Good Food Is All In The Sauce

The last couple weeks have been pretty interesting here on good old planet Earth.  My recent posts discussed about our plan for Healthcare after the ACA, and even Secular Stagnation and poor real GDP growth.  Pretty serious stuff.

So I think it’s time I took things down a notch and stopped worrying about things I can’t control.  Instead, I want to get back to this idea of leading an incredibly rich (and fulfilling) life on a minimal budget.

Being frugal doesn’t mean life has to suck.

Food is one way we do that in our family.  Good food brings our family together.  Good food keeps us smiling, and our bellies full.

Other people notice this too — Friends who visit us remarked, “You guys eat really well!”

But the big secret isn’t that we eat expensive food…it’s that we eat well on a small budget.  Our food budget is usually less than $500/month (for a family of 4).


Eating Out

A few years ago Mrs. Tako and I decided to stop eating-out as much.  We were tired of spending tons of money on restaurants for downright mediocre meals. We wanted to save for financial independence.

Fast forward a few years, and we eat out rarely, if ever!  Months can go by without us ever visiting a restaurant!  In most cases when we do eat out, I end up unhappy with the quality.  I can make better food at home.    

The quality is better, it’s cheaper,  and the amount of time it takes to prepare a great meal is nearly the same amount of time required to drive to a restaurant, wait for a table, order, pay the bill, and then drive home.

Eating a home is a win-win for anyone on the road to financial independence.



I’ll Share My Secret!

But what if your experience cooking at home doesn’t match that of a decent restaurant?  What if your attempts to make great food at home turn out lousy?  How do you get from “barely edible food” to “better than a restaurant”?

Well, it does take some practice, but if you’re cooking at home often, you’ll be getting that already.  

There is a ‘secret’ to making great food at home!  After years of replicating incredible restaurant dishes from all over the world (some of which I’ve shared on this website), I’ve come to a conclusion:  culinary success is all in the sauce.


What?  The Sauce?

Yes, I’m serious!  

Think about it this way — Remember the last time you went to a restaurant and had a fantastic meal.  What was the most powerful flavor component of the dish?  Unless you were eating steak, the odds are good there was a sauce involved.

Quality ingredients are important, but a recipe’s sauce pulls it all together.  It gives the recipe life.  

Without sauce, that Chinese food you had last week would be tasteless cardboard.  

From the dressing on a Caesar salad, to the salsa on a taco, sauce is where it’s at when it comes to delicious food!


Make Your Own Sauce

One of the biggest tips I can give to anyone is make the sauce yourself, wherever possible.

In the Tako household, we make tons of our own sauces.  I’ll give you few examples — salad dressing, pizza sauce, teriyaki sauce, alfredo sauce, tsuyu sauce, salsa, gyoza sauce, and nam phrik … to name just a few.

Need a sauce recipe?  Just google for one.  She may not know it, but every grandmother from here to Italy has her best recipes posted online!

Obviously making some sauces is going to be nearly impossible because of the time and specialized equipment involved.  Soy sauces or fish sauces are great examples of this.  (There’s no way I’m fermenting anchovies in my house for months at a time!) 

In those cases, leave it to the professionals.  Head to your nearest Asian grocery store (or other excellent grocery store), and purchase the highest quality sauce you can reasonably afford.


One Is Not Like The Other

When buying sauces for cooking, it pays to be discerning too.  Get the right sauces for your dish.

To recreate that awesome Phad Thai from your favorite Thai restaurant, you’ll need authentic Thai sauces.  Cheap Chinese copies aren’t going to cut it.  On the surface they may seem similar, but flavors vary from country to country, and even brand to brand.

Don’t substitute!  Get the real stuff!

Fish Sauce
Think all sauces are the same?  Think again!  This is the fish sauce section of my local asian grocer.  Every single one of these bottles is going to taste a little different.  Soy sauce has a similar selection.  Get the most authentic sauces you can find!

For best results, match the origin of the sauce with the dish’s country of origin.  You’ll probably pay more for it, but you’ll thank me later.

Best for Thai Receipes


Don’t Buy “Cheater” Sauces

Since I was a kid, grocery stores have been selling what I call “cheater” sauces.  These are pre-made sauces intended to make cooking “authentic” dishes easier.  

Do yourself a favor, and don’t buy them.  Cheater sauces are rarely worth it.  All the preservatives and fillers needed to make a sauce shelf stable also ruin the flavor.  You don’t know how long that sauce has been sitting on the shelf either!

