The Sauce System: 5 Staple Vegan Sauces for Endless Meal Options

Traditional thai spicy red curry

When I first started to care about what I ate, my cooking repertoire consisted of Kraft Mac & Cheese and pasta sauce à la jar.

If I added a vegetable into either dish, it was my attempt to impress a lady (smooth, I know).

So when I finally felt the need to learn how to cook, I did what most people do … I bought a cookbook.

I chose one writen by a famous TV chef, went to the kitchen, and made a shopping list. But it didn’t take long to realize that following detailed recipes is both time consuming and annoying, and I was quickly back to heating up jars of red sauce.

That’s the hangup for a lot of new vegans, vegetarians, or people who simply want to eat more whole foods. Planning for and cooking unfamiliar meals is just too darn hard to maintain.

Which is exactly why I love cooking formulas — like the Chipotle Method — that break cooking and planning into an adaptable process to save time, use what’s already in your fridge, and eliminate the hassle of following a recipe.

This summer, my wife Katie and I developed our own system for meal planning. Only instead of a traditional formula, we use sauces. And it has completely changed the way we cook.

The Sauce System for Simple Meal Planning

Matt is a big fan of single ingredient meal planning, where instead of starting with a cookbook, you plan your meal based on an ingredient you already have. That process narrows down your meal options, and eliminates much of the frustration that comes from trying to decide what to cook.

Katie and I have taken that same philosophy, only instead of a single ingredient, we start with the sauce.

After looking through our list of favorite vegan recipes, we found that what made us love one recipes over another wasn’t a particular starch, vegetable, or plant-based protein. It was the sauce.

Because everyone loves a good sauce, right? A sauce can turn a simple vegetable or rice into a dish you crave for days.

Sauces by nature are endlessly adaptable. Add spice to pump up the heat, or herbs to bring out a particular flavor.

Cook the sauce down and it will thicken, or leave it runny to coat your meal completely.

Katie thought that if she could memorize a number of basic sauces, we could skip the recipes and base each meal off whichever sauce we felt like that day. Adding whatever we had in the pantry or fridge to round out the meal.

And it worked.

Our meal planning became incredible simple, and completely adaptable for quick, last-minute dishes.

(To help you get started with the sauce system, check out the How to Use The Sauce System section and challenge below the recipes.)

Why I Strip Sauces to Their Basic Ingredients

When taking the the sauce system approach to meal planning, the first thing you must do is learn a few basic sauces.

I say basic, because the more you can break a sauce down to its fundamental ingredients, the more you can adapt it to fit your dish. If you have a complex sauce, it may only fit a specific meal, but a simple sauce can be transformed into a variety of flavor profiles.

And, of course, they’re easier to whip up at the last minute.

We took our favorites sauce recipes and asked ourselves these questions:

  1. What ingredients are fundamental to the sauce?
  2. Can I take out certain spices or herbs and still keep the integrity of the sauce?
  3. How can I make the ingredient measurements as simple as possible?

Once we had the basic recipes locked in, we’d keep the ingredients on hand and ready for cooking.

So what are our go-to sauces? Read on to find out.

5 Staple Sauce Recipes (And How to Use Them)

Below I’ve included the five staple sauces we focused on first. They’re easy to make, require few ingredients, and can provide the inspiration for countless dishes.

These are also where I’d recommend you start when using this system:

1. Tomato Sauce

Tomato sauce is probably the most popular sauce around, and it happens to be incredible easy to make.

Basic Recipe

  • 1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil (optional)
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 medium to large onion, chopped
  • 32-ounce can of diced tomatoes
  • Seasoning to taste (salt, black pepper, thyme, fennel seeds, Italian seasoning blend …)

Saute the onion and garlic. Add diced tomatoes and seasoning, and cook until the sauce reaches your desired thickness.

Simple Variations

  • Add hot peppers for spice
  • Drain the can of tomatoes to remove juice and make the sauce thicker
  • Add large fresh tomato chucks for extra texture
  • Blend in raw cashews for a creamy sauce
  • Use Indian spices to move away from the typical Italian flavors

Ways to Use It

Tomato sauce can be used in everything from soups to pizza. Here are examples of my favorite ways to use it:

  1. Pasta dishes, like this basil-walnut recipe
  2. Pizza sauce
  3. Tomato-based soups
  4. Indian Masala

2. Coconut Curry

Without a doubt the favorite dish my wife likes to cook is coconut curry. She has mastered it, and I just can’t get enough.

And the best part is that you can easily change the flavors by adding different spices or ingredients. Here’s the basic recipe:

Basic Recipe

  • 1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil (optional)
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 can of coconut milk
  • 1.5 Tbsp curry powder
  • Splash of lime juice
  • Salt and pepper to taste

After cooking the garlic, add the remaining ingredients and cook down until you reach the desired consistency.

