Expanding on Reduction Sauces

December 20, 2006

11 Min Read
Expanding on Reduction Sauces

Many reduction sauces have clear origins, but their evolution is still underway. Classic reductions have the potential to accent an expanding range of applications, and variations highlight novel ingredient combinations and marriages of flavor.

I used to think my first introduction to reduction sauces was a balsamic reduction served over gelato about a decade or so ago. However, now I know that the first reduction sauce I ever had was during Thanksgiving 1974. I do not remember it well. Solid foods were new to me; I was a simple little boy who loved his jarred yams and peas. Little did I know that my Italian grandmother, Nona, was light years ahead of her time in serving her family a reduction sauce called gravy.

You might be thinking, No, reduction sauces are just served at cutting-edge white-tablecloth restaurants. Many have referred to reduction sauces as ketchup for the rich. However, reduction sauces can accent many foodsfrom fast to fancy.

From dessert toppers to protein enhancers to appetizer boosters, the uses for reduction sauces are limitless.

Deconstructing reductions 

Reduction sauces are sauces that are reduced. (Now I see why they asked me to write this article. See, it takes a genius to explain the concept.) The goal of making a reduction sauce is to heat the sauce until its moisture content is lowered and the desired flavor and consistency has been reached.

Today, the term reduction sauce is a loose description. (Where are the French Sauce Police? Do you think the ghost of Escoffier is ticked that cooks have gone mad and are naming a sauce incorrectly?) Some sauces are thin, with concentrated flavors. Other reduction sauces are thicker, with added sugars, similar to a glaze or syrup.

Take my gravy example: Nona removed the turkey from her roasting pan and allowed the cooked bird to cool. She either strained the remaining liquid from the pan or scooped out all of the veggie particulates floating in the pan juice. She added some corn starch and then cooked down the liquid. More than likely, she evaporated one-third to one-half of the liquid to concentrate the flavors and thicken the sauceall while protecting the resting turkey from a crew of hungry Italians, poised to attack and devour the bird. While Nona was reducing the sauce, she tasted it constantly with a spoonshe may have, in fact, double or triple dipped.

But gravy is just the first leg of our journey through reduction sauces.

Background notes 

Designers dont have to keep reduction sauces monogamously married to center-of- the-plate proteins. They can also add rich flavor combinations to appetizers and other applications via dipping sauces.

In the past, reduction sauces were simple sauces that generally were the purge from the protein, as described in the turkey-gravy example. 

As of late, the culinary world has pretty much used reduction sauces as a stand-alone sauce with a protein. Some classic pairings include Cabernet reductions with a range of beef cuts, balsamic reductions with lamb or beef, and Port reductions paired with savory or sweet items, including beef, fish and poultry, and desserts like poached pears or tartlets. Some chefs will take the simple reduction of balsamic vinegar alone and finish with butter until the sauce is velvetya fine accent to beef dishes. Adding ingredients, such as cranberries or cherries, can spin the sauces into a number of directions to accent different foods.

Classic sauce techniques call for a reduction to flavor one of the mother sauces: velouté, a stock-based sauce; egg-based emulsion sauces like hollandaise; espagnole, a brown sauce with mirepoix and stock; béchamel, a white, creamy sauce; and tomato sauce.

The most familiar combination is adding a tarragon reduction to hollandaise sauce to create béarnaise sauce. The tarragon portion calls for reducing au sec. Reducing au sec to drymeans to take the liquid out slowly over low heat until nearly all of the liquid is evaporated. The idea is to concentrate flavors that are added to a mother sauce to create something new.

Another example includes adding a reduction of Port wine, shallots, thyme, lemon juice, orange juice, lemon zest, orange zest, salt and cayenne pepper to demi-glace, a reduction of equal parts brown sauce and brown veal stock (estouffade). Supreme sauce is made from a mixture of reduced chicken velouté and heavy cream. Adding a reduction of pepper, horseradish, thyme, bay leaves, parsley, vinegar, crayfish and crayfish tails to hollandaise yields a classic Creole sauce. This gold-standard recipe is one that many culinary school students learn to prepare. Some French recipes call for mirepoix, mushroom stems and herbs cooked slowly in white wine, then reduced and added to scratch-made mayonnaise.

New introductions 

Today, chefs are making recipes with reduction sauces that utilize unique ingredients in a simple form, like a lemongrass reduction that might only consist of lemongrass broth and some sugar. This lets the distinct flavor of lemongrass come through, perhaps to accent a fish fillet.

Ingredient selection often plays a big part in the success of a reduction sauce. Jimmy Schmidt, chef and proprietor, The Rattlesnake Clubwith locations in Detroit and Palm Springs Valley, CAprepares reductions for many of his seasonal offerings. One is a red wine and honey reduction. He uses honey instead of white sugar, because white sugar, he says, has sharp edges that can disturb the mouthfeel of a simple reduction.

In the last few years, I have seen some unusual reduction sauces. In Seattle I saw a dish that had an alder wood mushroom reduction. The chef must have thought that matching two woody flavors and then intensifying them would be unique. In Mexico, I had a hibiscus and pork stock reduction. I have tasted some trends where the reduction sauce is a kind of new-wave dipping sauce, like a sake reduction for Pan-Asian appetizers. Also, reduction sauces are making their way into desserts far beyond balsamic reductions over ice cream. Exotic fruitsincluding many from Mexico, like tuna, a type of prickly pearare also being made into reduction sauces. Similar to a simple syrup reduction, these sauces are reduced down to one-quarter of their original volume.

