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On-Trend Sauces A dozen sauce categories seeing flavor innovations

California Pizza Kitchen’s Grilled Chicken Chimichurri showcases the power of an assertive herb sauce.
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It’s amazing how a simple spread of gochujang-spiked mayonnaise can bewitch an everyday sandwich, casting it into a craveable one. Well-placed flavor accents perform the same magic for sauces. Add poblano to a cream sauce and, abracadabra, you’ve got something intriguing. That kind of sauce innovation is exciting and is being played out on flavor-forward menus nationwide. There’s also a deeper discovery of “new” sauces, found in food frontiers across the globe. Chefs in the United States aren’t just borrowing them—they’re transforming them, bending and stretching these lesser-known but intensely flavorful sauces into star performers.

1. Mayo, Aïoli  & Hollandaise

Mayonnaise offers a wonderfully creamy blank canvas that’s as recognizable as ketchup. Aïolis are getting spiked with everything from harissa paste to habanero. At Sarma in Somerville, Mass., guests can order a small plate of Fried Olives Merguez with a side of toasted cumin aïoli. Flavored hollandaise sauces have found favor on modern brunch menus and are now jumping over to other areas of the menu.

  • Fried Green Tomato Steamed Bun, miso mayo, pimento, Thai basil—Uncle Ramen, Denver
  • Grilled Asparagus with peri peri hollandaise and linguiça bread crumbs—La Sirena Clandestina, Chicago
  • Fried Chicken Sammy, fennel seed crust, pickled and charred jalapeño aïoli, kale, potato bread—Skillet Diner, Seattle

2. Onion Sauces

This category brings with it a quieter proliferation on menus. Here, the trend leans toward local or seasonal call-outs of onion varietals—ramps, leeks, spring onions, Vidalias. Great with grilled or roasted meats and vegetables, onion sauces tend to be mild, pairing nicely with stronger flavors, like curry powder or Gruyère.

  • Semolina Gnocchi, Vidalia onion cream, maitake mushroom, pickled asparagus, spring vegetables—Franky Bradley’s, Philadelphia
  • Pork-Fennel Sausage & Heirloom Apple Flatbread with leek soubise, pecorino, watercress—Revival Kitchen+Bar, Berkeley, Calif.

3. Yogurt Sauces

Propelled by health and wellness and global discovery, yogurt sauces are making big moves on menus. From a yogurt-pesto swirl added to soup to a cucumber-yogurt aïoli served on a turkey burger, savory yogurt sauces add tart creaminess with a versatility that invites flavor upgrades.

  • Fingerling potatoes, baby leeks, kohlrabi, charred radish tzatziki—Gemma, Dallas
  • Pasture-raised lamb, house flatbread, toum, lemon-turmeric yogurt, marinated onions, seasonal greens—Dune Kitchen, Los Angeles
  • Mediterranean Chicken Pita Tacos, grilled chicken breast, cucumber, Roma tomatoes, red onion, feta, cilantro, Greek yogurt crema in a chargrilled pita—BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse, multiple locations

4. Cheese Sauces

What’s interesting in this category is how modern cheese sauces are being used to elevate an experience with creative flavor combinations. Cheese sauces are brilliant flavor carriers and bring with them an upgraded sense of culinary craftsmanship. Certainly, premium iterations of mac and cheese propel this trend, but new on the scene are modern cheese dips, getting a premium boost from infusions of craft beer and even cider.

  • Gnocchi with Gorgonzola Cream Sauce—Tin Angel Cafe, Salt Lake City 
  • Sweet Potato & Pumpkin Ravioli, maple-bourbon mascarpone sauce, candied sunflower seeds—Wild Honey Dining & Wine, Oyster Bay, N.Y. 
  • Jumbo Blackened Sea Scallops  blackened with Cajun spices, served with brie sauce and a grilled corn & andouille maque choux—Maple Tree Inn, Blue Island, Ill. 
  • Soft Pretzel with cider cheese dip—Citizen Cider, Burlington, Vt.