If you want the most authentic flavors, just say ‘no’ to cheater sauces!

Cheater Sauces
You can identify “cheater” sauces by the prominent English labels. These sauces are a poor substitutes for the real thing.

But what if you don’t live in an area with a asian grocery store, or even a good western-style grocer?  

Get what you need online!  Amazon has nearly every specialty sauce you can imagine, at fairly reasonable prices.  There’s absolutely no reason you can’t find those obscure ingredients to make outstanding food!

I routinely buy sauces from Amazon that are not stocked at my local stores.  Like my favorite Belizean hot sauce.  I’ve yet to find a store in my area that stocks it.  Thank you internet! 


Bigger Is Not Always Better

Grocery stores (especially in the United States) are always trying to push larger and larger containers at ‘value’ prices.

But sauces have a shelf life.  Flavors are best when the bottle is first opened, and they degrade with time.  

Bigger is not always better.  You don’t want to buy that giant bottle of soy sauce if it’s just going to sit in your fridge for years!  

Fresher flavors mean yummier food … especially if you’re buying specialty sauces for ethnic recipes.  You might only make those recipes only a few times a year.  In that case, it actually makes more sense to buy a smaller bottle at a higher unit price.

Golden Mountain Sauce
Golden Mountain seasoning sauce provides the perfect example here — You could buy the giant bottle OR you could buy the smaller bottle. How fast are you going to use it?

Want the best flavors?  Keep your sauces in the fridge, and buy only what you’ll need for the next couple months.


Quality Matters — Avoid The Cheap Stuff

Lastly, something needs to be said for quality.  How do we tell a good quality sauce from a bad one?

  1. Price is often a good indicator.
  2. Chemical ingredients.  These ingredients are used as preservatives or used to speed production, like “Hydrolysed Vegetable Proteins”, MSG, and other preservatives and flavor enhancers.
  3. “Processed” ingredients.  These are ingredients utilized by the manufacturer to lower costs.  They are not authentic and will not provide the best flavors.
  4. Country of Origin that doesn’t match intended market.  Typically this is done by big manufacturers to cut costs.  Anyone who ships their production overseas undercuts local brands by cutting costs every way possible.

First, let’s look at a good quality fish sauce:

Red boat

Now, let’s look at a not-so good quality version:

Three crabs brand

See the difference?  

What I can’t show you is the difference in taste.  The difference in taste is huge!

The top fish sauce is Red Boat fish sauce ($7.48).  It’s one of the best.  It’s processed naturally without chemical fermentation and chemical additives.  I use it all the time when I make my Pho recipe.  It’s the best Vietnamese fish sauce I’ve found yet.

The bottom brand is Three Crabs Brand ($3.99).  It’s made in Hong Kong (synonymous for cheap sauces) but marketed as a Vietnamese fish sauce (labeled in 6 different languages).  It uses processed ingredients and chemical fermentation to speed production times.

Take a guess which sauce I think is the best quality.


Final Words

I hope this post inspires at least one person to cook at home more.  You really can save yourself a ton of money by eating at home and skipping the overpriced restaurant scene.

With a little practice (and the right sauce), you can produce food just as good (or better than) a restaurant.  Don’t be scared of ethnic recipes either…they really aren’t that hard to make!  The secret is in the sauce!


16 thoughts on “Good Food Is All In The Sauce

  • November 16, 2016 at 4:33 AM

    Oh man! I came here for the FIRE articles but stayed here for the food articles.

  • November 16, 2016 at 5:16 AM

    No question cooking from scratch is the way to go. Even if it doesn’t turn out the first time, cooking is a learning process and the next time you can tweak the recipe to be even better. We just made some Pho last week based on your recipe. It was delicious 🙂

  • November 16, 2016 at 8:13 AM

    Hahaha! You know, it’s funny. I was thinking about this a few weeks ago as I was making your delicious pho recipe. My previous pho had been missing *something* and I was never sure what it was. Turns out, it was hoisin sauce.

    The secret really is in the sauce!! 🙂

    Thanks for the pointers on finding good sauces. I’m guilty of picking up Kikkoman a time or two, but the authentic sauces really are better. I’m trying to find better food markets so I don’t have to keep getting the crappy stuff at HEB!

