Are you one of those people who “can’t cook” anything without instructions on the package?
Or maybe you are great at following recipes but can’t imagine throwing herbs into a pot from your hand or creating a “new” recipe out of your head?
You can learn some of those skills from Katie’s Better Than a Box cookbook, but today I’ve got four easy homemade sauces that will make you feel like a pro chef – and add so much flavor to your meals! Read on to learn how to make
- marinara sauce
- teriyaki sauce
- herby olive oil sauce
- spicy peanut sauce.
How I Learned to Cook for Real
My own style of cooking was born when I was 11 or 12 years old and decided I wanted to be able to make some things by just pouring an ingredient into my hand until it “looks like enough.”
I had watched my mother and grandmother do this, so I asked my mother to show me how to make a basic homemade marinara sauce for spaghetti, my favorite food.
That basic marinara framework led me to experiment with different proportions, variations on ingredients (like fresh vs. dried onion), adjustments in the order in which ingredients were added, and trying extra ingredients – all the while refining my sense of “needs more oregano” and “needs to simmer longer.”
During my teenage years, I developed a reputation for my spaghetti sauce among family and friends, which bolstered my confidence for trying other not-really-recipe frameworks for cooking and seasoning food.
You can learn to “act like a chef” too! (note from Katie: In the Kids Cook Real Food eCourse, I teach kids how to cook doing just this – measure into their hands and test different spices. It’s fun and empowering!)
Here are guidelines for making 4 different sauces to enliven your meals.
All of them are flexible, easy to customize to your taste. Two of them are ready in 5 minutes or less.
The two cooked sauces can be taken off the heat at any time if you need to answer the phone, attend to a baby, etc. There is no nerve-wracking “whisk constantly” step in any of these sauces! They are great starting points for new cooks who want to improve their skills, or for anyone who wants to learn a new sauce.
Homemade Marinara Sauce
This Italian-style meatless tomato sauce is great over pasta, in dishes like lasagna or Stuffed Shells, on pizza, on a grilled-cheese sandwich, as a dip for string cheese or fried zucchini strips. You can even turn it into creamy tomato soup!
- Tomato puree from a can – or tomatoes you have cooked and pureed, or tomato paste mixed with water. The canned product called “tomato sauce” has salt added, so if you use that, don’t add more salt. I typically use a #10 can of tomato puree (about 106 oz.) to make a nice big batch of sauce that lasts for several meals.
- Onion – It’s best to use fresh white, yellow, or red onion. I have used green onion, but that isn’t as good. Dried minced onion flakes give a sharper, less rich flavor. A #10 can of tomato puree goes with a whole large onion; if you are making a smaller amount of sauce, use a smaller onion or a fraction of a large one.
- Garlic – You can use fresh cloves of garlic, crushed or minced; roasted cloves of garlic, mashed; preserved minced garlic from a jar; garlic powder; or granulated garlic. If you have garlic scapes (flower stalks from garlic plants), dice them and cook them with the onion. #10 can = 5 or more cloves of garlic or a couple teaspoons of powdered/granulated.
- Basil – fresh or dried, finely chopped. #10 can = about 2 Tbsp. of dried basil.
- Oregano – fresh or dried, finely chopped. #10 can = about 2 Tbsp. of dried oregano.
- Salt – not much, and you may be able to skip it if including any ingredients with salt in them. #10 can = about 1 tsp. of salt.
- Olive oil – just enough to keep the onions from sticking to the pot.
- Parsley – fresh or dried, finely chopped. (Not all of the parsley shown in the photo went into my sauce! I used 4 stalks in the sauce and put the rest in the cheese filling of my lasagna.)
- Black pepper
- Vegetables – bell peppers, kale, spinach, zucchini, etc. Marinara is a great way to use up odds and ends of veggies! Some are best added with the onions, while others can wait until the onions have browned a bit and then go into the pot for a minute or two before you add the tomato puree. Vegetables that have been frozen and thawed work just fine. I used a thawed red pepper in this sauce.
- Seaweed – A little kelp or dulse disappears into marinara and adds nutrients (and salt).
- Apple – No, really! Cook it with the onions to add a lovely sweetness (and fiber) to the sauce and reduce the “bite” of the onions. You can see an apple in my photo above of the ingredients in my most recent marinara.
