Ask ten French chefs to make a Béarnaise sauce and each of the sauces will taste the same. Ask ten Italian chefs to make a Bolognese sauce and none of the sauces will taste the same. No reflection on the expertise of either group of chefs, but there is something about sauces that pique the creative drive of restaurant kitchens around the world.
When it comes to our business, especially as it pertains to pasta and pizza, there are so many ways to twiddle with a sauce, to give it an extra element of flavor, a depth of interest, and to stamp a particular sauce with a signature that is yours alone.
If your sauce is looking a little peaked, or just needs a good boost, worry not. The Sauce Doctor is in. Let’s see what kind of remedies he can come up with to improve the health and well being of your sauces. And, as the “Doctor” makes his recommendations, keep in mind that what applies to a pizza sauce could easily work for a pasta sauce. Interpretation and end use is left to your own design and needs. Nevertheless, I guarantee that your sauce will show an improvement.
THE HERB FAMILY
When using fresh herbs in a sauce, add them near the end of the cooking time. Putting them in too early will alter the taste, since fresh herbs do not hold up as well in heat as dried herbs.
Conversely, if you are using dried herbs in a sauce, put them in at the very beginning. Dried herbs need time (and heat) to rehydrate and round out their flavor.
Generally, you will need to add three times as much fresh herbs as dried herb in a recipe. For example, 3 tablespoons of fresh basil, or 1 tablespoon of dried basil.
Oregano and basil. Two of the most important herbs in a tomato-based sauce. Both are aromatics. Oregano adds a piquant flavor, while basil adds a fragrant sweetness to the sauce.
Bay leaf. This works well with tomatoes, but should be used with considerable care because of its intense flavor. Too much bay leaf may overpower the other flavors in the sauce.
Sage. This is not commonly used in a pasta or pizza sauce because the flavor is too pronounced. However, fresh sage used in conjunction with butter to dress, say, ravioli, is elegant and interesting.
Parsley. Definitely an unsung herb, but for it to be effective you need to use the flat-leaf or Italian type. Curly parsley is fine for a garnish, but that’s about as far as it goes.
Red pepper flakes (crushed, chilies). This is the sauce enhancer to use when a spicy heat effect is desired -in an arrabbiata sauce, for example.
More Sauce Pizzazz
Garlic. The ultimate sauce enhancer. Whether used fresh, sautéed, crushed, or chopped, garlic adds its own unique flavor interest. On the other hand, try to avoid garlic powder; it will add a bitter, heavy aftertaste to a sauce.
Some white sauces (Alfredo, for example) benefit from a hint of garlic.
Dried Mushrooms. There are a great many types of dried mushrooms available that can impart an intense, woodsy flavor to sauce. The mushrooms I most often use are dried porcini. Reconstitute them in warm water and strain the water through a fine-mesh cheesecloth. Save the water, which has a lot of flavor, and add it to the sauce along with the softened mushrooms.
A white sauce for pasta using heavy cream, rehydrated mushrooms and grated Parmesan cheese is one of my favorites.
Onion. An onion can add either sweetness or bitterness to a sauce, so proceed with caution. Fresh onions that have been chopped and sautéed with a pinch of sugar until very soft will add sweetness to a tomato-based sauce. Onions that are put in a sauce raw will cause a sauce to taste bitter.
A small amount of onion flavor helps to add zip to a white sauce, too.
Carrots. Carrots have a built-in natural sugar, so they are excellent for sweetening a sauce. Wash and skin a large carrot and cook it with sauce. Discard the carrot after the sauce is cooked.
Sun-dried tomatoes. For greater flexibility and lower cost, I suggest that you buy dried sun-dried tomatoes (as opposed to those packed in oil) and rehydrate them in boiling water. The flavor is very intense, so don’t go overboard.
Chicken stock or chicken broth. This gives a tomato sauce a quick flavor fix. Add about 1/4 cup of chicken stock or broth for each cup of tomato sauce. Use a little less than 1/4 cup if using stock to enhance a white sauce.
Beef stock. This is another excellent way to increase the flavor intensity of a red sauce. Again, about 1/4 cup of beef broth to 1 cup of tomato sauce.
Cream of the Crop
Heavy cream. A terrific sauce enhancer. Swirl some heavy cream into a tomato sauce a few minutes before taking it off the heat. The cream will add a softness and richness to the sauce and will cut some of the tomato acidity as well.
Sugar. You can use sugar to cut the acidity of tomato sauce, but use it sparingly. Too much sugar will give a sauce a bottled taste. Keep in mind that some of the best flavor in a tomato sauce comes from the natural acidity of the tomatoes, so don’t blot it all out.
Olive oil. If I have any secret sauce ingredient at all it would have to be olive oil. I like to swirl a tablespoon or two (relative to batch size) into a sauce about 10 minutes before the sauce is ready to come off the heat. Extra-virgin olive oil is always my first choice, as it adds fruitiness to the sauce, which is most appealing.
Capers. Capers packed in brine are the best kind to use, but rinse them under cold water before adding them to a sauce (to get rid of the brine). A little bit of capers goes a long way, so use them with care. Capers are indispensable to a spicy red sauce, like a puttanesca sauce.