(Originally published in 2006)
“How did you make that sauce?”, is a commonly asked question. Around my house it generally leads to a lengthy explanation as to how it actually went together.
Sauce making in most refined places is alchemy. Alchemists were considered part magicians and part chemists. Merlin, the great wizard from the court of King Arthur was believed to be an alchemist. Alchemy was a strange science as it used absurd ingredients like eye of newt to make something magical. Remember that salt peter and charcoal in the correct proportions can make an explosive result just as the fond on the bottom of a pan and a little liquid can make a great sauce.
My inclination when it comes to sauce making is to “wing it”. I try many combinations of flavours – sometimes they work and other times they are a complete and utter failure. My favourite sauces are reduction sauces as they are the easiest to make and are ultimately very satisfying.
When I sauté chicken in a pan, I tend to stay away from non stick pans and go directly for the regular pan. Non stick works well but you can’t make the little brown bits that stick to the bottom of the pan. Those little brown bits are the magic to sauce making – the brown bits are called fond. They are crunchy, caramelized bits from the seared protein. Here’s how you make a good sauce out of them.
Say you have a small steak to cook. Once the steak has come to preferred doneness (rare, medium rare, etc.) take it out of the pan to rest and relax the juices.
Place the pan back on the heat and add one half of a small diced onion or a small shallot. A shallot is part of the onion family and has a flavour which is partially like an onion, but slightly sweeter and it has garlic overtones.
Once the small diced shallot (the better choice for making a sauce) is in the pan, move it around with a wooden spoon to scrape up all the fond.
Once the fond has been scraped up add one minced clove of garlic and cook it until you can smell it. Once you can smell the garlic it has cooked enough – after that it will start to burn. Then add one tsp of Dijon mustard to bring some acidity to the sauce. Now we have to add the liquid to main flavour to the sauce.
If you are going to have a glass of wine with the meal, add some wine from the top of the bottle, about half a cup. When choosing a wine, only cook with wines which you would consider drinking. The reason is that if you are going to make a sauce with a mediocre wine, by the end of the sauce you will have a concentrated mediocre sauce. If you don’t have regular wine a fortified wine like port is a good substitute. After the wine is added, cook until the liquid has reduced by half.
Then we come to a junction in the road; to strain or not to strain. To strain the sauce through a fine mesh strainer will result in a very silky and luxurious texture when finished. However, if doing dishes is not your thing, then you can choose to have a rustic sauce. Either way, the sauce will be great.
The penultimate stage is called monte au beurre – mounting with butter. This sauce making technique is the reason a great sauce is silky and coats the mouth. Take the pan off the heat and add 1 Tbs of whole unsalted butter. Once the butter is in the pan, lightly swirl the pan to incorporate the butter. Do not use a spoon, as you will lose some of the shine.
Finally, taste the seasoning and adjust with salt and pepper, tasting each time you add some to make sure it is right.
If you feel the sauce is not finished and tastes what professionals call “flat,” you can add a teaspoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice to “brighten” the sauce.
Now you have had a lesson on simple sauce making. This technique can be applied to all proteins and to most liquids. Try something different, experiment, and most of all have lots of fun while doing it.