- Turnip – I’m serious! It has an effect similar to apple. Cook it with the onions.
- Red wine – Add a glug about halfway through the simmering phase.
- Sugar, sorghum syrup, or honey – just a touch! Adding a bit of sweetness improves the overall flavor of the sauce; if you’re not getting it from fruit, wine, or turnip, you may want to add sweetness with one of these.
- Sliced olives – Add these while sauce is simmering.
- Baking soda – If a big serving of tomato sauce sometimes gives you excess stomach acid, add a pinch of baking soda to your sauce along with the spices, and stir it in quickly.
- Cook the onion in olive oil. (If using dried onion, skip this step.) You may want to cook it just until it looks a bit transparent, or continue until it gets more browned. I like to start at medium-high heat, turn it down when the sizzling noises begin, and then cook the onion slowly on low heat while I’m cutting up other veggies.
- Mix in garlic, basil, oregano, and salt. Cook for at least one minute or so.
- Mix in tomato puree. I usually add the water from rinsing out the can, too – otherwise, the sauce is too thick and makes bubbles that pop very suddenly and hotly, increasing the risk of burns.
- Turn up heat until sauce starts bubbling, then turn it down just to the point where it is bubbling a little but not so much that it’s difficult to stir safely. Keep a lid on it when not stirring, to reduce splatters onto nearby surfaces.
- Simmer at least 20 minutes. If I’m going to serve the sauce over spaghetti, I start boiling water for it once I get the sauce to the simmering stage, and I keep simmering the sauce until the pasta is drained and ready.
- Taste sauce after each stirring. At first, you are doing this just so you can appreciate the wonderful chemistry of sauce-making, because the first lick is going to taste like plain tomato puree with chunks of raw-ish vegetables in it. Over time, you will begin to taste the emerging flavor of this batch of sauce and adjust it accordingly. Does it need a dash of pepper? A little more basil? You’ll learn through experience, and then you, too, can make a happy lasagna like this one!
Use dried minced onion flakes instead of fresh onion, and do not use any other raw vegetables. Mix all the ingredients in a pot over medium heat. Stir every minute or so. Heat until it’s bubbling a lot, about 8-10 minutes.
- I’ve narrated my process of making a marinara sauce with the specific ingredients I had available here and here and in the apple and turnip links above, to give you an idea of how marinara-making works.
- If you miss the texture of meat sauce or you want more protein in your meal, try Chickicheesinara Sauce with garbanzo beans and cream cheese!
- When reheating some of your sauce, you can change the flavor and increase nutrition by adding a new vegetable, perhaps kale.
- Store leftover sauce in glass jars in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks, or freeze it in appropriate containers.
Homemade Teriyaki Sauce
This quick-to-make Japanese-style sauce is great on tofu, fish, meats, or vegetables. Most foods are best marinated in the sauce and then cooked in it, but you also can use the sauce like a salad dressing over a bowl of food.
My mom taught me the basics of this sauce, too!
- Soy sauce – I know that people who don’t eat soy can substitute coconut aminos for soy sauce, but I haven’t used them in this recipe myself.
- Apple juice, sherry, rice vinegar, or something like that – a light, tangy, fruity-flavored liquid.
- Garlic – It’s best to use fresh garlic, crushed or minced. Garlic powder, granulated garlic, or minced garlic from a jar works pretty well, though.
- Ginger – Grated fresh ginger root gives the best flavor, but powdered ginger is good, too.
- Sweetener – Honey, brown sugar, or white sugar
- Heat – Hot pepper sauce or dried hot pepper flakes.
- Corn starch – Add this late in the cooking process if the sauce is thinner than you’d like. Mix corn starch with cold water until dissolved, then quickly stir it into the bubbling-hot sauce. Make sure to buy non-GMO corn starch! If you are avoiding corn, arrowroot powder works as a substitute.
- Sesame oil – I usually leave this out of the sauce itself but use it for stir-frying the food, but if you’re using the sauce as a dressing for raw vegetables, mix in some oil.
- If you’ll be marinating food in the sauce, start 1-24 hours in advance. Tofu needs to be drained before marinating: Pour off the water it’s packed in, wrap it in a clean cloth towel, squish out as much water as you can, and leave it wrapped up while you make the sauce.
