The French mother sauces—béchamel, velouté, hollandaise, and so on—are well established and documented, like algebra or the periodic table or the character traits of zodiac signs. Spanish sauces are more fragmented and fluid, often more technique than strict formula.
“The French own cuisine because they are the ones that documented it and organized it in a logical manner,” explains Alex Raij, chef-owner of a family of Spanish restaurants in New York.
A few sauces and basic elements—like the ever-present sofrito—span the whole country, others are regional specialties: the workhorse sauces of the Basque country are different than those in Catalonia. “The joy of cooking Spanish food,” Raij says, is that “each of those cuisines is unto itself. It’s its own thing.”
To better understand the mother sauces of Spanish cuisine, I spoke to Alex Raij, whose first cookbook, Basque, will be released next spring and includes the history of many of these sauces, and Anthony Sasso, chef at Casa Mono in Manhattan, which recently received three stars from the New York Times.
The Building Blocks
Sofrito is foundational to Spanish cuisine: traditionally, it’s a combination of onions and tomatoes, cooked in olive oil over low heat until it is deeply browned. “You’re basically making a concentrated, jammy, sweet mirepoix,” explains Raij—but with a different set of vegetables. When the tomatoes are taken away, the onion-y mixture is called cebolla confitada or cebolla pochada, “because you’re gently poaching the onions in olive oil. The water should just be barely migrating out of the onion—you’re sweating it as slowly as possible so that you get the sweetest, jammiest consistency.” The process takes hours.
“What it does is it primes your pan,” Sasso told me. “When you’re making paella, the first thing you do is add la marca: you ‘mark’ the pan with a mixture of sofrito and calamari rings to season it.” Using sofrito to start a dish adds an extra depth of flavor—akin to that of a braise, without the extra hours of cooking.
Picada—which is used in both sauces and soups—is made from nuts, bread, or a combination of the two. Sometimes there’s garlic, sometimes there isn’t. They are ground together in a mortar and pestle and then fried. The result is the base of gazpacho and its cousin, ajo blanco, and an essential element of the classic Catalan sauce, romesco. “Or you might make a sofrito, add stock and purée it, and stir in a picada right before serving,” Raij explains.
When you’re making picada, she says, “you’re using stuff that’s stale by nature in a resourceful way, both to resuscitate the ingredients and add body and nutrition and calories. You see that a lot in Cataluña and in the Balearic Islands and in Murcia. It’s kind of like a mole, where you thicken sauces with nuts and seeds.”
Pil-pil is a strange and exciting sort of sauce—Raij likes to say it has “negative ingredients.” It is a result of, rather than an addition to, the cooking process: It comes from poaching cod—either salt cod or the meat under the cod’s mouth, called kokotxas—in olive oil that’s been infused with garlic. As the fish cooks, it weeps out water and gelatin, “which collects in little beads at the bottom of the cooking dish,” she explains. “Then you remove the fish, and the gelatin and the olive oil left in the pot are cooled and reheated, and cooled and reheated. Then, they are whirled into an emulsion, and that becomes a sauce for the fish.” Its name is onomatopoeic: it comes from the little bubbles that rise to the oil’s surface during cooking. Pil pil. Sasso equates it to the Snap-Crackle-Pop of pouring milk over Rice Krispies.
Pil-pil is a delicate sauce, according to Raij, and really more of a technique than a recipe. It is something to master. “If it gets too hot or too cold, the emulsion will break. If you cook it too hard, you destroy the gelatin and you dry out the fish, and you won’t have anything to make pil-pil with; if you cook it too soft, all the gelatin will stay in the fish, and you won’t have anything to make pil-pil with either. You’re essentially tempering the ingredients, just like when you make chocolate.” And that emulsion becomes a rich, fatty sauce—“it’s like turning olive oil into butter,” Sasso says.
Salsa de Tinta
Salsa de tinta translates directly as ink sauce, and comes from squid cooked in its own ink. “It starts with a slow-poached onion with the ink, a one-note sofrito,” Raij tells me, “and then you add whatever flavoring agents you want—green pepper or tomato sauce or both.” That gets puréed (traditionally, with a food mill; more finely and swiftly, with a blender) and returned to the pot, where you’ll add the squid. “The squid adds a fishy flavor to the sauce, and the sauce gives sweetness to the squid, and, as in all braises, they become one. So the sauce isn’t separate from the dish; the sauce is the result of the dish.” As with pil-pil and the other Basque mother sauces, the sauce and the dish are one, and served in the cooking vessel, or cazuela.
The salsa verde of Spain has nothing to do with the salsas verdes of Italy or Mexico—it’s really more of a velouté, says Raij. “Classically, you fry garlic in olive oil, so you scent the oil with garlic, then you add flour and parsley, then you add fish stock or clam juice or another liquid. What you end up with is this green, almost Chinese food-quality sauce.”
Then comes the protein: seafood, usually hake or clams, is cooked in the sauce, adding its flavor to the sauce. Potatoes sometimes take the place of seafood, in a particularly peasant-y rendition of the dish.
Raij notes that while flour (or cornstarch) is traditional, she prefers other thickeners: “If I’m cooking potatoes with salsa verde, I would prefer to just have the starch in the potato thicken the sauce. There are also higher-quality starches like kudzu starch or arrowroot starch. Or I’ll cook white beans, and I’ll use that starchy cooking liquid to thicken the sauce.”