Simple Variations

  • Add two tablespoons of peanut-butter for a peanut curry (top your dish with crushed peanuts for added crunch)
  • Replace the curry powder with red curry paste for a Thai red curry variation
  • Add extra hot peppers and spices for a bigger punch

Ways to Use It

Coconut curry goes best with Asian inspired dishes. Here are some of the simplest ways to use it:

  1. A basic stir fry with vegetables, tempeh or tofu, and rice. Simply pour the sauce over top of your cooked dish
  2. Peanut noodle bowls (the peanut version of my curry sauce works just as well as the peanut sauce with this recipe)
  3. Thai coconut curry soup

3. Lemon Tahini

Lemon tahini sauce brings a fresh Mediterranean taste to your meal rotation, but your not limited to just the traditional dishes:

Basic Recipe

  • 1 cup tahini
  • 1 cup water
  • Juice of 1 large lemon
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 tsp of ground cumin (optional)
  • Fresh ground salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients in a food processor and blend. Adjust based on taste preferences.

Simple Variations

  • Cut back on the water and add 1 cup coconut milk for a coconut tahini sauce
  • Add 1 cup mint for a more refreshing flavor

Ways to Use It

I like to think outside the box when it comes to tahini sauce:

  1. Create a unique pasta by coating noodles, sauteed vegetables, and beans with a runny version of this sauce
  2. Toss chickpeas and raw veggies and serve in a wrap
  3. Pour over a rice and falafel dish

4. Teriyaki

Teriyaki is a common base sauce for stir-fries, and it’s super easy to put together:

Basic Recipe

  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 tsp brown sugar or agave nectar
  • 1 Tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and minced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup scallions, minced (optional)

Combine ingredients in a sauce pan, heat and stir until sugar is dissolved.

Simple Variations

  • Add extra sugar for more sweetness
  • Fresh hot peppers bring an added spice
  • Add a splash of rice vinegar for more bite
  • Cook down for a thicker drizzle

Ways to Use It

Because Teriyaki is a looser sauce than some of the others, it can coat noodles and top salads:

  1. Stir fry whatever vegetables to you have in the fridge and pour over rice
  2. Marinate tempeh, vegetables, or tofu in the sauce overnight and throw on the grill
  3. Toss with a noodle bowl
  4. Use as a salad dressing for an Asian salad

5. Cashew Cream

We have a version of cashew cream sauce ready and in the fridge at all times. When it’s not the main sauce for a meal, it’s often an add-on for extra flavor.

Basic Recipe

  • 2 cups raw cashews
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1/4 tsp paprika
  • Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 to 1 cup water

Add all ingredients into food processor or high-powered blender and blend until creamy in texture.

Simple Variations

  • Reduce the amount of water to thicken for a topping
  • Add 1/4 cup nutritional yeast for a cheesier texture (perfect for pasta dishes)
  • Add 1-2 Tbsp of chipotle seasoning and tomato paste for a spicy variation
  • Use dairy-free milk instead of water for more creaminess

Ways to Use It

From a cheese-like flavor to a creamy topping, cashew cream is always a hit:

  1. Chipotle cream is the perfect topping for vegan enchiladas or burritos
  2. No more Kraft! I love a good vegan macaroni and cheese dish (add kale or chard for extra flavor)
  3. Use a thick version as a topping on baked potatoes or chili

How to Use the Sauce System to Plan Your Meals (Plus a 4-Week Challenge)

With the basic recipes down, there are a variety of ways to use the sauce system for meal planning.

It can be done informally, like Katie and I do it: we choose a few sauces each week and make quick meal decisions once we’ve received our farm share and see what we have.

Or you could take it one step further and actually assign certain sauces to certain days, reducing the number of decisions even more.

Maybe every Monday is tomato sauce day, Tuesday teriyaki, and so forth.

Need a little motivation to start using the system? Try a month long meal planning challenge:

  1. Assign each sauce to a specific weekday (Tomato Monday, Teriyaki Tuesday, etc.)
  2. Each week, choose one of the “Ways to Use It” options for that sauce
  3. The following week, mix it up and use the sauce in a different way

Between the five sauces and suggested ways to use it, you nearly have a new meal planned for every weekday for a month — without any planning at all!

Plus, by the time this challenge is over, you should have each of the sauces memorized and ready to use on any given day.

Keep Meal Planning and Preparations Easy

As with most things, simplicity is what makes a major lifestyle change stick. And that’s what the sauce system does for your meal planning.

It’s as easy as choosing a few sauces you want this week and deciding how to serve them.

No recipe books. No frantic scrambles for last-minute ingredients.

Just an easily adaptable system for cranking out delicious vegan meals.

About the Author: Doug is an ultrarunner, coach, and the co-host of NMA Radio. Pick up his free eBook, Why Every Runner Should Be a Trail Runner (And How to Become One).



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  1. Jill Kreiss Tinsley says:

    Oh my gosh, I love this idea!! I am going to try it and am looking forward to having it simplify my life during the week. Then, maybe on the weekends I will have enough energy to get to more time consuming or creative recipes. Thank you!

  2. I never leave comments, but this one earns my thank you. This will really help me continue to reduce my use of store bought sauces, feel better about my cooking, and make use of what is in the kitchen, instead of thinking ‘there’s nothing to eat!’ Much appreciated!