Plant reductions 

When I learned to cook, we didnt have no stinkin special pans to cook a reduction sauce down! In a society that needs a gadget for everything, we have reduction sauce pans, which look similar to normal sauce pans, but with a curved bottom so that the liquid rapidly moves around and eventually evaporates. A standard thick bottom sauce pan gives similar results, but those specially designed pans allow some leeway in the timing and mixing while cooking down the sauce. Some controversy lies in whisking the sauce so the flavors are evenly distributed or to allow the sauce to mix itself while reducing. There are even special whisks for mixing hot sauces.

We dont have those little luxuries in production so we need to replicate the product using what we do have. Product designers can create reduction sauces in many different ways in a plant. They can be made in a steam-jacketed kettle; however the sauce will need a long time to reduce down in volume. Reductions can also be made in an oven in deep pans.

Starting with a gold-standard recipe can help design a product that reduces the cook time. After creating a scratch sauce that you are happy with, take a look at that finished result. You might notice the intensity or oak notes of the wine, or that the honey tastes similar to a brown butter, or that the sauce has a nutty finish.

Then, to minimize the time a product spends in the plant, you might work with a flavor house to replicate those flavor attributes in the scale-dup product. Some companies make wine reductions cooked all the way down to 10% of the starting volume. Concentrated, reduced stocks are also available. Then, just add the flavor notes that you identified and obtained from the flavor company. After, blending all of the ingredients together, the finished process could be as simple as bringing the sauce to a boil and a short simmer. Such an approach to creating a reduction sauce could shorten plant time from around 75-plus minutes down to 15 or 20or perhaps even less.

Fresh herbs have some unique aromatic characteristics, so if they cant be used or their flavor changes during processing, the flavor could get assistance from added green notes. If the process doesnt permit the development of the correct Maillard reaction cooked notes, added flavors can help replicate that effect.

Some chefs make reductions in a pan with fond, the caramelized or slightly burnt bits of meat left behind after browning the meat. They pour wine into the hot pan to deglaze and release the fond into the sauce, and then add other ingredients. Matching that fond flavor whether derived from, poultry, beef, pork or lambin a manufactured sauce by adding a meat flavor can create from-scratch appeal in the product and deliver rich, meaty background notes.

Always compare the finished sauce to the gold standard. Ingredient substitutions and plant-manufacturing processes can alter the sauces flavor, and modifications might be necessary in order to develop the desired profile. If the sauce is part of a prepared finished product, its also always a good idea to taste the sauce in the target application to make sure the desired marriage of flavors comes through.

If I am developing sous vide in a bag, can I create a reduction sauce right in the bag? Here we get a little creative, but via reverse-engineering by making the gold standard on the stove top to the desired consistency.

Now, consider the following: purge of the protein in the bag for its entire cooking time; the amount of liquid needed to serve with the protein (65% protein to 35% reduction sauce, which provides some remainder to go over a starch or perhaps served separately); whether sauce cooked in the bag will have the desired sheen; and whether added fat is needed to match the mouth feel. Since the cooking temperature of a cook-in-bag product is generally low, you may need to work with a flavor company to include the rich flavors that taste like the sauce was cooking for an extended period on a stove top.

Some applications require a frozen reduction sauce. When freezing reduction sauces, do not introduce any added moisture, as this will soften the flavors. Also, when pumping sauces, analyze the viscosity for consistency throughout the batch.

Deducing the reduction 

Many opportunities exist for using reduction sauces in processed foods. I could see reduction sauces incorporated into sauceless lasagnas, similar to Napoleon-type lasagnas (several layers of pasta with interspersed fillings), perhaps with an Italian red wine and basil reduction. Also, an entrée of lightly sautéed chicken breast could gain new life with a spinach, onion and chicken velouté reduction. Imagine a beef satay appetizer with béarnaise sauce for dippinga little basic, but very appetizing. I could also see a basic balsamic reduction as a nice addition to a grilled-vegetable heat-and-eat panini sandwich for the freezer.

Bottled reductionswhether refrigerated or shelf stablemight flash back to classics like the French staple, poivrade, a reduction of red wine, peppercorns and butterthe perfect complement to beef. Another idea could be a line of reduction sauces for foodservice operators or possibly even home cooks where the end user adds a limited amount of water and maybe some melted butter for added sheen. In that battery, I could see a citrus-ginger reduction, which could work as a sweet or savory sauce; a red-pepper-onion sauce for red meat or poultry; or a pesto-inspired reduction sauce.

And why not consider sweets in the freezer case? Top a New York cheesecake with a raspberry-Riesling reduction with orange peel. Or, whip up a reduction of guava, triple sec and mint for a tropical torte.

Reduction sauces span from basic gravy to rich, creamy coverings for proteins to light dessert toppings. I still go back to the basics, like balsamic or wine reductions. If I were to go to a high-end restaurant, I would rather have a wine reduction on a plate than a roasted garlic cotton candy garnish. Less is more, and simple food will always link us back to our rootsback to the table at holiday time, when Grandma was light years ahead of the trends.

James Lombardi is vice president of culinary services for Midas Foods International, Oak Park, MI, a producer of dry functional systems. He has worked in foodservice operations, foodservice sales and product development. He is a member of the Research Chefs Association. In his free time he loves to reduce sauces, as well as cook with his wife and new baby girl.

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