On TV cooking competition shows, one of the worst offenses (other than too little salt) is not making a sauce for a dish. Without a sauce, you have only a plate with two or three components, but with a sauce, you have a composed dish. In my own kitchen, I have found this to be absolutely true. Sauces elevate a meal and tie the ingredients together so they each have purpose and identity. Everything on the plate seems to be there deliberately, rather than randomly.
Knowing how to make sauces also gives you more options when it comes time to make dinner. Sauces can turn any ingredient, such as a block of tofu or a pile of mushrooms, into a variety of different dishes. Before you reach for jarred or packaged sauces, read on. It’s easy to make your own savory sauces with just a few ingredients. Here’s how to do it.
1. Pan Sauce
Let’s start with the easiest–a pan sauce. Let’s say you just pan-fried some tofu or sautéed a pan filled with savory mushrooms. Once you scoop out your cooked food, there’s a lot of flavor left in that pan in the form of little browned bits called the fond. That can be the foundation of a delicious sauce.
Just leave the pan on medium heat and add an aromatic such as chopped shallots, onion, or garlic, and cook them until they soften. Then, deglaze the pan with a liquid such as broth, balsamic vinegar, or wine. Pour the liquid in and use a wooden spoon to scrape up the browned bits from the pan. Simmer until the liquid reduces by half. Then, add flavor with Dijon mustard, tamari, capers, lemon juice, or herbs. Turn off the heat and finish the sauce with a pat of vegan butter. Add salt and pepper to taste and then spoon this luscious sauce over your food. My Tofu Piccata has a garlicky, lemony pan sauce that’s fast and easy to make.
2. Mushroom Gravy
Everything’s better with gravy! Gravy is similar to pan sauce, except it’s usually prepared separately. Mushroom gravy is seriously the best thing that can happen to your mashed potatoes or mashed cauliflower. Simply sauté sliced or chopped mushrooms (any type) in a bit of oil or vegan butter. Let them get brown and savory, about 8-10 minutes. Season them with thyme, black pepper, and chopped garlic.
Add 2 tablespoons of flour (I use chickpea flour so it’s gluten-free) and whisk until it’s dissolved into the mushrooms. Let it cook for a minute and then mix in 2 teaspoons of vegan Worcestershire sauce, or a mixture of tamari and balsamic vinegar. Add a few cups of vegetable or mushroom broth and whisk until smooth. Let the gravy come to a boil, reduce the heat, and let it simmer until it thickens. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. This is the gravy I make for my Gluten-Free Vegan “Turkey” Cutlets. Other delicious recipes include this Easy Mushroom Gravy, Savory Mushroom Gravy, Crispy Breaded Chickpea Cutlets with Mushroom Gravy, and Mini Stuffed Seitan Roasts With Instant Mushroom Gravy.
3. Marinara Sauce
Every Sunday, my mother made a big pot of tomato sauce for our Italian dinner. It would simmer for hours until it was rich, thick, and so decadent. My mother’s sauce was so good that years later, I don’t like most tomato sauces I taste. I learned how to make Mom’s sauce, but she also taught me how to make a quick marinara sauce in less than 30 minutes. My Mom’s Marinara Sauce, as I call it, involves sautéing onion and garlic in olive oil and then adding crushed and diced tomatoes to the pot. Oregano, fennel, basil, and parsley are added for seasoning, along with salt, pepper, and a pinch of red pepper flakes. After 20 minutes of simmering, the sauce is thick and ready to be used with your favorite Italian recipes like Ooey-Gooey Baked Ziti or Spaghetti and Tempeh Meatballs.
Other marinara recipes to try include this Twenty Minute Homestyle Marinara, The Only Tomato Sauce You’ll Ever Need, and How to Make Fresh Marinara Sauce. If you want to make your sauce “meaty,” just start by sautéing tempeh, chickpeas, or TVP in the pan and then build your sauce. Try this Chickpea “Meat” Sauce over Pasts Shells and this Tempeh Marinara in Spaghetti Squash.
4. Alfredo Sauce
Marinara and other tomato-based sauces are delicious, but Alfredo is one of my absolute favorites. Usually, it’s made with cream, butter, and Parmesan cheese but there are several ways to make vegan versions of it. Sometimes I use raw cashews, almond milk, and nutritional yeast to make a rich, smooth, and creamy sauce. See my Creamy Rotini Alfredo with Asparagus and Peas for the full recipe. Other times, I use a combination of thick coconut milk, starchy pasta water, and vegan grated parmesan to make the Alfredo sauce. See the recipe for my Spicy Alfredo with Greens and Garlicky Broccoli, which can be ready in no time at all. I make a lighter version of this by using lite coconut milk and fresh lemon juice, similar to this Lemon-Butter Fettuccine with Parsley and Pine Nuts.
