robert et Fils plate of food with sauce.
robert et Fils

Sauces are only one part of the equation.

Sauces and Marinades Offer a Low-Cost, High-Reward Menu Add

Rich in flavor but margin friendly, sauces and marinades spice up menus.

In terms of quick and cost-effective ways to impart flavor, marinades and sauces are hard to beat. Like spices and herbs, a little goes a long way with both, which can be applied pre- or post-cooking.

“Sauces and marinades are one of the best ways to customize a menu,” says Kevan Vetter, executive chef and director of culinary development at F&B manufacturer McCormick. “They add great flavor, without being intimidating. There’s a lower risk there as well when you use a sauce to dip or spread onto a dish.”

In practice, Vetter is a fan of the “plus-one” technique.

“A really important distinction when you’re introducing marinades, condiments, and sauces is potentially pairing up with something new and adventurous,” he says.

The chef recommends starting with a common base like mayonnaise or mustard and then adding one or two more ingredients for a fresh take. A common example of this method is mixing brown sugar into mustard.

“You can take mustard to an entirely different place,” he says, adding that the brown sugar–mustard combination can be used as both a marinade (for proteins like pork) or a sauce for sandwiches. “There are no boring sandwiches out there if you’re using the right condiments,” he says.

Among Vetter’s favorite plus-ones are maple mustard, Cajun blue cheese dressing, and mango-habanero ranch. He says these types of sauces are great for operators who want to utilize ingredients already in their wheelhouse—and their pantries.

But sauces are only one part of the equation, and Vetter says several marinades have continued to gain popularity over the past several years. While most have a spicy component, some of the fanaticism around hot foods has waned recently. Rather than ratchet up the fire to an unbearable level, Vetter says chefs are opting to layer heat for a milder, more controlled burn.

“I like flavors that I can experience all the way through, from start to finish,” he says, citing blends like peri-peri as an example. The South African chili (also known as pili-pili or bird’s-eye chili) is typically prepared into a sauce with garlic, onion, paprika, and lemon juice, though other ingredients like ginger can come into play, too. Hot honeys and chili crisp—an oil-based sauce infused with chilies and crunchy bits—are other items Vetter turns to when he wants to add a nuanced heat.

On the opposite side of the spice spectrum, nut milks are also on the up-and-up. Chef Rob Shaner, owner and executive chef at Chiago’s Robert et Fils, says these non-dairy milks add depth and flavor, while also mitigating some kitchen costs by using what he already has on hand, similar to the thought behind Vetter’s plus-one sauces.

Last fall, Shaner used fermented pistachios to make a milk, which was then applied to a duck dish. “It has a nice bite from the fermentation and a nice balance overall,” Shaner says. “There is a lot for me to explore just by trying out different nut milks.” He has also used nut milk in a Parisian gnocchi dish that featured North African flavors.

One of the reasons Shaner relies on ingredients already in the pantry is because of the prevailing labor challenges. He says staffing shortages at his restaurant have been debilitating at times.

Along this same vein, Shaner works to repurpose would-be food waste like vegetable scraps. For example, leftover asparagus trimmings can be transmuted into a full-bodied, spring-time sauce.

“I made a white asparagus sauce that went over a fish crudo, and it was almost creamy in texture,” Shaner says. “The asparagus was fermented, and it brings with it a sort of richness that the asparagus carries.”

Shaner is also quite fond of a Vietnamese caramel sauce, which he says has taken the place of fish sauce in his kitchen because it is more approachable for traditional Midwestern palates. By incorporating white soy sauce into the mix, he’s able to bring some of the funkiness and umami of the fish sauce without making it too pungent.

Though French cuisine isn’t known for its spiciness, Shaner has managed to incorporate elements of heat into the Robert et Fils menu. The idea was sparked by a dining experience at a local John Manion restaurant, which had managed to add spice in an authentic but not overpowering way. So the chef looked to the Caribbean island of Martinique, which is also a French territory, and created a Creole-like sauce that uses scotch bonnet peppers to bring a fiery kick.

“It has a little additional heat to it,” Shaner says. “I put fistfulls of herbs into it as well. I need that freshness. Those sorts of sauces are the ones I get really excited about right now.”