September 1, 1999

14 Min Read
Gold-Standard Sauces

Gold-Standard Sauces
September 1999 -- Culinary Connection

By: Mark L. Miller

  Sauces are a creative outlet in the culinary world, and every chef I've met has taken the preparation of sauces very seriously. There are many reasons for introducing a sauce to a dish - flavor, moisture, texture, plate appearance and to accent one's own style of cooking. The plate is an empty canvas, and a chef can use a sauce to accent the plate, bring out the appearance of a component or enhance the flavor. Sauce design is only limited by creativity.

  What's the difference between a sauce and a gravy? Sliced turkey and gravy sells for $5.50, but medallions of turkey, lightly applewood-smoked and served with a cognac/orange demi-glacé costs $21.99.

  My own passion for sauces probably stems from the bechamel sauce that accompanied my mom's creamed chipped beef; or maybe it's from being reared on one of the purest sauces around - 100% Vermont maple syrup. One of the first sauces I learned to make was my dad's quick and easy sweet-and-sour. He took one part ketchup, one part vinegar, one part sugar and three parts water, threw in a green onion, and then simmered them to a nap consistency. (It always amazed me that, when he was in a hurry, a little cold water with cornstarch would thicken up that sauce right away.)

Flavor marriage  Flavor is one of the most important reasons to use a sauce. Just as when selecting the proper wine to match a meal, so too should care be taken to marry a sauce to the dish.

  When choosing the sauce's flavor character, I tend to fall back on Asian examples, which use savory, sweet, sour and salty, or a combination of two or more of these qualities. The endless flavor combinations satisfy all aspects of the palate. A sauce can fill a "flavor-sensation gap" in a dish. The classic duck a la orange is a perfect example of complementary flavors. Plating the salty, fatty and savory duck with a sweet, acidic sauce fills in the flavor-contrast void.

  Sauces can also combine many contrasting flavors. For example, a sauce can be made by reducing a bottle of cabernet sauvignon with plums, and finishing it off with veal glacé and a little butter. The sauce gets sweetness from the plums, body from the wine, and the butter gives it a rich enhancement. This sauce would complement a grilled veal chop by matching up the grill flavor with the mild and juicy veal. Using this same sauce on a jerked chicken breast would be out of place, as too many fighting flavors would ruin both the sauce and the chicken.

  When matching a sauce to a dish, remember not to overpower the star of the plate. A good example of this would be putting a roasted jalapeño salsa over a poached trout. The combination of acidity, salsa flavors and the dominant flavor of the chiles would overwhelm the fish. To better match a delicate fish, use a reduction of the court bouillon, strained and monté au beurre. Poaching the fish in the broth adds to the natural flavor and creates a perfect match. Also, court bouillon, depending on how developed it is, can add subtle saltiness. A light hand on the butter adds an undertone of desired richness.

  For braised items, "adding back" flavor is key. Braising a large roast in a liquid transfers most of the flavor to the cooking broth while tenderizing the meat. A chef would take that liquid and strain and reduce it down before adding it back to the meat. Why? Because that is where the flavor went - just consider how stocks are made.

Mouthfeel appeal  Sauces also play an important role in adding moisture to a product, both appropriately (and sometimes unfortunately) to cover up dryness. For example, when Aunt Thelma overcooks the Thanksgiving turkey, you have to drown it in gravy just to choke it down. A fitting example of adding moisture is something as simple as ketchup on french fries. The crisp, flavorful fries lack moisture after deep-frying, but the ketchup adds it back, along with flavor and contrast - salty vs. sweet and tangy. Serving the soft, moist yolks of poached eggs over corned-beef hash illustrates the same principle. This design is intentional - the yolks act as the sauce.

  When holding food for any length of time, it's important to introduce moisture and flavor back into the item. Long holding times cause water loss through evaporation. The chef (or food scientist) realizes this, and decides how, and with what flavors, the moisture will be added back through the sauce, thus adding to the character and style of the dish.

  Sauces also introduce texture to a dish. A grilled duck breast might be topped with a reduction of a pinot noir, duck glacé and, added at the end, dried currants. This gives a nice texture contrast between the sauce and that of the fibrous texture of grilled duck. The currants turn moist and slightly chewy, giving a "delicious relief" from the effort it takes to bite through the juicy, whole-muscle duck breast. Adding nuts to this dish, or to one similar, would not afford the same texture, however.

  When adding ingredients to a sauce, don't forget that the garnish may pick up moisture over time. If a walnut sauce with a base of chicken stock and brown sugar is held for any length of time, the walnuts start to lose their texture integrity, and their expected crunch is absent upon consumption. To introduce walnuts to the dish, I would recommend adding them instead to main product, such as walnut-crusted scallops, instead of to the topping sauce.

