Sauces You Should Know If You’re Trying To Level Up Your Cooking Game

Callisto Media // The World Sauces Cookbook

For anyone looking to diversify their culinary game, learning a few new sauces is a must. When I was writing the World Sauces Cookbook, it was always a pleasant surprise to note just how many different proteins a particular sauce could accommodate. A Rolodex of sauces at your disposal can heighten your standard fare and push you from “competent” to “skilled” in the kitchen. That’s a big level up.

Case in point, let’s says you’re in your comfort zone and know how to make grilled steak and French fries. A different sauce on each day of the week can take your taste buds on a completely separate journey each time you prep those two items. Whether you’re looking to wow a date, cooking for more people than you’re used to, or just looking to expand your gastronomic repertoire, these are the sauces that any home cook ought to know — plus recipes for three of my absolute favorites.

Mole PoblanoPueblo, Mexico

There are many variations of mole and most have a plethora of ingredients. For this reason, I feel like most people overlook making it at home. Also, they may have rightfully been led to believe that they will get it better elsewhere. However, a simple mole Poblano is fairly straightforward as it is tasty.

The mole I make most often comes from the grandfather of my Mexican friend Lola. Even though he is from Veracruz, his mole is an easy-to-make sauce that gets better each time you reheat it. An added bonus to making mole is that the leftovers are raging with flavor. I love making a batch and then eating it all week long. Make sure you get some bolillo bread rolls to help thicken things up.

Toum — Lebanon

Toum is a garlic emulsion not unlike alïoli in Spain or skordalia in Greece. Fair warning, this is for garlic lovers only — it straight up punches you on the nose. We in America tend to over-garlic everything, so this sauce is generally a hit (as our own food competing writers can attest). The secret to toum is achieving the perfect fluffiness and whiteness. This means using cooking oil like canola instead of olive, which will make it yellowish. Also, the authentic toum debate is decided on whether using an egg to emulsify the sauce is appropriate. I’ve heard historic defenses of both. If not using an egg, it’s important to add very carefully each portion of garlic and oil as you blend it so it doesn’t break. As an added bonus, it will last longer in the fridge. But using an egg is faster and easier to produce the desired outcome, your call.

Here’s the recipe from my pal TJ Trad, who as founder for Cura for the World, is as well-traveled as they come:


  • 1⁄2 cup garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg white, divided
  • 11⁄2 cups vegetable oil, divided 1⁄4 cup cold water, divided
  • 1⁄4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (from about 2 lemons)


  • Food processor


  1. Remove any green parts or stems from the garlic cloves (they tend to be sour) by degerming them. Slice each clove in half lengthwise, then use your finger to take out the little stem in the middle of the clove.
  2. In the food processor, process the garlic and salt for about one minute. Scrape down the sides for chunks, and process again.
  3. With the food processor running, very slowly add half of the egg white. Then very slowly add 1⁄2 cup of oil. Very slowly add a cup of water.
  4. With the processor still running, slowly add the remaining egg white, then another 1⁄2 cup of oil, then the remaining cup of water. Very slowly add the remaining 1⁄2 cup of oil, and finally, the lemon juice. This emulsification process should take about 15 minutes.

Pesto*Liguria, Italy

I learned to make pesto from my great aunt, Zia Elda, who has resided on the Italian Riviera for the better part of a century. It’s five ingredients: basil, olive oil, pinenuts, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and garlic. The key is the ratio between the leaves, oil, and cheese (you only need a bit of the nuts and garlic). You can test it all by dipping a spoon in the sauce. If it drips off too runny, add leaves. If it doesn’t run off at all, add oil. If the cheese is the first flavor you taste, lay off and add a bit more basil and oil.

*Like any regionally specific, protective food culture, my Ligurian family and I cringe when we hear the words “basil pesto.” Ask any Genovese and they’ll tell you pesto in its truest form is made with basil. All others should be defined by type – arugula pesto, kale pesto etc. – but please don’t say “basil pesto.”


