The Secret’s in the Sauce
How to build delicious nut butter sauces in 5 easy steps, with 12 fabulous recipes
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Article and featured Yummly recipe and photos by Jamie Vespa MS, RD
It turns out that our favorite sandwich spread and toast topper also holds the key to creating powerhouse homemade sauces. Nut butters (including peanut, almond, and cashew) and seed butters (sunflower, pumpkin, and sesame) add body and richness to sauces and spreads, plus a slew of good-for-you nutrients. And with a nut or seed butter as the base, it only takes a few minutes and a handful of additional ingredients to make the sauce shine.
Homemade nut and seed butter sauces are miles ahead of anything store-bought in terms of freshness, flavor, and versatility. They can liven up even the simplest middle-of-the-week dinners, and make any bowl of grains and greens feel downright celebratory.
Use the following matrix to customize your own sauce blend, or whip up one of our all-purpose recipes. Either way, you’ll discover the secret really is in the sauce.
Jump ahead to:
How to make a nut butter sauce, in 5 easy steps
Making Firecracker Peanut Sauce
Mastering these sauces starts with four simple elements — nut or seed butter, aromatics, umami boosters, and something acidic. Stick to this formula, and you can create sauces that are infinitely riffable and that go with anything from grilled veggies or proteins to stir-fries and pasta.
1. Select a nut or seed butter
This is the star of the sauce, and the flavor base you’ll build off of. Here’s the lineup of potential candidates, many of which can be used interchangeably.
Peanut butter: Though peanuts are technically legumes, we tend to think of them as nuts. Peanut butter offers rich, roasted flavor, which bodes particularly well for Asian-inspired sauces.
Almond butter: Compared to peanut butter, almond butter has a stronger, nuttier flavor that doesn’t need much embellishment to offer big impact.
Cashew butter: Lighter and sweeter than peanut and almond, cashew butter has a subtler flavor will have less impact on a dish's overall taste. It will, however, add top-notch creaminess.
Sunflower seed butter: For those with nut allergies, sunflower seed butter is the closest match to peanut butter, though it tends to have an earthier, more intense flavor. Sugar is often added to balance its bitterness, which helps create a more well-rounded sauce.
Pumpkin seed butter: Beautifully bitter with a slightly grassy finish, pumpkin seed butter is particularly delicious paired with garlic, fresh herbs, and a splash of vinegar to drizzle over roasted vegetables.
Tahini: This creamy, rich sesame seed butter gives nutty appeal and savory depth to sauces and spreads. Tahini’s ability to stand in for dairy makes it a go-to for vegans. (Try Tahini ranch.)
2. Integrate aromatics
Think of aromatics as the supporting actors in a sauce. They deliver deep, rounded flavor and aroma when cooked or crushed.
From garlic and onions to chilies and ginger, each offers a distinct flavor profile to create a dynamic sauce or dressing.
For most sauces, it’s best to finely chop the aromatics or grate them on a cheese grater or Microplane. This helps fully infuse the sauce so you get an essence of aromatic flavor in every bite.
3. Up the umami
Lean on these ingredients to add complexity and a salty punch. Since many of them are fermented or preserved, they often contribute a significant source of sodium, so be sure to taste the sauce before seasoning with additional salt.
Miso paste: A thick, fermented soybean paste, miso adds a world of savory depth to sauces. Its concentrated flavor means a little goes a long way, so start with 1 teaspoon for every 2 tablespoons nut or seed butter.
Soy sauce: Made from fermented soybeans, soy sauce is a pantry staple that lends deep savory notes without masking other key flavors.
Fish sauce: Another fermented sauce typically made from anchovies, fish sauce delivers intense extra-savory funk. Start with just a splash to not overwhelm a sauce.
Anchovies/anchovy paste: Preserved anchovies are packed with umami-producing glutamates. Traditionally, anchovies add dimension to Caesar dressing but you can make it with tahini instead.
