of its versatility. Soy is very specific and you can only use it quite restrictively – with fish and marinades of course. Velouté goes beautifully with chicken, or even better, saddle of veal – it’s delicious.”
VELOUTE vs MAYONNAISE
Judge: Alain Roux, chef-patron, the Waterside Inn, Bray, Berkshire
“So difficult, but mayonnaise. It goes with everything, vegetables, fish or meat – against velouté which might be more difficult as a combination – and it’s got eggs in it and I love eggs. A cold mayonnaise makes a lovely accompaniment to cooked eggs, it can go with vegetables as a crudité or warmish vegetables cooked a l’anglais or with fish or meat.
It’s brilliant for seasoning salads as well, and the beauty of mayonnaise is that you can use any oil and flavour it depending on what you’re serving it with and what you’re feeling is. You can do it very quickly by hand, you don’t need any equipment or electricity. My favourite way is with asparagus or poached salmon, or sometimes just with French fries – obviously triple-cooked by Heston!” he laughs.
“It’s the first sauce I learned to make when I was seven or eight years old with my mum, and now I’m the one teaching it when I go to the local school to teach the kids on my adopt a school’ programme.”
The route to the final: a team of top chefs were asked to judge which of our 16 classic sauces deserved to go through to the final. Béarnaise was unlucky to go out on a technicality in the early stages
LAROUSSE GASTRONOMIQUE ON STOCKS
“A flavoured liquid base for making a sauce, stew or braised dish. A white stock is prepared by placing the ingredients directly into the cooking liquid; in a brown sauce the ingredients are first browned in fat. Sauces made from white stock are always called white sauces, whether they are basic or variation sauces (for example, allemande, poulette, aurore or suprême); all sauces made from brown stock are called brown sauces (for example espagnole, bordelaise, Bercy or piquante).”
White stock recipe, taken from Larousse Gastronomique
Bone an 800g shoulder of veal and a 1kg knuckle of veal, then tie them together with string. Crush the bones. Place the bones, meat and 1kg chicken giblets or carcasses in a sauce pan. Add 3.5 litres of water, bring to the boil and skim. Add 125g sliced carrots, 100g onions, 75g leeks (white part only), 75g celery and 1 bouquet garni. Season. Simmer gently for 31/2 hours. Skim off the fat and drain through a very fine sieve or, better, muslin.