FOOD FOR THOUGHT - May 12, 2004
Mark R. Vogel - Epicure1@optonline.net - Archive of other articles by Mark Vogel
Sauce making is a cornerstone to successful cooking. A sauce can either make or break your dish. Ages ago, when food preservation techniques were in their infancy, sauces were used to mask the foul taste of spoiled food. This is because the sauce is the first taste sensation your mouth experiences prior to masticating the main item. And even then, the flavor of the sauce is intermingled with the food. Nowadays sauces are used primarily for flavor, moisture, texture and color.
Sauce making is a broad topic, deeply entrenched in French culinary history. Marie-Antoine Careme (1784-1833), a practical demigod of classic French cuisine, was the first to systematize the “mother sauces” and their derivatives. Mother sauces, otherwise known as the grand sauces, include demi-glace, (a reduced brown sauce), veloute, (a roux thickened white stock), béchamel, (a roux thickened milk sauce), tomato, and hollandaise, (a decadently rich butter and egg yolk sauce). From these fundamental sauces, countless secondary sauces are then made, such as bordelaise, sauce supreme, béarnaise, and Mornay to name a few. The advent of nouvelle cuisine sparked a movement away from rich, heavy, roux-thickened, time consuming sauces to lighter and simpler creations.
Competent sauce making requires significant dexterity in two key areas. The first is the acquisition of the requisite culinary skills. The second is the expertise in knowing suitable sauce/food pairings; much like marrying a food with a wine. Preparing sauces and properly uniting them with the appropriate foods are yardsticks by which chefs are judged.
In regard to matching sauces with food, there are some general guidelines. When a cooking technique produces drippings, (as in a roast), or a fond, (the caramelized residue on the bottom of a sauté pan), they should be employed to make a sauce. Countless pan sauces and gravies begin this way. Likewise, if a liquid is employed to cook the food, as in a braise, or a court bouillon for poaching fish, some or all of the liquid can be incorporated into a sauce.
However, sauces are also made independently of the food. Here the flavor profile of the sauce and the target food is even more critical. This includes secondary seasoning elements in both, particularly herbs. For example, a lemon and tarragon infused cream sauce would probably taste better on salmon than a porterhouse. One should also consider the flavor intensity of the sauce as well as the food. A sauce should not overwhelm the food and vice versa. Much like wine, a light and subtle sauce would not accompany a hearty roast, nor would a strong and overpowering sauce be mingled with a delicate piece of fish. Your own palate, experience, common sense and erudition will all expand your knowledge of prudent flavor pairings.
I cannot stress enough the role that stock plays in producing sauce. Stocks form the basis of innumerable sauces. Generally speaking, chicken stock is used with fowl, fish stock with seafood, and veal stock for red meat sauces. Vegetable stocks are also vital and are a delicious alternative for calorie counters and vegetarians seeking alternatives to meat based stocks.
Other fluids such as water, wine, cream, citrus juices or oil can also be the basis of a sauce. Hot pepper sauces can be made from simmering peppers and spices in water and vinegar and then pureeing them in a blender. One may forgo the stock and utilize only wine to deglaze a pan and produce a sauce. Alfredo sauce is made from cream, butter, and cheese. Citrus juices can be substituted for vinegar to make a brightly flavored and refreshing vinaigrette. And where would pesto be without the olive oil? Sauces can even be created from cooked vegetables, (tomato being the archetypal example), or vegetable purees.
Other concerns include how the sauce is to be presented and the appropriate quantity. Items with a crispy exterior, such as a breaded and pan-fried chicken breast, are often placed on top of a pool of the sauce to prevent the top from becoming soggy. Other sauces are drizzled on the food, around it, (often for aesthetic purposes), or purposely “on the side” as in dipping sauces.
And that brings us to the amount. Hmmmmm. I’m going to restrain my carnal passions and tell you the “correct” answer: The food should not be swimming in the sauce. Excessive sauce is considered a culinary faux pas. But between you and me, use as much sauce as you like.
We’ve barely scratched the surface of the world of sauce. Take the time to learn more sauces and sauce making techniques and you will add to your culinary repertoire immeasurably.