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Matching Sauces and Meats—From Foundations to Flair

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By Chris Candullo, Contributing Editor

I must confess: I am a sauce lover. At meal time, my decision tree goes something like this: first I crave the sauce, then I decide what to eat with it. It would be a bonus if everything came with extra sauce. Whether it is ketchup, pizza sauce, taco sauce, brown deli-style mustard or even steak sauce, it’s hard to get enough.

For many, a sauce can make or break a meal. That’s why it’s important to understand the fundamentals when it comes to flavorful meat pairings, while not being afraid to go out on the occasional limb.

Ethnic and American standards

Thinking about how various sauces and meats pair together reminds me of the holiday season. Traditional holiday recipes don’t deviate far from “heirloom" flavors families have grown to love, such as turkey with herb gravy and ham with brown-sugar glaze. In fact, tradition holds a strong influence over many popular meat and sauce pairings throughout the year and from country to country.

Some basic ground rules apply when pairing meat, poultry and seafood with sauces:

  • Chicken works well with almost anything, including most spices, vegetables and herbs;
  • Pork is another versatile protein that matches with a wide range of sauces, but the most-popular pairing is with barbecue sauce;
  • Most fish pairs wonderfully with sauces based on citrus, herbs and butter;
  • Red meat goes great with sauces highlighting full-bodied red wines where the boldness of the protein and the astringency of red wine combine for sensational flavor.

However, some pairings of flavors that might be considered traditional to one family or region might be seen as unusual or even out in left field to others. It is this vast diversity in regionality and culture that gives food developers an open canvas to create, blend and twist together an innumerable variety of meat and sauce flavor combinations, giving us an incredible amount of inventory to develop the next big wave of “smash hit" sauces that can be paired with meats.

Some standards have maintained strong, consistent followings in various countries around the world and at home here in America. Although some of these ethnic sauces are just beginning make inroads with mainstream U.S. consumers, they are as traditional as they come in their home countries. While the exact recipes can vary, each will have some standard ingredients.

Chimichurri . This Argentinean sauce and marinade is akin to flat-leaf parsley pesto, with supporting flavors from garlic, salt, pepper and olive oil. Chimichurri can be paired with many proteins, including beef, pork, fish and chicken. It’s particularly common with grilled meats.

Mojo. Citrus (lemon, orange or lime) and garlic star in this Cuban sauce that also includes flavors from cumin, salt and pepper. Although mojo is a traditional marinade for pork in Cuba and Puerto Rico, it also pairs well with many proteins, including beef, fish and chicken.

Chermoula. This Moroccan delight incorporates parsley, cilantro, garlic, paprika, cumin, crushed red pepper, lemon juice and olive oil. Traditionally, chermoula is served with fish, but can also be paired with beef, pork, lamb and chicken.

Raita . A wonderful sauce from India, raita blends together yogurt, diced cucumbers, green onions and cumin. This sauce helps cool off even the hottest curries. Raitas is also commonly served with kebabs, and can be paired with beef, pork, fish and chicken.

Harissa. This chile sauce, a common sight on everyday North African tables, contains cumin, red peppers (such as piri piri), garlic, coriander and lemon juice. Varying the type and use level of the chiles determines its spiciness. Harissa can be paired with many proteins, like beef, pork, fish, lamb and chicken.

Hollandaise. One of the five mother sauces that Escoffier refined through Carême’s work, hollandaise sauce is made with egg yolks and clarified butter, and seasoned with lemon juice, salt and pepper. Hollandaise successfully pairs with seafood. But, as a mother sauce, hollandaise can be turned into many sauces by altering an ingredient, thereby opening the meat pairings to easily include chicken, lamb and beef. For example, turn hollandaise into béarnaise by adding shallots, chervil, peppercorns and tarragon. Grilled or roasted beef or chicken would be a perfect pairing. Take béarnaise one step further and replace the tarragon with mint to make a French paloise sauce that matches perfectly with lamb.

Brown beef gravy. Although many cultures and countries have their versions, brown gravy is the classic all-American sauce. Brown gravy starts with a rich beef stock that is seasoned and thickened with a brown roux. Brown gravy is a natural with beef.

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