Sauce Glossary

Bechamel sauce: A French leading sauce made by thickening milk with a white roux and adding seasonings; also known as a cream sauce and a white sauce.

Court bouillon: Water simmered with vegetables, seasonings and an acidic product such as vinegar or wine; used for simmering or poaching fish, shellfish or vegetables.

Demi-glacé: French for half-glaze; used to describe a mixture of half brown stock and half brown sauce reduced by half.

Deglaze: To swirl or stir a liquid (usually wine or stock) in a pan to dissolve cooked food particles remaining on the bottom; the resulting mixture often becomes the base for a sauce.

Flambé: Foods served flaming; produced by igniting brandy, rum or liquor.

Glacé: Short for glacé de viande - a dark brown, syrupy glaze used by reducing a brown stock; used to color and flavor sauces.

Lazy man's boil: very low simmer.

Mirepoix: A mixture of coarsely chopped onions, carrots and celery used to flavor stocks, stews and other foods; generally a mixture of 50% onions, 25% carrots and 25% celery by weight is used.

Monté au beurre: To finish a sauce by swirling or whisking in butter (raw or compound) until it is melted; used to give sauces shine, flavor and richness.

Nap, Nape, Nappe: (v)To coat the food with sauce; (a)The consistency of a liquid, usually a sauce, that will coat the back of a spoon.

Reduce (reduction): The process of cooking a liquid or sauce until the quantity decreases through evaporation; typically done to concentrate flavors and thicken liquids.

Roux: A cooked mixture of equal parts flour and fat, by weight, used as a thickener for sauces, soups and other dishes; cooking the flour in fat coats the starch granules with the fat and prevents them from forming lumps when introduced into a liquid.

Sweating: To cook vegetables over very low heat until they soften and release their moisture and flavors.

To sec: To reduce a liquid, usually wine or stock until almost dry.

Looking good
  Another important function of a sauce is its appearance on the plate. A silky smooth, dark burgundy sauce enhances visual appeal, and also delivers great flavor. Picture a poached halibut served with a light cream sauce on a white plate on a white tablecloth. Adding a little roasted butternut squash to the sauce would help break up the blandness of all that white (and would also ensure you do not eat your napkin by mistake). And, there's no limit to what you can do - how about a very bright-green kiwi sauce over pink salmon?

Special sauces  Now comes the fun part - personal style. There is no right or wrong, it is all a matter of opinion and creativity. One of the most creative sauces that I've seen is a blueberry duck glacé reduction served over chicken livers. Creative, yes. Did it sell? No. But, the fact that it did not sell is not as important as one might think. In my experience, successes arise from failures. Taking components of a "failed" dish and adding them to another can result in a menu star. This is called tailgating - taking what one has learned, using what has worked and applying it to a new dish.

  A very talented chef, Gerard Loizeau, once taught me the secret of a wonderful fennel-scotch sauce. It's made by sautéing some fennel with onions in a little oil, and when the onions are soft, flambéing with scotch, finishing with a little butter and straining over fish. The flavor of scotch might seem out of place, but the two flavors marry perfectly and complement the salmon to a tee.

Sauce assembly (the long way)  Classic sauce-making is a time-consuming endeavor. Take, for example, the first time I made a dried-cherry cabernet, venison-based sauce. (This was while living in Wisconsin, where deer hunting is a newsworthy event.) I was given young venison bones, which were not cut with the greatest of care; plenty of meat was still on the bone. I roasted those bones all day, until they were a rich, dark amber and the small amount of fat had melted from the meat.

  Next, I removed the bones from the pan and placed them in the stockpot. After straining the fat from the roasting pan, I added mirepoix of carrots, celery and onions, and then garlic cloves and a split jalapeño. This vegetable medley was roasted and tossed until the onions and carrots were caramelized. I then added tomato paste, and cooked the mixture until the paste was golden and fragrant. Cooking tomato paste breaks down the acids and sweetens the natural sugars. It is crucial not to let this burn; if you unfortunately burn a tomato product in any sauce, do yourself a favor and start over, or the sauce will carry a burnt note.

  Next, I deglazed with a whole bottle of merlot. Once the wine was deglazed to sec, the dark syrupy mixture was chilled while the roasted bones were in a lazy man's boil, staying there for no less than seven hours. After seven hours, the mirepoix mixture was added in with the bones, along with a couple bay leaves, thyme, parsley stems, juniper berries and black pepper corns. After simmering for an hour and a half, I strained, chilled and de-fatted. This yielded approximately three gallons of venison stock.

  To complete the sauce, smaller cuts of carrots, celery and onions were caramelized in butter, and flour was added, after which the mixture was cooked to create a brown roux. One gallon of stock was added to the pot and brought to a low simmer. A great deal of time was spent skimming of the impurities that rose to the top to ensure a quality product.

