Commonplace Vol. 3 Issue 4
In which the writer engages in some very precise rambling, if such a thing exists, about sauces
Hello! This issue of Commonplace stems from a question that came in in response to an issue of Gentle Decline. Claudia asked, “How do I make sauces if my go-to processed sauces are not available: rice sauces ready made, soy sauce, stock cubes, pasta sauces, etc?“ So today I’m going to talk about sauces, at least partially in the context of off-the-shelf sauces not being available.
[ Commonplace is an occasional newsletter about food and food history. Drew, who needs to eat as well as read and ramble, has a Patreon page, about which people have said some nice things of late. Show your support, enable Drew’s book-buying habit, and get a look at the behind-the-scenes thinking on both this newsletter and Gentle Decline. Sign up today! ]
(The MidJourney AI imagines that sauce comes in a bottle, is vaguely red, and has some fruity-vegetabley things around it for presentation purposes.)
First, “sauce” is a very large category of foods. As it’s used in English, it covers everything from essentially-the-core-of-the-dish-itself (Bolognese, Carbonara) to mostly-invisible-ingredient (Worcestershire), to condiments (ketchup, mayonnaise, soy sauce, hot sauce) to things that are almost free-standing dishes (apple sauce) to dessert-things (raspberry sauce). And there’s the famous-while-I’m-writing but almost certainly old-news-by-the-time-you-read-this Pink Sauce from TikTok. Almost the only thing you can say about all of these things is that they are more liquid than solid. But what Claudia is asking about is the thing-that-comes-from-the-shop, that you add to food, and this is largely a modern thing, largely invented by the Victorians.
I say “largely” because I know fine well that there are sauces from the medieval era - from Baghdad, specifically - which were supplied in a dried form, and to which you’d add vinegar or wine to rehydrate them and add them to whatever meat you were cooking. I have recipes to make these, from al-Warraq, and more recipes that use them. I am pretty sure you could buy them, probably in many variations, in the markets of the era.
But rather than delve too far into the history of sauce as a concept, or specific historical sauces, let me get on with answering the how-do-I-make question, and I can comment as I go. It should be added that I very rarely buy cooking sauces, and only use condiment sauces sparingly, and those are the two major divisions I’m going to talk about as we go.
So, sauces for dishes with rice. Since I know Claudia doesn’t like hot spices, I am thinking here of sweet-and-sour sauces, oyster sauce, ginger-and-spring-onion, teriyaki, and the like, rather than curries or Indian dishes. And let me hasten to add: I am very much not an expert in Chinese, Japanese, or Indian cookery; I can fake up a few approximate-in-those-directions meals.
Modern cookery directs you to cook the meat or vegetables or whatever, and pour the sauce-from-a-package over it (possibly heating it separately), but that’s not really how such sauces work if you’re cooking from scratch - it’s more a case of adding small amounts of strong-tasting ingredients (including herbs and spices) as you’re cooking, and including some kind of liquid which will coat your rice when it’s served, and help the other tastes mix through evenly. Bonus points if your liquid has a strong taste itself.
So here (with commentary, and as an example) is a version of sweet-and-sour chicken in a vaguely-Chinese-but-definitely-not-authentic direction. Start with an onion, and chop it roughly, so that you end up with chunks about 5mm on a side (or as your tastes prefer, really). Fry the onion gently in some suitable oil (I use sunflower for this), until it softens a bit. Chop some peppers (capsicum, sweet pointed peppers, whatever kind you like) down to small-ish slices and add them to the pan, and fry for a bit longer. Now take chunks of chicken (diced chicken breast is ok; I currently like chicken thigh fillets which I chop into about 2cm-on-a-side pieces) and add them to the pan, and continue to fry gently. At this stage, you have a mix of the oil in the pan, whatever liquids the onion and peppers have released, and some of the meat juices from the chicken. You have the basics of a sauce now, and if you add a little salt and pepper and a spoon or two of hot water, you will have a perfectly valid sauce right there - not exciting, but certainly palatable.
To get to sweet-and-sour, though, we need to add both those tastes. Additionally, there’s a texture thing here, and maybe a colour one. In sauce-from-a-jar, those latter two are both achieved by adding very specific processed ingredients; we’re going to get there by more natural means. Do add the salt and pepper from above, but not the water. Also chop up a good-sized tomato and add it, and scatter in about a half-teaspoon of ground cloves. You can use ground ginger here as well, but it’s even better if you can get ginger root and grate it in. Aficionados of hotter foods can add some chilli in some form at this stage. And Chinese five-spice is at least thematic.
So first, sweet. My best recommendation here is pineapple juice. You could use apple juice or orange juice, or nearly any sweet fruit juice, but pineapple has a characteristic tang that works well. However, if you go for cans of pineapple chunks, you get a double effect - the fruit works as an ingredient, and the juice it comes in provides liquid. Maybe don’t add all the juice in the can straight away, though. Whole pineapples are an option too; peel and chop one and put it in. Next, sour. In medieval recipes, this comes from verjus, which is still a very good option if you can get hold of it. Failing that, you want vinegar. NOT malt vinegar! Wine or cider vinegar is the right direction here, and not a lot of it; it’s strong. Maybe a tablespoon for the average frying pan.
