If you have ever been stumped over what to make for dinner, you know that often it isn’t because you don’t have ingredients at hand, but rather having to figure out what to do with them. That’s where knowing how to make delicious vegan sauces comes in. Sauces elevate a meal and they tie the ingredients together. Suddenly, a plate holding three food items becomes a composed dish that has purpose and identity. Everything is there for a reason. Knowing how to make your favorite sauces vegan gives you more options when it’s time to make dinner. It’s easy to substitute the animal-based ingredients found in many sauces with plant-based versions. Here are seven of my favorite sauces with tips on how to make and enjoy them:

1. Tomato Sauce

Every Sunday my mother made a big pot of tomato sauce for our Italian dinner of some kind of pasta. That pot of sauce would simmer for hours until it was rich, thick and decadent. Luckily, my mother also taught me how to whip up an equally delicious tomato sauce in just 20 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, basil and parsley are added for seasoning along with salt and pepper. 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. Sometimes I change it up a bit by sautéing mushrooms along with the garlic and onions. This makes it a meatier and more filling sauce. When I want my sauce to be spicier, I add red pepper flakes and sometimes, a bit of ground fennel for added depth.

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2. Alfredo Sauce

Alfredo sauce is usually made with cream, butter and Parmesan cheese. It is one of my favorite Italian sauces so you can bet I have a vegan version of it. I use raw cashews and almond milk to make a sauce that is rich, smooth, creamy and decadent. Not only is vegan Alfredo cruelty-free, it is much healthier than the traditional version. Although you might think fettuccine when you hear Alfredo, I prefer spiral pasta because the shape allows it to hold more sauce than a long noodle where most of the sauce just drips off. See my Creamy Rotini Alfredo with Asparagus and Peas for the full recipe.

3. Peanut Sauce

Speaking of noodles, I love eating cold noodles in peanut sauce. There are many versions of peanut sauce – Chinese, Thai, African – but most of the recipes share common ingredients such as ginger, garlic and coconut milk. When I make my version, I combine coconut milk, tamari, brown rice vinegar, Thai chile sauce, peanut butter and ginger to make a spicy and creamy peanut sauce. My Cold Rice Noodles in a Spicy Thai Peanut Sauce is the perfect appetizer or entrée for a warm summer day. You could also add peanut sauce to stir-fries, rice or use it as a dipping sauce for tofu satay.

4. Chile Sauce

Speaking of chile sauce, I often have trouble finding spicy chile sauce at my local market. That led me to make my own and it was much easier than I thought. Not to mention, I love the feeling of self-sufficiency I get when I know I’m not dependent on the store for ingredients. To make your own spicy chile sauce, combine 15 oz. of tomato sauce, ¼ cup tomato paste, ¼ cup apple cider vinegar, ¼ cup brown sugar, 2 chopped jalapeno peppers (or whatever peppers you like), a teaspoon each of garlic powder and chile powder, ½ teaspoon each of dry mustard and onion powder, ¼ teaspoon of allspice and 2 tablespoons of vegan Worcestershire sauce in a food processor. If you want it extra spicy, you can add a pinch of red pepper flakes. Process until smooth, taste for seasoning adjustments and keep in a jar in the fridge. Homemade chile sauce tastes even better than store-bought. I use chile sauce in tons of recipes including lots of Chinese dishes and my Braised Seitan Short Ribs in Spicy Chile Sauce.

5. Queso Cheese Sauce

Lately I have been craving nachos and you can’t have nachos without cheese. Well, you can but why would you want to when you can have ooey-gooey cheese covering those salty, crunchy chips? My Queso sauce is rich, thick and spicy. Here is how I make it: in a food processor, add 1 cup of raw cashews that have been soaked for at least 2 hours. Pulse them a few times to break them up. Add in 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar, 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, ¼ cup nutritional yeast, 2 cloves of garlic, ½ teaspoon each of turmeric, paprika and mustard powder and 1 cup of water. Process until you have a smooth sauce.

