Done right, sauces, glazes, dressings, relishes, chutneys and salsas can amount to, ahem, the icing on the cake of an otherwise humdrum 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 second-day meal with a completely different flavor profile. 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 the gleanings 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, pan-fry then plate them. De-glaze the pan with a splash of white wine, spoon in some apricot preserves or orange marmalade as well as a generous pat of salted butter. The sauce comes together before the chops even have a chance to cool off. With steamed broccoli on the side, the plate is a colorful clarion call to the dinner table.
A homemade accoutrement for any entree, even ones such as a grilled ribeye or seared sushi-grade tuna steak that stand tall on their own, will elevate the meal. It’s all about layering.
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.
People detect five basic taste qualities — sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory.
Each taste quality is stimulated by specific chemicals, which are recognized by receptors on cells located in taste buds within the mouth. Taste stimuli need to dissolve in saliva before they can be detected by the receptors. Dissolved chemical stimuli come into contact with receptors located at the tips of taste buds. Most taste buds are located in papillae — the small rounded bumps you see on the tongue’s surface. Some taste buds are also found on the roof of the mouth, epiglottis and throat.
Most people like a sweet taste probably because the brain associates sweet taste with energy for the body.
Salty taste is thought to signal sodium, which is necessary for survival. The receptors for salty and sour tastes still are not well defined.
Taste can signal danger, as many poisons taste bitter. However, not all bitter-tasting foods are poisonous.
Savory also is known as umami, which translates to delicious essence in Japanese. Umami is the taste of glutamate, an amino acid found throughout the human body and in protein-containing foods. Glutamate elicits a sensation that often is described as brothy, full-bodied, meaty and savory. For a umami taste, think of chicken broth, a ripe beefsteak tomato or Parmesan cheese.
Spiciness of food is conveyed through a third sensory system known as chemical irritation. Chemical irritation is a warning system that tells us when the body’s surface may be harmed from chemicals. This system involves the trigeminal nerve, which has thousands of nerve endings in the nose, mouth, throat and eyes. The nerve endings sense and respond to the sting of ammonia, the coolness of menthol and the burn of chili peppers or ginger. We often enjoy these sensations, as well as bubbly drinks, when the chemicals are present in small amounts.
Research at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia has shown taste sensitivity and food preferences could change across the lifespan.
Although most people think that flavor is the same as taste, that’s not true. The distinctive flavor of most foods and drinks comes more from smell than it does from taste. Sugar has a taste (sweet), but strawberry actually is a smell. An airway between the nose and mouth lets people combine aroma with the five basic tastes to enjoy thousands of flavors.
— From the Monell Chemical Senses Center
BEST PEANUT SAUCE
This sauce is delicious with sushi-style summer rolls. You can use it for chicken or pork satay, as well.
½ cup crunchy peanut butter
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon white sugar
2 drops hot pepper sauce
1 clove garlic, minced
½ 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
This sauce made according to the directions would be 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 yummy and easier yet.
1 medium mango, peeled and sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup finely chopped onion
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
2 tablespoons corn syrup
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce, or to taste
1½ 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 ketchup, mustard, corn syrup, sauces, lemon juice and seasoning, stir and bring to a simmer.
Cook for 5 minutes. Remove and let cool.
— Adapted from Pierre Franey in The New York Times (1995)
RED WINE SAUCE
Is there anything better with beef than a classic red wine sauce? This is beautiful with fine steak and also leftover beef short ribs. Be forewarned, even with a half cup of wine, this sauce is very thick. If you want it runny, use a full cup of wine.
1 medium onion
1 oil-packed anchovy fillet
3½ tablespoons salted butter
½ 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.
FYI: If frying a steak, prepare sauce in the same pan in which the steak was fried so the brown bits can be deglazed to become part of the sauce.
— Adapted from “Simply Delicious,” by Paul Bocuse (Flammarion; 2015)