    • November 16, 2016 at 8:34 AM

      There’s nothing wrong with a Kikkoman *soy sauce*, it’s a pretty decent soy sauce for a Japanese meal and can be found in most markets around the world. Yamasa also makes a good soy sauce you can commonly find in the States.

      The “big K” is pretty guilty of making a lot of cheater sauces though. Sun Luck is another brand I’ve seen do the same.

  • November 16, 2016 at 10:43 AM

    We have a handful of sauces in the fridge for stir fry dishes but most of the time we end up using dry spices and make our own sauces. Both Mrs. T and I love cooking and love creating new recipes.

    • November 16, 2016 at 1:06 PM

      Making your own is by far the best way to get great sauces…and great food!

  • November 16, 2016 at 1:27 PM

    Hubs and I had been really good(good for what we used to be, which used to be eating out 4 times a week..yikes) after getting back from Spain in September. We dropped the ball(last week) and went out to eat to a place that had been one of our favorite Italian restaurants. After eating my homemade soups and scratch bread, we both decided my cooking is much better than the restaurant food we ate.

    I agree with you, sauces make or break it. Currently, I am attempting to make more of my own homemade sauce as we no longer eat meat and vegan sauces have an automatic 100% plus mark up…gag…cannot stomach paying those kind of prices. Love the idea of buying from the country of the dish you are making, that is very clever.

    Also…I was inspired(by you) to make pumpkin soup and my teenage daughter declared on Facebook(yes…on Facebook..the highest compliment you can get from your kids) that I am the best cook she has ever had the pleasure of eating from.

    • November 16, 2016 at 1:37 PM

      Wow, can I come over to your house to eat? That’s some high praise!

      Right now, I’m in a Thai cooking phase. You can tell from looking at all the sauce pictures 😉 I blame Joe over at Retiredby40…he started it!

  • November 16, 2016 at 9:28 PM

    What sauces are to you, masalas (spices and spice mixes) are to Indian cooking. Masalas will make or break your recipe and home ground is superior to store bought. I don’t grind though, I have to rely on visitors from Indian bringing a supply in with them, or make do with stuff from Indian stores. The other thing that can make or break a recipe is time. e.g. being very patient to slowly brown your onions on a low flame with a lot of stirring will result in a base far superior to what will result if you are impatient and try to take short cuts with the onions.

    P.S. This is a comment I would never have guessed I’d end up writing on a FIRE blog : )

    • November 16, 2016 at 10:02 PM

      I consider Masalas and sauces as essentially the same thing…a sauce is pretty much just a wet form of masala! 🙂

      Both have to be ‘right’ before the dish tastes correct!

    • November 17, 2016 at 3:46 PM

      I would love to learn how to make East Indian spice mixes. They are incredible at the restaurants but I suspect this is the reason my Indian food does not turn out as good.

      Thank you for the slow browning tip, I get impatient sometimes.

      And Mr. Tako I think we are basically neighbors. I live in that little town, on the way, to the mountains that is famous for its Salmon Hatchery.

      • November 17, 2016 at 4:57 PM

        Hi Marisa! We do indeed live pretty close to each other!

  • November 18, 2016 at 7:01 AM

    After working in a nice restaurant kitchen for ~7 yrs, I agree, sauces and/or spices are the life blood to good food. Last year, I didn’t let my gumbo stock simmer down and thicken enough before I added all the other components, and it was subpar. I was so disappointed, I just got in a hurry and thought it was “good enough.” It wasn’t. Even when we lived near New Orleans where gumbo abounds, I always got good praise for my gumbo. Starting from scratch helps a LOT.

    We’re slowly dialing in our homemade sauce recipe for Vietnamese vermicelli noodle bowl – almost there. It took me a good summer of tweaks and revisions to perfect my homemade BBQ sauce. 🙂

  • November 20, 2016 at 1:40 PM

    One of these days I’ll work to improve my cooking ability. I love sauces haha To further take you point in the direction of personal finance, the increased cost of the better quality sauce is well worth it considering the improved quality and the fact that it is still significantly cheaper than eating out. Now, do you have any favorite sauce recipes for beginners like me??

    Thanks for sharing!

    Bert, One of the Dividend Diplomats

    • November 20, 2016 at 2:15 PM

      Sure, what kind of sauce did you have in mind?

  • December 16, 2016 at 6:43 PM

    I only eat pasta sauce that I make myself. So simple and so much better. I am slowly learning from my girlfriend how to make better Southern Sauces, too.


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