- Mix equal parts soy sauce and juice/sherry/vinegar. Add the other sauce ingredients. Taste, and adjust seasoning as necessary.
- Submerge food in sauce. Cover and refrigerate until ready to stir-fry or bake the food in the sauce.
- Alternatively, prepare your food, mix up the sauce (use it raw, or cook in a small pot for about 5 minutes to blend the flavors and mellow the garlic), and drizzle the sauce over the food.
- My Teriyaki Tofu recipe gives specific measurements and cooking directions, as a starting point for learning this sauce. If you don’t eat tofu, you could easily modify this recipe for boneless chicken or some other protein – just be careful to cook it thoroughly.
- This sauce is great for any stir-fry. I especially love it with eggplant, mushrooms, and .
- Try it on steamed broccoli and cauliflower!
- This is a great sauce for noodle/rice bowls topped with your leftover veggies and protein.
- Drizzle it over raw spinach with thinly sliced cucumber and carrots. If you cook the sauce before doing this, it will semi-steam the spinach to a very nice consistency.
- Store leftover sauce in a glass jar in the refrigerator. I’m not sure how long it’ll last – I’ve never had more than a couple spoonfuls left over, and I’ve always found an excuse to eat it within a few days!
Homemade Herby Olive Oil Sauce
This vegan sauce is very satisfying if you’re craving the kind of rich, gooey, browned stuff you get when pan-broiling chicken with the skin.
Adding fat to your vegetables increases vitamin absorption. Toss steamed vegetables in this sauce as a side dish, or include some carbs and protein to make a main dish, or use it as a sauce for pasta. I often make this sauce and then toss some leftovers into the pan to reheat and pick up delicious flavor.
Making this sauce involves cooking, but you don’t have to serve the sauced food hot – it’s good cold or at room temperature, too.
I don’t know quite what to call this sauce; in my family, we call it Pasta Salad Sauce, but our Pasta Salad is a very different flavor from many other pasta salad recipes.
- Olive oil – To make sauce for about a quart of food, use about 1/2 cup.
- Diced Onion – You can use white, yellow, red, or green onion, but you must use fresh or frozen-and-thawed onion, not dried onion, in this sauce. Put only the lower part of green onions in the pan at the “onions” stage; add the leafy part at the “herbs” stage. 1 quart food = 1/2 to 1 onion or 2 green onions.
- Herbs – fresh or dried, finely chopped. Use whichever herbs you like and have handy: dill, parsley, rosemary, oregano, tarragon, basil, thyme, sage, marjoram, etc. 1 quart food = about 1 Tbsp. total herbs – more if they’re fresh and fluffy!
- Salt to taste – take into account any salt included in the other ingredients of your meal.
- Nutritional yeast flakes – they melt into the sauce to increase the savory flavor and add protein, B vitamins, a wide variety of minerals, and even fiber. They also give the sauce an appetizing yellow color. 1 quart food = about 2 Tbsp. flakes.
- Pepper – black or white.
- Vegetables – carrots, kale or other greens, or zucchini – diced, sliced, or grated. The amount of each vegetable should be approximately equal to the amount of onion, and you’ll need to increase the oil somewhat to cover the additional veggies.
- Combine olive oil, onion, and any other vegetables in a skillet over medium-high heat. When oil starts bubbling, reduce heat.
- When onion begins to brown, add herbs, salt, and pepper. Simmer until onion is fully cooked. Remove from heat.
- There are two ways to add the yeast:
- Get your plate/pot/casserole dish of pasta and/or veggies. Sprinkle yeast flakes to cover the top surface of the food. Drizzle the oil mixture over the top, scattering the onions. Stir thoroughly until yeast flakes dissolve into oil, making a sauce that coats pasta/veggies.
- Sprinkle yeast flakes into the oil mixture and stir until they dissolve. Now spoon the sauce over food.
- If you don’t eat onions, you can make a variant of this sauce with garlic, or without onion/garlic but including at least one vegetable like carrots – but it tastes very different without onion.
- Like the Teriyaki Sauce above, this can be drizzled over raw spinach to steam it lightly.
- This basic saucing approach is the basis for a quick, informal meal I’ve made in endless variations: Summer Vegetable Sunflower Blop!
- It’s good on beans, too, especially cannellini (white kidney) beans.
