Food & Drink

3 really easy sauces will make any dinner better

Clockwise from left: Spicy mango barbecue sauce, red wine sauce and peanut sauce.
Clockwise from left: Spicy mango barbecue sauce, red wine sauce and peanut sauce. Karen Kane/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS

If they’re done right, sauces, glazes, dressings, relishes, chutneys and salsas can dress up an otherwise boring meal.

Done smart, the transformation can be accomplished in a snap.

Leftover roast beef, pulled apart with forks, then dressed with sauce whipped up from ketchup, vinegar and brown sugar, creates the centerpiece of a completely different second-day meal. It can be served as barbecued pulled beef with a crusty baguette and arugula salad topped with olive oil, salt, pepper and a crumble of blue cheese. Better yet, stuff the bread with the beef and salad, for a sandwich. Either way, no one will think leftovers.

Pick the bones of Sunday’s roasted chicken dinner and top with a salsa of diced avocado mixed with minced red onion, chopped cilantro, fresh lime juice and salt. The combination can top a plateful of crispy tortilla chips that have been generously sprinkled with shredded cheddar cheese and popped into the oven for quick melting. Who doesn’t like nachos?

Pull a pack of pork chops from the freezer, defrost in the microwave and pan-fry them. Deglaze the pan with a splash of white wine, spoon in some apricot preserves or orange marmalade as well as a generous pat of butter. The sauce comes together before the chops even have a chance to cool off.

And there’s real science beneath it all. Just ask a scientist.

“Basically, what you’re doing when you add a sauce is you’re creating a scenario where more of the senses are stimulated,” said Leslie J. Stein, the director of science communications for the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

There are five accepted taste qualities: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami.

If you serve roasted chicken for dinner, a bite of that meat will stimulate the senses of umami as well as salty, Stein said.

But if you add a pan-Asian sweet-and-sour sauce to that same serving of chicken, the number of taste qualities doubles to include, yes, sweet and sour.

“You enhance your dinner with a far more complex flavor experience,” she said.

Shift gears and add a spicy-and-sweet barbecue sauce to that chicken, you’ve layered your meal with chemethesis, which actually triggers the touch system of the body by activating the nerve endings in the mouth and nose with a kind of chemical burn.

“It’s technically not a taste quality, but you’ve got an extra sensory sensation. It’s layering,” she explained. Other examples of chemethesis is the tingle of carbonation and the burn of mint.

In sum, adding a sauce or a salsa or a glaze makes for a richer dining experience.

DIY: Make your own condiments

There’s no sense in buying condiments when they can be made at home for pennies.

Cocktail sauce: Straight-up horseradish from a jar plus bottled ketchup make a tasty cocktail sauce. If you have a lemon, squeeze it in. If you have hot sauce, add a drop or two. It’s wonderful with fried salmon patties.

Horseradish-cream sauce: Add a couple of forkfuls of jarred horseradish to a cup or so of mayonnaise. Season with black pepper. If you have heavy, light or whipping cream, use it to thin the sauce. If not, milk is fine. Mix a teaspoon or two into mashed potatoes and serve with steak.

Honey-mustard dipping sauce: Combine equal parts mayonnaise and yellow mustard with a bit of honey, salt and pepper. This is good on grilled cheese, with chicken tenders and cubes of cheese.

Tartar sauce: Mix a little jarred sweet pickle relish and dash of ketchup into some mayo. It pairs wells with baked haddock.

Barbecue sauce: Combine ketchup with equal parts vinegar and something sweet – honey, corn syrup, molasses or brown sugar. Season with salt and pepper, and a squeeze of lemon if you have it. Want it spicy? Add red pepper flakes or hot sauce. Pour over meatloaf or combine with chipped ham.

Best Peanut Sauce

From This is delicious with sushi-style summer rolls or with chicken or pork satay.

1/2 cup crunchy peanut butter

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon sugar

2 drops hot pepper sauce

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 cup water

In a small bowl, stir together peanut butter, soy sauce, sugar, hot pepper sauce and garlic until well mixed. Gradually stir in water until texture is smooth and creamy.

Spicy Mango Barbecue Sauce

Adapted from Pierre Franey in The New York Times (1995). Made according to the directions, this is a tasty go-to with any roasted meat and even fish. But here’s a cheat: Puree the mango to a chunky consistency and combine with your favorite bottled barbecue sauce, and it’s even easier.

1 medium mango, peeled and sliced

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

1 cup ketchup

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons corn syrup

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce, or to taste

1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place mango in the bowl of a food processor and puree to a coarse texture.

In a saucepan, combine the olive oil, onion and garlic. Saute briefly over medium-high heat or until wilted. Add mango, ketchup, mustard, corn syrup, sauces, lemon juice and seasoning, stir and bring to a simmer.

Cook for 5 minutes. Remove and cool.

Red Wine Sauce

Adapted from “Simply Delicious,” by Paul Bocuse (Flammarion; 2015). Is there anything better with beef than a classic red wine sauce? This is beautiful with steak and leftover beef short ribs. This sauce is very thick. If you want it runny, use a full cup of wine.

3 shallots

1 medium onion

1 oil-packed anchovy fillet

3 1/2 tablespoons salted butter

1/2 cup burgundy

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Mince shallots, onion and anchovy in a food processor or by hand. Combine them in a medium bowl.

Heat butter in a skillet until melted. Add shallot mixture to the skillet. Cook over medium heat for about 6 minutes, until softened. Stir in wine. Once it starts to bubble at the edges, let it cook for about 2 minutes to form a slightly thickened sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste.

NOTE: If frying a steak, prepare sauce in the same pan after you remove the steak, so the brown bits become part of the sauce.