5 Common Sauce Mistakes and How to Fix Them

Marinara sauce

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Making sauces, instead of relying on products from jars, bottles or packets, is one of the most satisfying accomplishments for a home cook. Not only does a homemade sauce taste better, it's less expensive and you get to control what goes in it. In short, it's a major win.

But making sauces sometimes means making mistakes. Sauces that are too thick, too lumpy, separating, or just plain burnt. Here are 5 common sauce mistakes and tips on how to avoid them.

Marinara Sauce

The most common mistake with marinara sauce is overcooking it. This may have something to do with the notion "marinara sauce" is just a synonym for "tomato sauce," which it is not. Marinara sauce is traditionally a quick, light sauce made from tomatoes, olive oil and garlic.

Other tomato-based sauces might cook for a long time, like the slow-simmered sugo di pomodoro, or a meat ragù, in which you essentially slowly braise a piece of meat in tomato sauce. 

But with marinara, the goal is to cook the tomatoes as little as possible. Even if you use canned tomatoes, the sauce should keep its fresh flavor, along with the texture of the tomatoes. With marinara, if you've simmered it for longer than 20 minutes, you've probably killed it. 

The solution is to not do that! Use a good recipe and follow it. And resist the temptation to overload your marinara with extraneous ingredients. 

Cheese Sauce

Making your own cheese sauce for mac and cheese is a major upgrade from the powdered cheese sauce from a box. A homemade cheese sauce starts with a simple white sauce called bechamel, into which you stir shredded cheese. The starch in the bechamel helps keep the cheese sauce from separating. 

But the real key to making a smooth and velvety cheese sauce to evenly coat the macaroni is using the right cheeses. Plural.

The issue is young cheeses, like Monterey jack, melt smoothly, but don't have much flavor. Aged cheeses, on the other hand, like cheddar, have loads of flavor, but don't melt as well. They stretch, but don't fully melt. 

So if you use all cheddar for your cheese sauce, it's more likely separate into clumps of cheese surrounded by pools of oil. If you use all Monterey jack, it'll be perfectly smooth, but not as flavorful. Instead, try a ratio of two parts melty cheese like Monterery jack and one part stretchy cheese like cheddar. You can also add other cheeses like Gruyere or Emmental, which are about midway between jack and cheddar, as long as you keep the ratio of melty cheese to stretch cheese around 2:1. 

Hollandaise Sauce

Hollandaise is a classic emulsified sauce made by whisking melted butter into egg yolks. If you do it right, the result is creamy, smooth and buttery. Unlike other sauce mistakes, which are best avoided as opposed to trying to fix them, a broken Hollandaise sauce can absolutely be fixed.

One common hollandaise mistake is overcooking the egg yolks, and there's no coming back from that. But the most common problem is that the emulsion breaks, and you see streaks of liquid butter instead of a uniformly creamy sauce. It usually happens because of an issue with temperature, or too little (or too much) whisking. 

To fix that, try whisking a tablespoon of boiling water into your broken hollandaise, a drop at a time. If that doesn't work, pull out a new bowl, separate one egg and add the yolk only to the new bowl, then slowly pour in the broken sauce while whisking vigorously.

Pan Gravy

With gravy, it's all about texture. The two biggest mistakes are lumpy gravy, and gravy that's too thick or just plain gummy; these problems are related. A basic pan gravy starts with pan drippings from roasted meat or poultry and flour is whisked in to make a roux. Roux is an equal-parts mixture of fat and starch to thicken sauces. Once the roux is together, hot stock is whisked in, simmered for a bit until the consistency is right and the raw flour taste has cooked away.

The most common problems arise when the flour is not whisked in thoroughly into the pan drippings and/or while adding the stock to the roux and/or you adding the liquid too quickly. Any and all of these missteps can produce lumps. To prevent this, whisk briskly while adding the flour to the pan drippings, add the hot stock slowly and whisk briskly while doing so. And if your gravy should turn out lumpy, you can smooth it out with an immersion blender, or in a regular blender.

Likewise, it's easy to add too much flour. The consistency looks right to begin with, but as the gravy simmers, it thickens up until a spoon can almost stand up in it. If this happens, you can always bring the gravy back on the heat and whisk in more hot stock. 

Conversely, if your simmered gravy is too thin, make a small batch of roux in a separate pan before adding to the thin gravy. Adding dry flour directly to hot stock is guaranteed to to make a lumpy gravy. 

A takeaway rhyme for pan gravy making: Whatever you do, don't skip the roux!

BBQ Sauce

The most common mistake with barbecue sauce is a little different than the sauces above as the problem isn't in the making of it, it's in the how it is used. The biggest mistake home cooks make with their barbecue sauce is using it incorrectly, anywhere from using it as a marinade to too early in the cooking process.

Barbecue sauce is a sweet sauce, mostly made from ingredients like ketchup, brown sugar and/or molasses. The sugars in these ingredients will start to caramelize at about 320 F, and at 350 F, faster than the time it will take your protein to cook. It will start to smoke, blacken and burn but the inside will be raw. To avoid this, cook the meat, ribs or chicken three-quarters of the way, then brush and coat with the sauce before returning to the oven/grill to caramelize for the last quarter of cooking. The final product will be cooked through inside with all of the sweet and tangy notes of great barbecue on the outside.