This Genius No-Cook French Tomato Magic Should Be the Sixth Mother Sauce

June 21, 2017

No disrespect to the five classic mother sauces of French cuisine, but we’ve come a long, long way since then, velouté.

The next time you dangle handfuls of melty cheddar into a béchamel for mac and cheese or ladle Thanksgiving gravy into a hollow of mashed potatoes, you can give their roux-thickened mamas a little nod—but right this second I’m going to need us to turn our attention to another, decidedly more modern French sauce. I bet you're going to feel inspired to make this one a whole lot more.

It's called sauce vierge (literally virgin sauce)—a miraculous fresh tomato sauce you can spoon over fish or vegetables or pasta or anything summer throws at you. It was created in 1976 by Michel Guérard, one of the forces behind the lighter, fresher nouvelle cuisine that sprang up in reaction to cuisine classique, dripping with all its hefty mother sauces.

Shop the Story

But Guérard had even splintered off into his own even lighter form of spa food called cuisine minceur—a.k.a. thin cooking. At his own luxury spa and hotel, he still serves a "slimming menu" that changes each day: “They include a starter, a main course, and a dessert, although there are never more than 600 calories.” Regardless of how it’s packaged, this form of French low-cal cooking has little to nothing in common with Lean Cuisine, as you can plainly see here. Light doesn’t mean stripped bare; low-calorie doesn’t preclude a generous cushion of olive oil (or butter or dessert, or much else).

In sauce vierge, there have emerged only a few non-negotiables: fresh tomato, olive oil, lemon juice, and fresh herbs, which you can either let sit for an hour or two at room temperature to mingle, or very gently cook on the stovetop. Many add smashed garlic and ground coriander. Most peel and seed the tomato, but I refuse.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I make a version of this virgin sauce with a little less olive oil and some vinegar instead of lemon juice and call it salad.”
— FS

Surprisingly, the first published version in Guérard's breakout cookbook La Grande Cuisine Minceur in 1976 had lots more complications, calling for mustard and Worcestershire and a homemade fromage blanc. But by La Cuisine Gourmande in 1977, Guerard had slimmed the recipe down considerably to the more common bare-bones form (from 557 words to a petite 98). From there, a parade of influential chefs helped it proliferate around the globe: the Roux brothers liked to warm it just before serving; Marco Pierre White added black olives; Gordon Ramsay brought back some fuss with a shallot confit and balsamic vinegar.

In this way, sauce vierge is a true foundational mother sauce, one from which we can build many. Though it’s perhaps most often associated with grilled or sautéed mellow white fish, on the internet alone it’s been served over lobster, scallops, a crab omelette, lamb chops, heaps of pasta, grilled chicken and tofu, poached eggs, and—at the recent wedding of Pippa Middleton—like this: "Berkshire Mayfly trout, paired with marinated cucumber, confit tomatoes, horseradish cream and sauce vierge."

All summer, you can make it over and over—every time you lament that it’s too hot too cook, or you've overreached at the pricey tomato pile at the farmers market, or you happen to remember what life was like 3 months ago, when the tomatoes weren’t nearly this good. Because that time will come again. Then we can go back to the other mothers.

Photos by Bobbi Lin

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Perhaps a genius dessert? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

Listen & Subscribe

From our new podcast network, The Genius Recipe Tapes is lifelong Genius hunter Kristen Miglore’s 10-year-strong column in audio form, featuring all the uncut gems from the weekly column and video series. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss out.

Listen & Subscribe

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Pomme d'Amour
    Pomme d'Amour
  • Guadalupe Lindo
    Guadalupe Lindo
  • Nonmerci
  • Marianne Kasica
    Marianne Kasica
  • Risottogirl
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Pomme D. December 26, 2021
One of the most interesting versions of Sauce Vierge I’ve had included minced ginger. It was superb on grilled salmon.
Guadalupe L. August 20, 2020
Yes, indeed, this should be the sixth mother sauce but with a twist, it would be the first raw mother sauce. Tomatoes, which originated in the Americas, have been used since ancient times to make the favorite raw sauce to accompany typical dishes throughout Latin America, namely "pico de gallo." So, please, give credit where credit is due.
Nonmerci August 27, 2017
So pico de gallo dressed up as something vaguely French? This is passing for "genius" as opposed to a modified old standard? Give me a break.
PS007 August 28, 2017
Haha I'm with you, this site has become a joke.
Marianne K. August 27, 2017
How long will this keep? Does refrigeration dull the flavor?
Risottogirl August 27, 2017
Peel. And then make tomato salt with tomato skins. Its delicious.
girlwithaknife June 26, 2017
I've made this (sans simmering) even before hearing about the origins of this sauce. Great on hot dogs too!
Caroline M. June 25, 2017
I'm so with you on not peeling and seeding tomatoes. Why would you throw half the tomato away?!
BerryBaby June 25, 2017
Our mother used to make something similar in the 1950's, but she would add a little bit of vinegar and call it tomato salad. Big fresh tomatoes out of the garden with fresh herbs we loved it
cosmiccook June 25, 2017
I just made this dish and the sauce is superb. I am making it and quadrupling the amount. I also can't wait to try Alon's dish in his restaurant--where no doubt he uses his pizza oven. Now This sauce could count as a mother sauce!
cosmiccook June 25, 2017
@Tim from Wpg--I've been making that Silver Palate dish WITH the brie for over 23 years at Jazz Fest (N.O). I've tried every type of cheese--and while goat is good--Brie is the best! I've even tried triple-cream but there's something about Brie. If I recall the caption at the top of the recipe--this dish came from Sardinia? No doubt 20+years ago Brie was the closest cheese to what assuredly was some cheese made only on that island. I add olives & chokes to it. I need to clean out my attic so I can retrieve that book!
PS007 June 25, 2017
Hasn't everyone made this in some form as others have mentioned for bruschetta, salsa etc...
I would be careful throwing around terms like low-calorie and light with this recipe. One serving has over 50g of fat and roughly 500 calories.
BerryBaby June 25, 2017
I make something similar every tomato season with less olive oil and a splash of vinegar.
meghan June 21, 2017
is this not bruschetta?
FS June 21, 2017
Mark Bittman has a very similar recipe which he calls "raw tomato" sauce, to be served with hot pasta. Delicious, to be sure.
I make a version of this virgin sauce with a little less olive oil and some vinegar instead of lemon juice and call it salad.
Ali W. June 21, 2017
In Mexico, we call this "salsa mexicana" (or, as it is known in America, pico de gallo) :P
Kristen M. June 21, 2017
Yes, this is very similar! But the sauciness that comes from the olive oil gives it a different feel. I love that, with both, every cook can customize to their tastes and what they have on hand.