Easy, Essential Sauce Recipes to Make the Meal
Set yourself up for weeknight success with easy sauces you can swirl into soups, smear in a sandwich, drizzle over grain bowls and meats, and of course, toss with pasta
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10-Minute Magic Cilantro, Lime, and Chili Vinaigrette; photograph by Brittany Conerly
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We’ve all been there. The workday runs long, the kids need extra help with homework, you name it, and the best-laid plans for cooking a more elaborate dinner get shelved. Suddenly we’re cobbling together a meal built around the simplest baked salmon or chicken breasts, a bowl of pasta, or maybe sandwiches. How to inject some flavor excitement into this scenario?
Whip up an easy homemade sauce.
It might feel counter-intuitive when we’re busy to spend 10 or even 20 minutes making a “magic” cilantro and chili green sauce or a tangy feta and avocado sauce, but for pure mealtime satisfaction, it’s so worth it.
Admittedly, pulling off this sort of weeknight sleight of hand requires at least a little advance thought. Yes, there might be meal planning involved so we have the right ingredients — or maybe already have a sauce waiting in the fridge. More than that, making good use of sauces is about building a repertoire of the right recipes.
That’s where this collection of our best sauce recipes comes in. When you understand the possibilities (pasta-bilities?) and how to use them, weeknight dinners open up to so many delicious options.
Jump ahead to:
7 versatile and easy sauces for beginners >>
7 versatile and easy sauces for beginners
Grab your blender or food processor — or in some cases just a spoon — for these easy but surprisingly exciting sauce recipes.
Speedy Fresh Basil Pesto
Nutty with a bit of anise, mint, and clove, the flavor of fresh basil can be hard to pin down, but one thing’s certain: It’s addictive. This version of pesto, the classic fresh basil sauce, includes a touch of lemon zest, a refreshing note that you don't find in typical recipes. Martha Holmberg, the talented author of Modern Sauces and other cookbooks, created the recipe for Yummly, along with most of the sauce recipes in this first group. She says once you're familiar with the recipe, it's easy to experiment with other herb combinations: Toss in a few sprigs of fresh mint or swap some of the basil for fresh parsley or cilantro.
Try it with: Pasta, of course, but also over roasted eggplant and zucchini, swirled into vegetable or bean soup, or as a sandwich spread with turkey. Keeps, refrigerated, up to 3 days.
10-Minute Magic Cilantro, Lime, and Chili Vinaigrette
"Magic" because it takes so little time but has a big pop of flavor, this bright, mildly spicy dressing is gorgeous on a wide range of dishes. If you want to amp up the heat level, double the amount of jalapeño.
Try it with: All types of salads, especially hearty ones such as bean, potato, or pasta types; mixed green salads; grain bowls; and tomato salads. Spoon the vinaigrette over roasted vegetables or steamed new potatoes, white beans, grilled or baked fish, grilled chicken breasts, and sliced grilled or pan-seared steak. Keeps, refrigerated, up to 1 week.
Creamy Avocado Sauce for Pasta
Though reminiscent of pesto, this rich-seeming sauce opts for avocados for some of the usual olive oil, and fresh parsley and lemon for brightness. While the sauce on its own is vegan, you may be tempted to shower your finished dish with freshly grated Parmesan.
Try it with: Pasta, from smooth kinds like spaghetti to textured, sauce-grabbing shapes like fusilli. (Save a little pasta-cooking water to thin out the consistency if needed.) For best color, this sauce should be made and served the same day.
Fresh, Green, and Tangy Avocado Sauce
Whipping up an inspired meal is easy with a zesty sauce like this in your fridge. Feta, lime juice, and buttermilk make it tangy; avocado makes it creamy; and two kinds of herbs give it loads of freshness. You can vary the amount of buttermilk so it’s thicker or more pourable, and add extra hot sauce if you love heat.
Try it with: Raw vegetables for dunking; as a sandwich spread; as a topping for crostini; dolloped on roasted beets or carrots, or grain bowls; and as a bed for grilled fish. Keeps, refrigerated, up to 3 days.
Cool Cucumber and Herb Tzatziki
You know tzatziki, the tangy, creamy yogurt sauce made with cucumber, garlic, and fresh herbs, as a partner for kebabs and pita bread, but it’s good for so much more. This version gets extra flavor from fresh dill as well as fresh mint.
Try it with: Grilled chicken, lamb chops, and sausages; with falafel and other pita sandwiches; as a topping for baked or boiled potatoes; and as a dip for raw or roasted vegetables. Keeps, refrigerated, up to 3 days.
Foolproof Blender Hollandaise Sauce
Not just for Easter brunch! Made with a blender, this classic French, buttery and lemony emulsion sauce is simple enough to pull off on a weeknight.
Try it with: Steamed asparagus, broccoli, broccolini, or broccoli rabe; baked halibut or sole; scrambled, poached, or sliced hard-boiled eggs; Canadian bacon or ham; and toast. Keeps, warm in a thermos jar, up to 1 hour.
Lemony Tahini Sauce
This dreamy, dairy-free sauce is creamy and nutty with just a tiny hint of chili heat. The recipe calls for Aleppo pepper, a fruity, mildly spicy ground dried chili from the Middle East that's widely available online. If you can't find it, substitute hot sauce such as Tabasco.
Try it with: Raw and roasted vegetables, flatbreads, grilled chicken and meat, grain bowls, and of course, falafel. It also makes a wonderful sandwich spread. Keeps, refrigerated, up to 5 days.
12 fast flavor bomb sauces
Love big flavors? Here are a dozen more herbaceous, spicy, salty, nutty, creamy sauces you’re going to want in your repertoire, and each takes only 20 minutes or less to make.
Keep exploring sauces
Learn more about easy homemade sauces with these collections of additional favorite sauce recipes.