  The next step was to reduce this by half, and strain what had become a very viscous liquid. Then I put the resulting sauce into a clean saucepan and doubled the volume with more original stock, yielding a volume of about one gallon. Further reducing this by half gave a velvety, rich venison glacé that was to be the base of the sauce. The sauce was finished by sweating finely chopped shallots and garlic; when the shallots were softened I added dried cherries and cooked until the onion was golden brown. I then deglazed with a cup of cabernet and reduced to sec. After adding the venison glacé I brought the sauce to a simmer for twenty minutes, then strained and chilled it.

  When served to the people who had given me the bones, they asked me where this burgundy "pudding" came from. When I told them it had come from the bones, at first they did not believe me, but after using it in venison stews and over venison chops they didn't care - they just wanted more.

Short cuts  The ideal way to make a glacé is to reduce a large amount of stock and let it thicken naturally. This time-consuming process yields great results. However, although a small restaurant that serves 40 people a night might take the time to do this, a company that serves millions of people a year all over the country needs quick and consistent processes to develop great-tasting foods. So, to take a sauce prepared over a 12-hour process and make it fit into a casual restaurant chain, some new products and techniques must be put into place. When developing a sauce, there are three major things to consider: base, thickening method and flavor profile.

  Let's start with bases. Their concentrated flavors are the key ingredient in many of the sauces used in the food industry today. Even fine-dining restaurants have adapted this method to speed up cooking times and still deliver a flavorful, rich sauce. Today there are so many flavored bases it's difficult to name them all, but they all have one thing in common - saving time.

  Using a venison base would have saved about eight hours while making the glacé in the previous example; roasting the bones, cutting the vegetables and simmering the mixture would have been done by a base manufacturer. While the end product might not have had the same quality, today's technology would give a flavorful product that serves the purpose. Such bases are good, but tend to lack the depth of flavor one gets with traditional methods. (The day manufacturers capture this in their bases will be a sad day for people like me who take pride in developing sauces from scratch - but I will be able to get a lot more done in the extra time.)

  As good as bases are at bringing flavor to a sauce, it is still best to start with fresh ingredients to build body in the flavor profile. Sautéing vegetables and vegetable blends gives a freshness cue that one cannot achieve by just mixing water and base. Begin with small cuts of vegetables, since they will not be sautéed for a long period. Heat up a steam kettle or stockpot and add fat - I prefer olive oil to add flavor - and sauté the vegetables. Adding seasonings when the vegetables reach a firm/tender stage enables them to infuse with the oil, which lets the flavors evenly distribute into the sauce. Only salt and pepper should be added at the end. Seasoning too late results in a raw singular flavor where each ingredient can be tasted individually. Seasoning should marry with the sauce, not be a predominant flavor.

  Sauce thickening is now often left up to starch companies, although in many restaurants, traditional methods of thickening, such as pureeing and reduction are still used. A number of suppliers manufacture various ready-to-use roux and starches that thicken at any point necessary. Depending on the sauce and preparation method, these items can even help introduce flavors to the sauce. Using a dark roux, in which the flour and butter turn to a dark amber, gives a nice roasted note to a dish that couldn't be achieved by just adding a cornstarch slurry. But, the roux must be cooked properly, or it will impart a raw, starchy flavor into the dish.

  The type of thickening agent used determines when it is introduced into the sauce. Sometimes it's added after cooking the vegetables to form a roux, and sometimes it is mixed in with a liquid and then added to the sauce. When the sauce arrives at the proper temperature, the starch granules swell and thicken the sauce. Different thickeners are use for different purposes, and starch companies can custom-fit a starch for freeze/thaw stability or to react at different temperatures.

  After determining the flavor profile and choosing the thickener, it's just a matter of deciding what other flavor components will be added, such as wine, dairy products, citrus bases and herbs. The sauce should simmer for a few minutes, and then be strained, if desired, or simply transferred to be chilled or served.

  This is just one example of a sauce-making process - many more methods of sauce-making exist, and that is what makes cooking so fun and intriguing. Sauce making is a true art that lets chefs distinguish their dishes with a flavorful, original signature - and that is what keeps me in the kitchen.

  Mark L. Miller is culinary manager/executive chef of culinary development with Olive Garden restaurants in Orlando, FL, which recently sent him to Italy to study Mediterranean cooking and Italian desserts. Previously, he worked in Wisconsin as Johnsonville Food's first development chef. Mark also worked with Nestlé's R&D department during his externship from the Culinary Institute of America in 1996, which he attended due to the generosity of his grandmother. He is a member of the Research Chefs Association, and has served on the association's board of directors.

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