Whether it’s the classic brunch staple Hollandaise or Guy Fieri’s Donkey Sauce, human beings have always seemed to have a love affair with condiments. From the murky history behind Worcestershire sauce to the great French culinary tradition of the five Mother Sauces, here are five key moments in sauce history that have changed the way we look at everyday food.
1. The Mother Sauces
Julia Child once said that “Sauces are the splendor and glory of French cooking,” and these days, no cook can take the title of master chef unless he masters the five mother sauces. The idea that these five sauces are the base of every chef's repertoire came from Antonin Careme, the founding father of French grande cuisine. He consolidated hundreds of sauces under five basic varieties, a sort of periodic table for chefs: white (Bechamel), blond (Veloute), brown (demi-glace), butter (hollandaise), and red (tomato). These sauces are the foundation of all French high cuisine and most Western dishes, from a simple marinara to the roux behind a classic macaroni and cheese.
Despite the claims of the mother sauces, the real mother of all sauces is mayo. It's the DNA that binds a variety of culinary superstar sauces—remoulade, aioli, Marie Rose, Ranch, tartar—together. There are several theories as to how this emulsion of egg and oil came to be the cream of the culinary world. One theory states that it originated after the French Duc de Richelieu defeated the British at the Spanish port of Mahon. Having no cream in the kitchen for a traditional sauce, the chef substituted olive oil. He named his new sauce "Mahonnaise" in honor of the Duc's victory, and paved the way for thousands of creamy, dreamy dishes.
3. Tabasco Sauce
When Maryland-born banker Edmund McIlhenny moved to Louisiana in 1868, he was so charmed by the local flavor that he decided to bottle his signature hot sauce (a simple recipe consisting of tabasco peppers, salt, and vinegar) into thousands of tiny cologne bottles, and Tabasco sauce was born. The original Tabasco red sauce measures in at 2500 to 5000 Scoville heat units. The scale, devised by pharmacist Wilbur L. Scoville in 1912, gives a measurement of spiciness based on the amount of capsaicin—the chemical responsible for heat—in hot peppers. A pimento pepper measures in between 100 to 900 Scoville units; a habernero chili comes in at 100,000 to 350,000 units; and law-enforcement grade pepper spray comes in at 1,500,000 to 2,000,000 units. Now found at restaurants all over the United States, it is Tabasco that has partially given Louisiana cuisine the reputation for being so spicy and flavorful.
4. Worcestershire Sauce
This steakhouse staple was created by English chemists John Lea and William Perrins in the early 19th century. The official history, per Lea & Perrins, is that Lord Sandys, a nobleman living in the English county of Worcester, returned home from his travels in Bengal with a recipe for a sauce. He called up the chemists to recreate his find. Unimpressed with the first batch, they left the bottles to gather dust in the cellar. After a few years passed, they rediscovered their creation, dusted off the bottles and decided to taste the condiment once again. This seemed to be the trick as the aging process had apparently made it a delicious, tangy delight.
But Brian Keogh, who wrote the book The Secret Sauce - A History of Lea & Perrins, contested the official story. He cited the fact that the Sandys in Worcester line had ended in 1797, 38 years before Lea & Perrins are said to have met him. Additionally, no Lord Sandys had ever travelled to India, let alone had been Governor of Bengal. Despite the contested history, the sauce is universally said to be a product of the English presence in India. The concoction is a mixture of several ingredients, including cloves, soy, fish, vinegar, lemons, pickles, and peppers, and has been recreated by several companies, making it a sauce almost as ubiquitous as ketchup.
5. McDonald’s Special Sauce
Who can forget the signature ingredients for the Big Mac? As the 1974 ad campaign boldly proclaimed, it features “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions—on a sesame bun.” The mysteriousness of the name “special sauce” stuck around, making consumers wonder what actually made the Big Mac all that special. It turned out, however, that the mixture it wasn’t really all that mysterious or secret: it turned out to be a mixture of store-bought mayonnaise, relish, and yellow mustard whisked together with vinegar, garlic powder, onion powder, and paprika. Now that the recipe is available online, aspiring Ronald McDonalds can make the sauce at home. But still, the “special sauce” remains part of our culinary heritage, with many, including Fieri, trying to recreate the mysteriousness that makes a good sauce into a great one by simply changing the name.