Aji amarillo sauce is a vibrant flavor canvas for a plate of grass-fed flat iron steak and crispy potatoes.

5. Nut Sauces

As menu innovation pushes further into the Mediterranean and the Middle East, nut sauces offer up an intriguing accompaniment to grilled or roasted meats and vegetables. They also work well with shareables, from croquettes to crostini. Romesco, with its blend of almonds, olive oil, red bell pepper, garlic and tomato, has jumped from Spanish menus into the mainstream, and now some chefs are tinkering with the build, subbing in hazelnuts or walnuts for a different take. Two other nut sauces worth exploring: salvitxada from Catalonia, Spain, and muhammara, hailing from the Middle East. Salvitxada is a blend of almonds, parsley, chile peppers, garlic, red wine vinegar and tomato, and muhammara stars hot and sweet red peppers, walnuts and pomegranate molasses.

  • Thai Eggplant Escabeche, spicy peanut romesco, leek—Revel, Seattle 
  • Anderson Ranch Rack of Lamb Chop, mint, green garlic, gremolata, broccoli rabe, roasted onions, poblano-hazelnut romesco—Beast, Portland, Ore.
  • Roasted Cauliflower with muhammara, pomegranate and scallions—Trade, Boston

6. Cream Sauces

Cream sauces can come across as a little old-fashioned, but modernizing them makes them insanely craveable. After all, it’s hard to deny the utter pleasure of a rich, lingering cream sauce. Chefs are taking that irresistible quality and updating it with creative flavor touches. At Naco Taco in Boston, a wood-grilled gem salad is dressed with a Cotija crema and masa crumble.

  • Hot Smoked Salmon Tostadas, habanero crème fraîche—Rathbun’s, Atlanta
  • Maine Lobster: Grilled half lobster, roasted red creamer potatoes, harissa cream sauce, preserved lemon—Tagine, Beverly Hills, Calif.

7. Fruit Sauces

Chefs are modernizing fruit sauces by tempering them with savory and spicy ingredients. Sparked by the bright, clean flavors of citrus, along with the sweet, tart flavors of tropical fruits, these sauces deliver freshness and wellness cues. The acidic notes in citrus make it an ideal counterpoint to big flavors found in on-trend ingredients like miso and dark soy sauce. And the sweet flavors found in pineapple and mango, for instance, offer balance to scorching flavors like habanero and ghost pepper.

  • Habanero Orange Wings: Chicken wings and drumettes tossed in a tangy blood-orange glaze spiced with habanero, served with black garlic aïoli—Chapter One: The Modern Local, Santa Ana, Calif. 
  • Grilled Lobster Tail, edamame, daikon radish, Fresno chile, miso-citrus sauce—Current Fish & Oyster, Salt Lake City, Utah 
  • The Ono: Slow-roasted pork tenderloin and pork belly, pineapple-garlic spread, stir-fried bok choy, sesame-pineapple sauce and Sriracha on a sweet roll—Spread Deli & Bottles, Campbell, Calif.

8. Chile Pepper Sauces

Exploring the world’s bounty of chile peppers through familiar sauces is a smart way to offer a comfortable thrill. Peppers like hatch chile, aji amarillo and shishito offer a gateway into adventure while adding a dimension to the sauce through prickling to searing heat. And sauces like pique, Puerto Rico’s national hot-pepper condiment, add authentic cues into regional cuisines.

  • Hatch Chile Hushpuppies with a hatch chile-chimichurri sauce—Plan Check Kitchen + Bar, Los Angeles
  • Provençal Chicken with ancho chile-harissa sauce—Stir Market, Los Angeles
  • Causa de Cangrejo: Fresh crab meat, yellow Peruvian potatoes, avocado, botija olives, aji amarillo aïoli—Taranta, Boston
  • Hall of Flame a.k.a. “The Cajun Kid”: All-beef frank split down the middle, served on a King’s Hawaiian bun, seasoned with Cajun spices, topped with melted Swiss cheese and giardiniera relish, drizzled with Creole pepper sauce and served with a side of Creole pepper sauce—Buffalo Wings & Rings, multiple locations

California Pizza Kitchen’s Grilled Chicken Chimichurri showcases the power of an assertive herb sauce.