  3. This is awesome. SAUCEome. Thank you!

  4. Great ideas! And perfect timing, as I’m planning my grocery list and meals right now.

    Just wanted to make a suggestion for those (like me) that can’t tolerate coconut: use any non-dairy milk and blend in a handful of cashews or sunflower seeds, adding 1/2-1 tsp of coconut extract, if you want. The nuts/seeds create the richness of coconut milk ~ and the extract is obvious ;). If you don’t have a monster blender, soak the nuts for a few hours, or strain the mixture before cooking.

  5. Jean Leyton says:

    Thank you so much! I sometimes run our of ideas….these sauces really help! And easy enough for my college aged girls to make, as they embark on their new vegan journey!

  6. Thanks! These are great ideas. I think and cook pretty much the same way and just hope my husband doesn’t notice it’s cabbage and carrots again, because the sauce and add-ons are different ?

  7. Love this! I have been telling myself that I just need to remember some sauces…and you go and do it for me! Thank you!!! Can’t wait to get home and start cooking.

  8. Pat Paolini says:

    It is so nice to have recipes for sauces that do not include tomatoes! Thanks

  9. I really liked this post. I can’t wait to try these sauces. Super good timing as I try to simplify cooking to free up time and decrease stress around cooking. Thanks!!!

  10. Love this! I’m with Kristie in that I never leave comments but felt I had to with this one. Thank you 🙂

  11. Would you say each recipe would serve about four people? Love the idea, thanks for sharing! We feed 6 to 8 people a night. I will probably double everything.

  12. Ian Davey says:

    Great idea’s, thanks Doug, you star yet again.
    Reminds me of my Mum when I was young in Melbourne, Monday was Lamb chops, chips (fries) and peas. That lasted for years until she set the kitchen on fire cooking the chips!
    Also, for us non Americans, what is Chipotle?

    • Ha! I hope that fire didn’t stop her from cooking!

      Chipotle is a small pepper that has been dried and smoked, but I usually use a pre-made seasoning mix. It’s smoky, and typically associated with Mexican or Tex-Mex food. Think chili powder, cumin, and smoked jalapenos.

  13. Jennifer Cook says:

    Love this! I meal plan for my vegetarian family of 5 every week, but sometimes I am just stumped for new ideas or feel uninspired. This is a perfect guide for me and great base recipes! Thank you!

  14. Noodle in NC says:

    Matt, thanks a million for the ideas and recipes. I’ve started a new habit of making a crockpot of soup every Sunday morning and I might also make one or two of these sauces while the soup’s on. That would leave my fridge stocked for the week for streamlined weeknight dinners.

  15. Great ideas. Any tips on storage for bulk makes?

    • Great question! I actually meant to add that in. Some of the sauces will freeze well in a ziplock bag — tomato and Teriyaki would be best. The coconut may separate, so you’d want to mix it up really well after heating it up. I probably wouldn’t recommend freezing the cashew or tahini.

  16. Love! Thanks!

  17. What a fantastic idea, thank you so much!

  18. I love this idea, thank you very much for sharing it. It will make my life much easier 🙂

  19. Wonderful post! I’m a new vegan and it can get overwhelming at times trying to come up with new ideas. This is a lifesaver!

  20. Michael Monberg says:

    I will definitely try this!

  21. 1 cup of Soy Sauce in the Teriyaki seems like a LOT. Is that recipe correct!?

  22. Thanks for sharing all the great info on sauces in one simple article. There’s so much included here, it’s mind boggling. I can’t wait to try them. On my own, I have been getting so bored.

  23. Donna Mcfarland says:

    Wowza!! Dude..this is a fantastic list! Thank you-looking forward to trying some unique sauces. Keeping this list ~for life!!

  24. I like to freeze sauces in ice cube trays and pop out into zip top bags when solid.

  25. Thank you so much! This is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been looking for since giving up cheese..gonna try the tomato & cashew first!

  26. surati Ivey says:

    OMG – I’m laughing because I get pleasure out of seeing how the men look at cooking.
    They love making a system out of things. I’m a long time gourmet cook , who has become Vegan, and also who is tired of over-thinking, and over working in the kitchen. I worship at the alter of simplicity, and you have helped me. Love your idea’s.

  27. Tina Coe says:

    Awesome Sauce…lol

  28. Savannah020 says:

    This is just brilliant stuff! Thank you for simplifying my life so much! I have each of these sauces in my fridge. Whenever I come home from work, I now choose some vegetables, choose pasta, rice, quinoa or whatever and toss one of these sauces in. Simple and delicious each time!

  29. I would like the calorie and nutritional breakdown for these sauces. They sound wonderful, but I am very calories oriented.

  30. As a new vegan this makes me even more excited to eat clean AND satisfy my taste buds. I just made your cashew cream sauce and couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out. You are a LIFE SAVER! Can’t wait to make the red Thai curry sauce next! Thanks so much for sharing. =)

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