The Secret of Secret Sauce

Now that summer has come and gone I have had my fair share of burgers, BBQ, Po’Boys, and the like.

By now my cholesterol numbers are probably through the roof and my heart is not happy about that. But my palate has no regrets whatsoever. (The eternal human dilemma, balancing indulgence and denial. )

Looking back on these American originals, I see a through thread connecting them, a common ingredient that groups them together in an unspoken gastronomic fraternity.

Yes indeed, the Secret Sauce.

I always thought that the secret sauce was a twentieth century phenomena invented by MacDonald’s or some obsessed BBQ chef with too much time on his hands.

For many years I considered it a lowbrow interpretation of a Haute Cuisine sauce to dip my salty french fries, or to wipe off my shirt as it oozed out of my triple-Decker burger.

Not so.

I have since discovered that secret sauce has held a place of high popularity all through the history of civilization. I should have known this all along. People in any era want to make their daily lives convenient and that applies to cooking. Using a secret sauce to make a simple and quick meal taste great is convenience of the highest order.

But what is secret sauce and it’s purpose in the culinary tradition?

Its purpose is simple. Its purpose is to make you want to take another bite, and another, and another – the chef’s opiate, the chef’s version of a spiritual epiphany. What it is, I will save for later.

This secret sauce tradition started way back in the ancient Greco-Roman world with the production of Garum. It was their equivalent of America’s ketchup. However, it was not made from red sun-ripened tomatoes and garden grown herbs. It was concocted from the bodies of small fish that had been salted and sealed in a terracotta crock then left to ferment for a few months on the beach.

Despite sounding like something inedible, Garum was a true condiment as we know it today. It was packaged and shipped across the Roman world from locations in present-day Portugal, Spain, and Southern Italy.

Boy, have tastes changed.

In Europe and American perhaps, but not so much in Asia. There, jarred variations of this fabled flavor additive can be found wherever people are eating and cooking. Sambal, which has a base of ground and fermented shrimp, is one such condiment as is ubiquitous fish sauce, made from fish or krill that has been fermented for up to two years.

In Asia the fermentation method used for making Garum and fish sauce has been applied to other ingredients as well. Soy beans have become popular to ferment and has created other varieties of condiments which include soy sauce in Japan, and Hoisin sauce in China and Vietnam.

Another innovation in secret sauce formulation came by way of the tiny mustard seed. From what I have read, Mustard was a very popular condiment in Europe stretching back to Medieval era. But it was not until 1830 that the English Mustard-monger William Taylor, founder of The Taylor company, sold the first prepared mustard. It was identical to what we purchase off the supermarket shelf today. As far as bragging rights are concerned, this is the first modern secret in culinary history – a packaged condiment ready to be eaten when purchased.

Around this time Garum made a come back as a commercial available secret sauce in Europe and America. It was through the link that the English had with India that made this possible.

Lord Marcus Sandy, ex-governor of Bengal was an employee of the East India Company in the 1830s. There he encountered a condiment that appears to be a variety of fermented chutney that included fish, or it was served on fish. Either way, he like what he had eaten and when he returned to England he asked his local apothecaries John Wheely Lea and William Perrins of 63 Broad Street, Worcester to recreate what he had.

They did and apparently it was a gastronomic failure. But as Lea & Perrins company legend has it, the brutal brew was stored in a wooden barrel and by chance, sampled two years later. (Why is anyone’s guess!) Much to there surprise it had mellowed enough to be considered edible and the pair started marketing it in 1838.

To be fair, in the 1700 – 1800s ‘modernized’ and varied recipes for similar fish based condiments, using oysters in particular, were circulating in abundance in England as well as America. The ingredients were not fermented for years on end but cooked down to a thick caramelization. (That just does not sound as bad.)

On the other side of the pond, Sandy’s fellow Brits were participating in a culinary, cultural exchange of their own that would transform one particular type of secret sauce into an American gastronomical icon. That process started a century before Lord Marcus Sandy went to Bengal.

Emily Cappiello’s wrote an article for Chow Hound, A Brief History of BBQ, that sums up one of our most popular secret sauces.

“Barbecue, according to research done by The Smithsonian, began during the Colonial Era in Virginia. Colonists observed Native Americans smoking and drying meats over an open flame. Then, the British settlers put their own spin on it with basting, using mostly butter or vinegar, to keep the meat moist while grilling over an open flame. Years later, as slaves from the Caribbean were brought to the U.S., they also brought their own flavors, spices, and techniques. Thus, barbecue was born.”

The first commercially produced barbecue sauce was made by the Georgia Barbecue Sauce Company in Atlanta, Georgia. Its’ sauce was advertised for sale in the Atlanta Constitution, January 31, 1909. Not long after, a slew of other brands had entered the market.

BBQ’s lineage as a secret sauce may be as old as Taylor’s prepared mustard but another famous secret sauce had appeared on the store shelves of the Grand Old Union about forty years earlier then G.B.S.C. Inc’s per-packaged offering of down home smoky, spicy wonderment.

BBQ sauce, as well as another heralded secret sauce, owes its wide distribution to the Civil War. While canning food to feed the union troops, it was discovered that tomatoes were a perfect fit for the process. Subsequently, farm production of the formerly shunned fruit, known as the love apple, exploded. After the war, the tomato became accepted as an edible fruit and grew in popularity. As canned foods filled more shelves at grocery stores, across the country tomatoes out-sold all other products; which leads us to another tomato success story.

H. J. Heinz, son of German immigrants that settled in Pennsylvania in the 1840s, introduced his now famous recipe of Ketchup in 1876. It contained tomatoes, distilled vinegar, brown sugar, salt and a variety of spices that were a secret. He also pioneered the use of glass bottles, so customers could see what they were purchasing. Thanks to H. J.’s ingenuity, there is a bottle of Ketchup in most house holds across the fruited plains.