At this stage, you should have your vegetables and meat in a bubbling, still-fairly-liquid sauce, which probably has about the right taste, but it has neither the texture nor the colour that’s expected. Colour can be got by adding a little saffron. You don’t add it directly to the pan, though; take a few threads of the stuff, put them in a small cup, and add a little hot water (a few minutes off the boil) - maybe 40ml. Let that infuse for 15-20 minutes, and then add it to your pan. Texture can be got by either adding cornflour - in small amounts, half-teaspoons at a time; it’s a very powerful thickener - or by just cooking down the whole pan until evaporation makes it thicker and a bit more jelly-like. I favour the cooking down approach because it tends to infuse the actual chicken a bit more.
And there you have sweet-and-sour chicken with no separate sauce. Serve with rice, usually. The same thing applies to a lot of sauces; they’re cooked with and from the food they’re served ‘over’. Recipes - or processes - like this are definitely more complex and more time-consuming than opening a jar, but I also feel they make better meals. There’s certainly less in the way of salt, sugar, and artificial preservatives in there.
Could you make the sauce for this, or other meals, separately and store it in advance? Sure you could. But you’re then doing two sets of cooking, and unless you go to the trouble of canning your sauce (which doesn’t necessarily mean using cans; canning is a preservation method which can use jars too), it’s not going to last for very long. So cooking large batches and storing them isn’t viable, and your two cooking sessions come very close together. And you don’t get the taste benefit of the sauce cooking being integrated with the meat and vegetables.
Pasta sauces are similarly best made by cooking them from scratch with the meat (or vegetables, if you’re into that). There are as many “definitive” recipes for Bolognese as there are opinionated cooks, but if you fry some chopped onions, add a bit of garlic, salt and pepper, add minced beef or pork, fry until browned, add a can of chopped tomatoes (or chop some fresh ones), throw in some Italian herbs (oregano, basil, thyme, rosemary and marjoram, or just buy the Italian Seasoning mix), and maybe some tomato puree if you want a stronger taste, you’ll be in the general region. The addition of other vegetables, chopped small, after you’ve browned the meat, will improve it too - carrot and celery are good.
Carbonara is a different thing, and I’ll go so far as to say that carbonara sauce in a jar is wrong. Not that it’s not a perfectly acceptable sauce in its own right, but it’s not carbonara. To make carbonara, you fry some pancetta and garlic in butter, you dump the cooked pasta into the pan with them, and then you take it off the heat, pour over a mixture of beaten eggs and pecorino and parmesan cheeses, and stir it so that the egg-and-cheese mix forms a sauce in the heat of the pasta. Some people add a little of the pasta water back in; I tend to like it stickier. There is no cream. Cream is for pasta alfredo. And since the eggs and cheese form the sauce on the pasta, you can’t get actual carbonara sauce in a jar, only some fake stuff claiming the name.
That more or less leaves us with the condiment sauces - ketchup, soy sauce, sawse vert if you’re feeling medieval, various hot sauces, and so on. These vary wildly in their making, but you can usefully make them in advance. I don’t, though - soy sauce is an absolute pain to make on a small scale, but is cheap and profitable enough on a commercial basis that I don’t really expect there’ll ever be a shortage of it. It also keeps for a very long time. If I want sawse vert, it’s easily made fresh - it’s literally just finely chopped herbs in a medium of olive oil and a bit of vinegar. I don’t like ketchup, so I’ve never tried to make it. Chutneys and such are made fairly easily, although I don’t think I know anyone for whom chutney is a frequent food - it tends to sit in our fridge for months at a stretch, unused. Hot sauces may actually be worth making (I have an excellent plum hot sauce that Eva made in the fridge right now), but I can’t imagine that they’ll be in such short supply that it’ll be needful, per se.
Finally, stock cubes. Honestly, I don’t expect stock cubes to be unavailable for any length of time - they’re not a terribly complex thing to make, they’ve been around in some form since the Victorian era, and they have a shelf-life that approaches infinity. But if you can’t get stock cubes, stock itself is one of the easiest things to make - put some vegetable scraps, offcuts of meat, bones, and the like into water with some herbs you like, simmer for a few hours, strain the result and lo: stock.
Since I don’t really use pre-made sauces, I haven’t noticed if they’re under pressure from supply line issues, COVID effects, or the like. On the one hand, they’re moderately complex processed foods. On the other, they keep for a long time, are relatively easy to transport, and take no particular harm from sitting in a traffic queue in Dover or the like. But they’re relatively easy to replace, and you will arguably have better food from it.
Speaking of supply lines, though, a fairly public figure in Ireland, Pat McDonagh of Supermac’s, has said that he’s expecting some food shortages this winter, and to stock up on long-shelf-life foods. Obviously, some of that is the Independent (a known rag, for all that it’s one of the country’s major newspapers) looking for clicks, but McDonagh can reasonably be expected to know at least a bit about how food supplies work. With costs of just-about-everything rising, and energy looking a little dodgy for this winter, it’s worth giving some thought to making preparations. This sort of thing is covered in much more detail in Gentle Decline, my thriving-in-climate-chaos newsletter, so I’m not going to repeat much of it here.
I expect the next issue to be about garden successes and failures, and how this year’s foraging looks. This issue has been brought to you by the very broad concept of sauce, a fine raspberry harvest, observations of acorns and hazelnuts, and some actual summer heat, not that I liked it much. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.