Alfredo sauce can also be made using other nuts and seeds like this Creamy Pumpkin Seed Alfredo with Kale and Sweet Peas. Creamy Alfredo-type sauces can be even healthier when made with cauliflower. Try this Fettuccine Alfredo with Zucchini Pasta & Cauliflower Sauce, Vegetable Rigatoni with Creamy Cauliflower Sauce, and Spaghetti Squash With Basil and Creamy Cauliflower Alfredo Sauce. For more, see How to Make a Creamy, Lower Calorie, Dairy-Free Alfredo Sauce.
5. Cheese Sauce
Not only can you make a delicious cheese sauce without dairy, but there are also so many different ways to do it. You can start with a classic béchamel sauce and then add vegan cheese or nutritional yeast. That’s how I do it most of the time, and that’s how I made the cheese sauce in this Baked Macaroni and Cheese and my Moussaka Burger with Béchamel Cheese Sauce. Another method is to use cashews as the base and then add the other ingredients for flavor, like in this Green Chile Nacho Cheese Sauce and this Spicy Vegan Cheese Sauce. Maybe you don’t want to use nuts at all; try using seeds. This Heirloom Carrot Pasta has a cheese sauce made with sunflower seeds
Vegetables can be used to make cheese sauce, too! This Super Creamy Mac and Cheese (No Nuts, No Soy, No Problem!) has a cheese sauce made with cauliflower and butternut squash, along with hemp seeds and rice milk. Pumpkin purée is used to make the cheese sauce in this Mac ‘N Squash. This Fat-Free Vegan Cheese Sauce is made with Yukon gold potatoes and zucchini, with nutritional yeast and paprika, while this Life-Changing Cheese Sauce is made with potatoes and carrots. You can also use white beans to make a cheese sauce. Simply blend cannellini or Northern beans with nutritional yeast, seeds, or nut-free, soy-free vegan cheese. By adding nooch to this Great Northern Bean Dip, you can have a thick, creamy cheese sauce that would taste great.
6. Peanut Sauce
Peanut sauces are used in many global cuisines including Chinese, Thai, and African. They share some common ingredients such as peanuts, peanut butter, tamari, ginger, garlic, and coconut milk. They can be smooth and creamy or rich and spicy. My Cold Rice Noodles in Spicy Thai Peanut Sauce has a combination of coconut milk, tamari, brown rice vinegar, Thai chile sauce, peanut butter, and ginger. Just mix it all together in a saucepan until it’s thick and smooth. So easy! A similar recipe is this Chilled Peanut Noodles dish. Peanut sauce can be used in a stir-fry type dish, like this Vegetable Lo Mein with Creamy Peanut Sauce and this Peanut Noodle Stir-Fry with Vegetables.
Peanut sauce also makes a delicious dipping sauce. Try these Fresh Veggie Summer Rolls with Spicy Garlic Peanut Sauce, Tofu Vegetable Kebabs with Peanut Sauce, Fresh Veggie Spring Rolls with Peanut Satay Sauce, Chicken-Free Satay with Peanut Dipping Sauce, and Jackfruit Satay Skewers with Peanut Sauce.
7. Hollandaise Sauce
Hollandaise sauce is a classic sauce usually made by whisking clarified butter into warm egg yolks. It’s rich, creamy,e and tangy and probably most known for being served with Eggs Benedict or over asparagus. When I make hollandaise sauce, I start by making a roux with equal parts of vegan butter and flour (usually chickpea flour). Then, I whisk in canned full-fat coconut milk if I want it really rich, or any non-dairy milk if I want it lighter. The flavor comes from a bit of Dijon mustard, lemon juice, cayenne pepper, salt, and pepper, plus ground turmeric for color. Let it all simmer until it’s thick and delicious and serve it warm.
I served mine in my Asparagus Tofu Tartines With Light Hollandaise Sauce. A similar recipe is found in this Eggs Benny Meets Flo Florentine-style dish. Instead of making the classic roux, hollandaise sauce can also be made with a cashew base as in this Portobello Florentine With Lemony Hollandaise Sauce. Serve this type of sauce over any veggies or a tofu scramble for a decadent dish.
Once you know how to make your own savory sauces, anything you make will instantly be elevated into a delicious, composed dish. Have fun experimenting with different ingredients and flavors and you’ll find the variety of dishes you can make will be endless.
Lead image source: Life-Changing Cheese Sauce