Now you may be thinking about ketchup’s twin, mustard. It had been around as a condiment longer then its red-skinned twin, but it took a George French to make it as popular.

George did this by serving it on hot dogs at the 1905 St. Louis World’s Fair. It did not take long for this publicity stunt to put a bottle of mustard in most American households, right along with the ketchup.

My research shows that 1912 was a pivotal date for its evolution and the development of the American secret sauce tradition. On that date Richard Hellman, who owned Hellman’s Deli in New York, sold his first glass bottle full of Hellman’s Blue Ribbon Mayonnaise, a date most cardiologists probably hold in infamy.

The way I see it, America entered it golden age of secret sauces in 1912.

Before I justify that claim, it would be good to know the components that make a secret sauce.

The basic flavor components for secret sauce is some combination of the following – sweet, sour, salty, spicy, smoky and organic fat and umami fat.

In general, secret sauces can be grouped into two categories. This grouping is based on the creator’s methodology of making the diner crave it to the last drop.

Group one balances flavors and sensations. There is tension set up by two opposing or different flavors that stimulates the taste buds and makes you want to eat more to experience that stimulation. In the short term this makes the food habit forming, culinary crack. BBQ sauce falls squarely in this category. The major flavor tension is between the sugar and the vinegar, the juxtaposing sweet and sour. Secondary is the tension from the big, fat mouth feel of the tomato base and the ephemeral nature of the smoky flavor notes. A black pepper finish can add to that crack affect too.

Group two relies almost exclusively on making the food feel big and fat in your mouth. Take the McDonald secret sauce for example. It is not a sophisticated dance of flavors playing off of one another like a tango or a ballet. No, not much finesse there, mostly the blunt instruments of creamy fat and sugar clobbering your palate into submission. I am not judging this approach; it works and that’s what counts here.

Soy sauce achieves the same result but without relying on organic fat like mayo. It uses salt to stimulate the taste buds and glutamates to tell your mouth this is big as well as satisfying. The salt is added and the glutamates are developed from fermenting the main ingredient, soy beans.

For those readers who don’t know what umami is this quote from Wikipedias’ article on umami will do nicely: “People taste umami through taste receptors that typically respond to glutamates, which are widely present in meat broths and fermented products… Since umami has its own receptors rather than arising out of a combination of the traditionally recognized taste receptors, scientists now consider umami to be a distinct taste.”

There is another ‘secret ingredient’ replicates the umami phenomenon – Maggi. Caramelized sugar derived from the sugar contained in vegetable, such as carrots and onions, results in the same chemicals the fermentation process yields. Caramelized sugar is obtained by applying dry heat, oven-roasting or sauteing, to a sugar-rich vegetable. The applied heat browns or caramelizes their sugar. The Swiss fellow Julies Maggi, who invented and marketed Maggi, knew this too. He cooked down his caramelized vegetables in water until a thick, dark, rich syrup resulted. That liquid, when added to a stew or a soup, gave it a deeper, richer flavor that was big and substantial on the pallet, not thin and watery.

If you are the kind of cook who ascribes to the modern age adage ‘better living through chemistry’ then the compound monosodium glutamate is your go umami enhancing option. It has been commercial available in Japan since discovered by Kikunae Ikeda in 1905. However, an economical manufacturing process to produce it by the ton was developed in 1959 and made it affordable to the world market.

The mouth feel ingredients, liquid smoke, Maggi and soy sauce, create complexity and also fool your pallet into experiencing something it is really not experiencing.

These flavors and flavor enhancers that make up a secret sauce need a delivery vehicle, something to hold them together for transport onto the food then onto the palate. These items include, but may not be limited to mustard, mayo, tomato, sour cream, heavy cream, butter milk, ketchup, vinegar and oil. Some of these vehicles are secret sauce in their own right before the anything is added to them.

Back to 1912.

My rational for calling that year the start of the golden age is based on place utility. Every one of the ingredients I just mentioned was available to the American consumer at reasonable prices and in adequate quantities at that time. Now any housewife, fast food entrepreneur, classically trained executive chef, or weekend BBQ enthusiast could mix and match them and come up with a pop-culture favorite. Out of this age came many secret sauce favorites, such as McDonald’s special sauce, Hidden Valley Ranch dressing, Baby Ray’s Chicken Dipping Sauce, and Louisiana Cajun Style Seafood Sauce, to name just a few.

This brings the history of secret sauce to the present day. Please be aware, my history should not be confused with a formal dissertation published by the Oxford Press – too many fun facts and two pint conjectures for that.

But I do have a take-away from all this writing.

As I stated earlier, writing this post has challenged my notion that secret sauces are lowbrow cooking. Actually, they follow in the french tradition of Haute Cuisine.

Escoffier and Careme delighted the rich and famous by roasting fine cuts of meat and created complicated sauces to go with them. Many a humbler burger flipper and fry cook have done the same for their burgers and po’ boys. However, they went one better, they delighted millions of every class, rich or poor.

Everyone has to eat and everyone should take delight in what they eat.

Bon Appetite!

God bless the secret sauce!

2 thoughts on “The Secret of Secret Sauce

  1. Hi Chef Greg – How about whipping up a batch of Garum as a Christmas gift? I’ve always wanted to try it – if you can find an ancient recipe for it. Ego volo garum!


    1. Sure, my copy of the Apicius has a fine recipe fit for Caesars himself.
      But since it has to age for a year your amphorae full of the delicate black nectar, coveted across the empire and beyond, won’t arrive until the following Christmas (Dies Natali Invictus?)
      Will UPS even ship this stuff?


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