Salsa vizcaína comes from Vizkaya, a Basque province. Like salsa tinta, it starts with that slow-poached onion, but the additional flavor comes from the sweet red choricero pepper—the sort of pepper used in making chorizo—instead of squid ink. Anything else you add depends on where you’re going to use the sauce, says Raij. “If you were going to serve it with meat, then you would flavor it with meat stock, or meat odds and ends. If you were going to do this with fish, then you use fish stock, and keep it as delicate as possible.”
Romesco is the foremost sauce in Catalan cooking, if only because it’s an essential element of the calçotada, the springtime Catalan festival celebrating the harvest of leek-like alliums called calçots. The big draw—aside from traditional fair events like gigantes (people walking on stilts, dressed as giants, with papier-mâché heads) and regional dances—is a large ad-hoc grill made from logs and chicken wire where calçots are grilled whole until charred, then served with a little container of romesco and a half-bottle of wine, maybe an orange for dessert.
“All day they’re making romesco in a mortar and pestle,” explains Sasso, “crushing hazelnuts and almonds with piquillo peppers, some olive, oil, usually vinegar, and that’s it. Sometimes they use garlic too, and onions. They crush it by hand until they have this nice paste that almost looks like a chunky gazpacho.” It is, at its most basic, a combination of sofrito (the garlic and onions and peppers) and picada (the almonds and hazelnuts). Sometimes smoked and dried nyora peppers are used instead of piquillo.
“Most romesco recipes are really hilarious to me,” says Raij. “They’ll call for half a cup of almonds, four nyoras, whatever vegetables for the sofrito, and ten hazelnuts—it’s such a weird thing to say, ten hazelnuts. It’s precise and yet so imprecise. It clearly is telling you don’t leave the hazelnuts out, they’re important somehow, but they’re also saying: don’t overdo it.”
The French have ailloli and mayonnaise; the Spanish have mayonesa (more on that below); the Catalans have allioli. The latter is quite simple, and traditionally contains no eggs: just oil and garlic and salt. “It’s almost like a paste that you make in a mortar and pestle,” Sasso explains. “It’s a very spicy sauce in Cataluña, because it needs to have a lot of garlic if you’re not using eggs.” Eggs make for a more stable sauce; an allioli made with just garlic and oil will only last a day or two. (At Casa Mono, they use eggs: three yolks to one and a half quarts of oil.)
In Cataluña, allioli is used primarily as a dipping sauce for fried foods, often perked up with a little lemon juice. But it’s also used on sandwiches, and as a garnish for paella and fideos. And then there’s butifarra amb mongetas, a dish of Catalan sausage and white beans that gets a dollop of allioli to finish.
“Béchamel is very French, and I don’t know how it came into the Spanish repertoire,” Raij says. “But unlike other cultures, where French food was ultimately rejected as old-fashioned-y, the Spanish held onto their bechamel. They are crazy about it.” While rarely used as a sauce the way it is in France, Sasso told me that bechamel is commonly used in Spanish gratins—or even cannelone, which are filled with chopped veal or another meat and then topped with bechamel and baked. The sauce is also one of the main ingredients in croquetas; béchamel is mixed with mashed potatoes to make a sturdy base; folded with salt cod, shrimp, lobster, or ham; breaded; and deep-fried. You’ll see the fritters everywhere on restaurant and bar menus, often eaten as a snack or appetizer. In Spanish freezer sections, they’re as common as fish sticks or chicken fingers are in America.
Refrito de Ajo
Maybe more of a dressing than a sauce, refrito de ajo is what Raij calls a “golden garlic vinaigrette,” which comes from frying garlic in oil until it’s golden, then adding acid like sherry vinegar. “It’s very common across Spain,” Raij says, “and sometimes it’s a sauce unto itself, but sometimes it’s added to a sauce at the end of cooking. Or you might be making a soup, and add refrito at the end. It’s very typically used to dress fish.” At Casa Mono, Sasso calls it a “hot vinaigrette” and use it to top fish or greens. In Galicia, the sauce is called an ajada—the Spanish word for garlic is “ajo”—and it has paprika in it.
Mayonnaise and Aioli
Raij says that simple mayonnaise—that is, aioli without the garlic, and with egg yolks—is one of the most important sauces in Spain: “I would argue that mayonesa comes from Mahón, a city in the Balearic Islands. It’s a mortar-and-pestle sauce that probably comes from the Moorish tradition. So it’s a Spanish sauce, it’s not a French sauce.” As with allioli, it’s usually used as a dipping sauce, or as a spread on sandwiches.
“Salsa española is a meat-stock-based sauce where the vegetables used to develop the sauce are puréed and give the sauce body, much like the tinta gets its body from onions,” Raij says. “But in this case, instead of just onions, it’s more of a mirepoix: usually onions, leeks, and carrots. And there’s often wine or tomato in it, too. It’s more like a classic sauce espagnole in the French parlance, but instead of being strained out and reduced or strained out and thickened with starch, the vegetables are puréed to give the sauce body. It’s not a transparent, shiny, pretty sauce—it’s an opaque, airplane food–looking sauce. It’s brown. It’s like a gravy.”
Sasso maintains that he has not prepared this sauce in fifteen years.