If you like romesco, get to know Muhammara — its hip cousin that everyone adores. It packs a plethora of flavor. My Middle East and North African cuisine chops are decent, but they pale in comparison to my friend Kathryn, who runs the Assyrian food blog Cardamom & Tea. Her muhammara uses a secret weapon that, if you don’t use regularly, you should. Pomegranate molasses, or pom paste, is a sour delight that provides a tangy umami to everything it touches. It can be found at most international markets and it’s inexpensive. There’s a Persian brand that’s sweet and an Arab brand that is sourer. I prefer the sour side that can be sweetened up with sugar.


Harissa is the hot sauce your favorite hot sauce uses when no one is looking. It’s trendy to see green harissa in restaurants these days but the traditional color is that of it’s main ingredient: chilies. With complementary spices cumin and coriander, harissa is a staple of Maghreb cuisine. If getting a kebab in the middle of the night from Tunisia to Tangier, it’s not an uncommon sight to see the side of your sandwich slathered with the red goodness. And, it’s relatively simple to make a batch, store in an old sriratcha or ketchup bottle, and use as a condiment or cooking enhancer.

Quickly toasting the spices and chilies before grinding always adds a level of flavor but you can always skip this step in a rush and still achieve a dynamic, impressive sauce.

My recipe for Harissa Verte (Green Harissa) goes like this:


  • 2 teaspoons coriander seeds
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • 1⁄4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 4 jalapeño or green serrano chiles, stemmed and seeded
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 small handful fresh parsley
  • 1 small handful of fresh mint leaves
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • Salt

Special Equipment Needed

  • Spice grinder or mortar and pestle, food processor


  1. In a small, dry pan over medium heat, toast the coriander and cumin seeds for 1 to 2 minutes to release their flavors. Let cool, and grind in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle.
  2. In a medium skillet over medium heat, heat 1 tablespoon of oil. When hot, add the chiles and garlic and sauté for 3 to 5 minutes, until the edges brown.
  3. Transfer to a food processor, and add the ground spices, parsley, mint, lemon juice, and vinegar. As the processor runs, drizzle in the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil.
  4. Season with salt.

Chimichurri — Argentina

Oh, Chimi. How do I love thee? A lot, that’s how. A freaking lot.

A good chimi is just so damn versatile that I felt compelled to include it. I learned to make chimichurri in Bariloche, Argentina, hungover and recovering from seeing Manu Chao in an old gymnasium the night prior. Over Fernet and Cokes, empanadas and steak off the parrilla, I immediately came back to life due to the floral power punch of the parsley. My food writer friend Paula swears that you can’t use use oregano. For me, cilantro tastes like soap. So use what you feel, or have fresh, to compliment the parsley. Mint, tarragon or marjoram all work.

Pro tip: My mom puts just a drop of anchovy paste in hers. Or try a pickled onion.

Nam Jim — Thailand

Nam Jim is one of Thailand’s signature sauces. It may or may not seem like a no-brainer but the recipe my friend Alyssa makes is from another planet of flavor. If aliens came to visit us, they’d probably just visit Alyssa and her cooking school, grab the recipe and some necessary ingredients, and take off. The secret is tamarind pulp. It adds another layer of savory goodness you didn’t know existed. Combined with a bit of vinegar and caster sugar (extra fine granules but not so fine as powdered), this is a seductive sauce that you can, and will, put on everything.