- This sauce is best stored on food so that it doesn’t separate. It stays fresh as long as the food does. I don’t recommend freezing the leftovers – all the fat sticks to the freezer container.
Homemade Spicy Peanut Sauce
Similar to the satay sauce served on skewered chicken in Thai restaurants, this high-protein sauce is another way to add healthy fat to your veggies! Use it as a salad dressing on raw veggies, toss it with steamed veggies, mix it with soba noodles or even spaghetti, jazz up your leftovers, or, hey, you could even put it on skewered chicken.
Allergic to peanuts? Try another nut butter or seed butter! I’ve made it with tahini (sesame butter) several times, and although the flavor is definitely different, it’s still scrumptious!
- Peanut butter or other nut/seed butter.
- Soy sauce or salt.
- Apple cider vinegar, rice wine vinegar, and/or lime juice.
- Garlic. You can use fresh cloves of garlic, crushed or minced; preserved minced garlic from a jar; garlic powder; or granulated garlic.
- Ginger, fresh grated or dry powdered.
- Honey or sugar.
- Hot pepper sauce, paste, or flakes; or ground cayenne pepper – This is required for the spicy kick, but if you don’t like hot-spicy food, you can make a very flavorful sauce without it.
- Sesame oil or coconut oil – This adds fat but improves flavor and texture. If you’re allergic to both of these oils, I would just leave out the oil and add more juice or water.
- Water or fruit juice – apple, orange, pineapple are all good but have different effects on the overall flavor. Use this to make a thinner, more pourable sauce.
- Start with a blob of peanut butter about half the volume of the finished sauce you want to have. (That is, if you want 1 cup of sauce, use 1/2 cup of peanut butter.) If your peanut butter is cold and stiff, warm it in the microwave or in a small pot on the stove. There’s no cooking beyond this point; mix the sauce in a jar for easy storage, or in a small mixing bowl.
- Mix in soy sauce, vinegar/lime juice, and oil. The amount of each should be about 1/3 of the amount of peanut butter.
- Sprinkle heavily with garlic, ginger, and hot pepper. Add a dab of honey.
- Mix thoroughly. It will look weird and curdled at first, but if you keep mixing, you’ll get a uniform paste. Taste it and adjust seasoning to your liking.
- If it’s too thick for your purposes, mix in fruit juice or water a little at a time.
- This sauce is great for making leftovers taste like a completely different meal! Recently, I had a zucchini that was about to go bad, so I cut it up and froze it; a few days later, I thawed it and cooked it in sesame oil with some onions and dried Thai basil. Then I threw in some leftover pasta (not even Asian noodles, just whole-wheat rotini) and leftover roasted cauliflower. I dumped it all into my bowl and mixed it with Spicy Peanut Sauce. Exotic lunch, ready in 10 minutes!
- You can cook food in this sauce, but be careful not to burn it. Start cooking the food, and when it’s about 5 minutes from being done, clear a space in the pan to melt the peanut butter, then mix in the other sauce ingredients.
- For a main-dish salad, I like this sauce over lettuce, spinach, cucumber, carrots, and green onions – with or without tofu.
- When I bring a green salad to a potluck, I make it without dressing and bring jars of two dressings: Spicy Peanut and Katie’s homemade ranch dressing. Most people like one or the other, and a lot of people really appreciate the novelty of Spicy Peanut dressing.
- Store leftover sauce in a glass jar at room temperature, and use it up within about 5 days.
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Learning to make homemade sauces by touch has been a valuable skill for me!
These basic sauces are easily modified to work with the ingredients I happen to have. My sense of proportions for a general type of sauce also helps me to develop a similar sauce when I want a different flavor of stir-fry or something like that.
Developing my sense of touch has given me confidence about experimenting with seasonings because my experiments rarely turn out really badly.
But there was one story that we’re still talking about 20 years later, when I was making a small pot of marinara sauce using dried powdered oregano.
I was going to just sprinkle it into the pot – and the panel in the bottle-top that you open to insert a measuring spoon decided to pop open, dumping half the bottle of oregano into the sauce! Although I scooped out most of it, there was still waaay too much oregano in that sauce, and it truly was inedible!
This is one reason I measure ingredients in my hand instead of putting them directly into the sauce!