9. Fermented Sauces

Pulling in fermented flavors enriches sauces in ethereal, umami-wonderful ways. And with ingredients like gochujang and miso gaining more recognition and favor with diners, chefs are pushing the boundaries here. XO saucemade with dried scallop and shrimp, Yunnan ham or prosciutto, ginger, garlic, red chile flakes, sea salt and sugaris a fermented sauce that packs a smoky, intense flavor wallop.

  • Pork Belly Buns, XO sauce, pickled vegetables—P17, Denver
  • Roasted Veggie Bowl: Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, red onion and butternut squash with a light balsamic glaze and sweet onion & yellow miso sauce—M.Henry, Chicago
  • Slammin’ Salmon: Tataki salmon, gochujang sauce, romaine, cucumber, pickled jicama, red cabbage—Hai Street Kitchen & Co., Philadelphia

 10. Mexican Sauces

As chefs dig deeper into regional cuisines, Mexico offers up so much more than salsa, from the thick, red guajillo sauce to the verdant, fresh salsa verde. And then there are moles, those complex, rich sauces that usually star several kinds of chile. Most common is the mole poblano, which features 20-some ingredients, including chocolate. Pipián is a mole that includes ground squash seeds, chile peppers, hoja santa, tomatillo and garlic. All of these are finding their way onto non-Mexican-themed restaurant menus, adding an eclectic feel.

  • Tempura soft-shell crab with avocado, tomatillo, mole —Ssäm Bar, New York
  • Scottish Salmon a la Parilla, pipián velouté, jicama-watermelon relish—Cantina Rooftop, New York

11. Mustard Sauces

Two trends are pushing innovation in mustard sauces: the embracing of sour flavors and the exploration of modern German cuisine. Chefs have been playing with mustard, elevating it into signature condiments—Dijon spiked with red wine and blackberries, violet-infused mustard. Sauces made with mustard are showcasing these premium cues and demonstrating culinary finesse on menus.

  • Griddled pork loin, crispy grits, pickled peach, arugula purée, black garlic mustard—Better Half, Atlanta
  • “The 8 Hour” Smoked BBQ Pulled Pork: Secret marinated house-smoked pulled pork, Mendo’s pickles, mustard pickle slaw on panini-pressed soft roll with choice of chipotle BBQ, housemade Carolina mustard BBQ or jalapeño relish—Mendocino Farms, multiple locations

12. Herb Sauces

This umbrella carries under it a number of sauces that have found favor on modern menus because of their fresh, zingy, assertive flavors. Chimichurri is the Sriracha of herb sauces; chefs have embraced its garlicky, herby, versatile profile and moved it beyond an accompaniment to grilled steak. The North African chermoula is also staking its claim with  its bright blend of cilantro, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and parsley; regional variations throw in cayenne, cumin, coriander seeds and cloves. And from the Middle East, s’chug (also known as s’khug and zhug) ratchets up the herb-heavy profile with a fiery dose of jalapeño and other green chile peppers.

  • Chimichurri Nachos, cheese, black beans, pico de gallo, chimichurri, sour cream, lettuce, roasted tomatillo salsa—Two Brothers Roundhouse, Aurora, Ill.
  • Chicken Shawarma, sumac onions, s’chug—Naf Naf Grill, multiple locations

About The Author

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Katie Ayoub is managing editor of Flavor & The Menu. She has been working in foodservice publishing for more than 16 years and on the Flavor team since 2006. She won a 2015 Folio award for her Flavor & The Menu article, Heritage Matters. In 2006, she won “Best Culinary Article” from the Cordon D’Or for an article on offal.