Olives or capers: Both offer salty, meaty flavor that make them a go-to umami booster in dairy-free dressings.
Making Creamy Garlic Cashew Sauce
4. Add acidity
A squeeze or splash of something tangy can truly transform a sauce. There are two main sources of acid: citrus and vinegars. Let’s compare them.
Citrus: A spritz of either lemon or lime juice will add bright acidity to a sauce. On the sugar spectrum, lemons are slightly sweeter than limes, so expect a more rounded citrus flavor from lemons, and more tartness from limes. You can also add a splash of orange juice for a delightfully tangy taste. Citrus works especially well in nut butter sauces with cashews and almonds, in particular.
Vinegar: Typically more assertive than citrus, vinegars deliver a particular sharpness to sauces.
Red wine vinegar tends to be punchier than its more delicate white wine counterpart. Both work best for seed butter sauces.
Apple cider vinegar is moderately sharp with a fruity quality that balances the richness of almond butter beautifully.
Rice vinegar is the least sharp of the bunch, offering a delicate dose of acid that won’t overpower other flavors. Its mellowness also makes it the most versatile vinegar to cook with — use it to liven up any nut or seed butter.
5. Put it all together
As you build your sauce, taste to see if it needs a little something sweet (such as a splash of maple syrup or honey) or a touch of heat from chili flakes or black pepper. You may also need some water to thin it out to your desired consistency. If so, add water in 1 tablespoon increments, stirring after each installment, until creamy. If the sauce breaks, just keep whisking and it will eventually come back together.
Not quite ready to design your own sauce? Try making one of the following all-purpose recipes to enjoy all week long.
Get our favorite new peanut sauce recipe
Think of my easy recipe as your back pocket peanut sauce — a versatile, instant flavor upgrader to elevate even the most modest meals. Use it to add a saucy, savory edge to roasted sweet potatoes or butternut squash. Drizzle it over grain bowls, tofu, or grilled proteins. Toss it with rice or noodles, or with veggies in a simple stir-fry.
Try a garlicky cashew sauce
All you need is 5 minutes and 4 ingredients to prepare my goes-with-anything cashew sauce. Toss it with pasta and nutritional yeast for a plant-based alternative to pasta Alfredo. Drizzle it over your favorite proteins or bowl of grains and greens. Or use it to dress up steamed asparagus. To make a nut-free version, you can swap outo the cashew butter for tahini.
10 more recipes with nut and seed butter sauces
The Yummly recipe box offers lots more to explore in the way of stand-alone nut and seed sauces and recipes that use them as a springboard.
A spicy-sweet almond butter sauce laced with chili-garlic sauce and sesame seeds bring this tofu and veggie stir-fry to new heights.
Cashew butter helps create a rich, sticky-sweet marinade in this Thai coconut red curry.
Sunflower seed butter creates a dynamite stir-fry sauce in this veggie-loaded dinner.
Pad Thai gets an allergen-free, toasty upgrade with a sauce made with pumpkin seed butter.
This hearty roasted veggie salad is tossed with a versatile tahini dressing that you’ll want to drizzle over everything.
The herbs and spices here are just what you’d expect from classic ranch, but with lemon juice instead of the usual buttermilk, and tahini instead of mayo.
Tahini and nutritional yeast are the secret ingredients to create a dressing with the umami of a classic Caesar, but without a speck of Parmesan or anchovies.
For another take on a peanut butter-based sauce, try adding the salty, fermented flavor of miso.
The orange juice, miso, and almond butter dressing makes this big, crunchy salad good down to the last bite.
For this tofu- and zoodle-topper sauce you’ll balance the nuttiness of peanut butter with the gentle zing of rice vinegar, plus soy sauce, chili paste, sugar, aromatics, and a generous pour of toasted sesame oil.
Looking to go more plant-based?
Explore more ways you can try a plant-based diet with these next collections.