When we make a batch and try to save it for later, my girlfriend and I each come back to the fridge to see a little has been taken each time. It’s that tempting you’ll eat it with a spoon. Everything I’ve made by Alyssa’s instruction, like Massaman Curry, is ambrosia. But her Nam Jim is otherworldly…

Here it is:

For the Tamarind Sauce

  • 11⁄4 cups water
  • 7 tablespoons seedless tamarind pulp
  • 1⁄4 cup fish sauce

For Nam Jim

  • 2 tablespoons dried serrano chiles (or chiles of choice) soaked in warm water for 30 minutes and drained
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon chopped shallot
  • 1 tablespoon chopped coriander root (or chopped)
  • 1⁄4 cup granulated palm sugar
  • 2 tablespoons white vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons super ne or caster sugar
  • Fresh cilantro stalk
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin; see Ingredient tip)
  • 1 tablespoon chopped onion 11⁄2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • Salt

Instructions for Tamarind Sauce

  1. In a small saucepan, boil the water. Take the pan o the heat, and add the tamarind pulp. Remove from the heat, let sit for 30 minutes, and stir until mixed. Squeeze through a sieve to remove any pulp or plant mass. You should end up with just over 3⁄4 cups liquid concentrate. Add a bit more water if necessary.
  2. Heat a wok or large skillet over high heat. Add your tamarind concentrate, and bring to a boil. Add the sh sauce and then the palm sugar.
  3. When everything is dissolved, add the vinegar and caster sugar. Turn the heat to low and cook for 5 minutes, until the tamarind sauce is thick and syrupy. Set aside.

Instructions for Nam Jim

  1. In the food processor, blend the chiles, garlic, shallot, coriander root, onion, and 3 tablespoons of your tamarind sauce until you have a paste.
  2. In a small skillet over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the paste, and bring to a simmering boil. Stir to combine.
  3. Lower the heat. Add the remainder of the tamarind sauce, and season with salt. Remove from the heat and let cool.

Mango ChutneySri Lanka & India

My Sri Lankan friend Sonali puts it emphatically: “Who gets remembered for bringing something to the party? The person who brings the mango.” Chutney is an ideal product of old or expiring mangoes, and I find adding whatever is on hand only enhances the experience. Figs during fig season are a compliment worth fighting for, as are black currants. The tangy-sweet outcome is bolstered by a healthy amount of heat, whether it be from black pepper, chili flakes or something a bit more earthy like nigella seeds, the mango flavor is powerful enough to hold up. This is another sauce that’s a favorite of mine to cook with or use as a marinade.

Nuoc MamVietnam

In Vietnam, nuoc mam is like ketchup in that they put it on everything according to Chef Nini Nguyen, contestant on Season 16 of Top Chef. Chef Nini taught me her family recipe for the book, which I would’ve sequestered and guarded with my life if it weren’t so mind-blowingly delicious. The ingredients are simle so focus on execution: garlic or ginger, bird eye chilies, sugar, fish sauce and lime juice. Regional differences include vinegar for acid in the North and coconut water for sweetness in the South.


Georgian food and wine is about to blow up. It’s secretly “next.” And tkemali, in my opinion, is its crown jewel. It’s a plum sauce made with a green or red cherry plum called alycha. It’s tart, sweet and dances on the tongue when complimenting lyulya kebabs (think shish kebabs) or a variety of other proteins. You can cook it down to a thicker dipping type sauce or keep it runny to pour over fish. The best part? Getting to explore the Georgian seasonings that flavor tkemali.

Blue fenugreek — it’s relative of the stronger fenugreek seed common in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine — is a Georgian herb that grows wild in the northern, mountainous part of the country. Svaneti salt is a garlic spice mixture from that region which will change your spice life. If you’re looking for one plum sauce, this is it.

Bonus Sauce: Comeback SauceMississippi, USA

Comeback sauce is a sibling of Creole remoulade that holds back on the capers and citrus juice. Think of spicy, sexy mayonnaise that has a umami level and a touch of sweetness, either from honey or otherwise. Comeback sauce is great on burgers, steak, fatty seafood like salmon or just as an appetizer dipping sauce. Legendary Southern Chef Martha Hall Foose, whose has a comeback sauce version in the book, calls it “heaven on a cracker.”

Easy to make. Easy to keep. It’s Thousand Island Dressing on steroids.

Mark C. Stevens’ second book, the World Sauces Cookbook is available for pre-order on Amazon. His first book Cooking with Spices came out in 2017.