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Next we need to make a roux. In a small saucepan, heat 1 tablespoon of vegan butter or oil over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of chickpea flour (or flour of your choice) and whisk it into the butter or oil. Let it cook for a minute so there is no raw flour taste. While whisking, add 1 cup of room-temperature almond milk and continue whisking until the flour is completely incorporated and smooth. Stir in the cashew mixture, 2 cups of diced tomatoes and 4 oz. of green chiles. Season with salt and pepper. If you want it extra spicy, add a few dashes of hot sauce. This Queso cheese sauce is a perfect dip for tortilla chips or use it in other recipes such as enchiladas or vegan Tex-Mex Burgers.

6. Brown, Mushroom and White Gravy

Traditionally, gravy is made with butter, flour and milk. It is easy to make a cruelty-free and healthier version that is every bit as delicious. Growing up, I only ate brown gravy but I have come to appreciate white gravy as well. To make my Mushroom Gravy, melt 2 tablespoons of vegan butter in a saucepan (you can also use oil) over medium heat. Add 8 oz. of chopped white or cremini mushrooms and cook until browned, about 8 minutes. Season the mushrooms with thyme and garlic powder. Add 2 tablespoons of chickpea flour (or whatever flour you choose) and whisk until it is dissolved into the mushrooms and butter.

Let the flour cook out for a minute and then add 3 cups of vegetable broth. Whisk until the gravy is smooth. Mix in 2 teaspoons of vegan Worcestershire sauce. Let the gravy come to a boil and then reduce the heat and let it simmer until the gravy thickens. Season the gravy with salt and pepper, to taste. Of course, you can skip the mushrooms and just make the brown gravy by itself. It’s perfect for topping my Gluten-Free Vegan “Turkey” Cutlets  or a big plate of flaky biscuits.

To make white gravy, I melt 2 tablespoons of vegan butter in a saucepan and make a roux by stirring in 1/3 cup of chickpea flour. Let the roux cook until it is a golden color, about a minute or two. Whisk in 3 cups of non-dairy milk and 1 cup of vegetable broth. Add salt, pepper and a pinch of nutmeg. Continue whisking until the gravy is smooth and thick, about 5 minutes. If it gets too thick, add more milk or broth. Taste for seasoning. I make the white gravy to top my “Chicken-Fried” Tofu Steaks and Mashed Potatoes. It is smooth, rich and luxurious

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7. Pesto Sauce

My relationship with pesto used to be ambivalent. I had it once at a restaurant and loved it but when I had it again at another restaurant, I didn’t like it at all. Then I learned to make my own pesto and my relationship changed from one of ambivalence to love. And rebellion. You see, I have never made pesto with the traditional pine nuts. Instead, I prefer walnuts. They have a richer flavor and are much less expensive. You can use any kind of nut you like in pesto including peanuts, cashews and even pumpkin seeds. While I often use basil for my pesto, I like to change it up now and then by using other leaves such as parsley, cilantro, spinach, and kale. I even made a delicious pesto using radish greens. My third act of rebellion is that I use less oil than in most recipes.

My basic pesto recipe is: 4 cups of basil or any leaves you like, ½ cup of walnuts, 4 cloves garlic, 2 teaspoons lemon juice, 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast or vegan grated parmesan, ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil and salt and pepper to taste.  Combine all the ingredients except the oil into a food processor. Process the ingredients while streaming the oil in, until the pesto is smooth. A trick that will less you use less or no oil is to add in ½ an avocado for a healthy fat alternative. Pesto can be used as a dip or as a condiment on burgers and sandwiches. Loosen the pesto up with water and use it as a salad dressing or loosen it with starchy water from cooking pasta to make an incredible pasta sauce. Switch up your pizza sauce by spreading the dough with pesto before adding your favorite toppings. Yum!

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These seven sauces are the ones that I make most often since they are versatile and can be used in an endless number of recipes. By knowing how to make even just a few vegan sauces, your dinners can go from ordinary to extraordinary.

Image Source: Vegan and Gluten-Free Tempeh Meatballs