Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Art of a Good Sauce

In my years of cooking professionally, I have had the chance to work with some really great chefs and cooks, in many different restaurants. I have taken from them a lot of different tips, styles, and techniques. By far the one that had the most impact on me was an instructor from College, Gilles Syglowski. Gilles was a French guy from the Alsace region, and taught the most meticulous class: “Soups, Stocks and Sauces.” He had the knack of just looking or smelling your sauce, and knowing exactly what it needed. His stocks were things of beauty. Thick, rich, and gelatinous. His consomm├ęs were as clear as spring water. He taught me so much of the nature of these principles. As a result I have a very high opinion and expectations about my employee’s sauces, and my own. Here are some tips that I have learned and taught my cooks over the years to make their sauces. As always, there are exceptions and addendums to these rules to great to list them all here. Just use better judgment and a little common sense to adjust these rules to your recipe.

1. Use a heavy bottomed saucepan. You will be able to control the heat much better, and your sauce will not stick to the bottom during a long period of simmering.

2. Heat a little bit of fat (bacon fat, olive oil, vegetable oil, etc.) at the bottom of the pan and add your aromatics first. Aromatics include hearty herbs, onions, shallots, leeks, garlic, etc. If garlic is being used, add this to the fat first, allow it to quickly roast to a golden brown. This will take away any acridity of the garlic and sweeten and round out its flavor. If using hearty herbs (thyme rosemary, oregano, sage), add them here very briefly, and allow the oils from the herbs to mix with the fats in the bottom of the pan. This will help to distribute the flavor to the entirety of the sauce. (Never use fragile herbs in this step (basil, cilantro, parsley), as the delicate oils are likely to burn out before having any advantage.

3. Onions or shallots are next, and again, allow to slightly caramelize before adding other ingredients.

4. Add wine, beer or liquor at this point, if required in the recipe, and scrape the bottom of the pan. All those little brown bits stuck to the bottom are pure, concentrated flavor. If there is no alcohol listed in the recipe…..get some. Remember: “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker”

5. Make your own stocks if called for. The steps and idiosyncrasies of a good stock are too numerous to mention and explain. (Maybe another post in the future) Check out this link at There’s a lot of good information about making a stocks, and even a couple of videos.

6. Reduce that stuff. Let the liquid simmer for an extended period of time. The length of time varies on how much liquid you’re working with, how concentrated your stock is (if used), and some other variables, but reducing will allow the flavors of your ingredients to blend together and also concentrate the flavor and texture. It is also very important to stir the sauce as it reduces.

7. Use roux and slurries sparingly. They both ultimately change the texture and, sometimes, the flavor of your sauce. Reducing is the best way to go, as you get a smoother, more refined sauce. If you can reduce until thickened, that is always the best procedure.

8. Roux for cream based, cornstarch slurry for broth, fruit, or vinegar based. Clarification: Cajun cuisine usually uses a roux (blond, brown, or dark roux) to thicken most of their sauces, gumbos, soups, etc. Go with it. It is essential; to the flavors of Cajun cuisine. Always remember: The darker the roux, the less strengthening power, but fuller the flavor. Dark roux is a necessity for gumbo.

9. Add additional herbs at the very end. When you are using more fragile herbs, the very end is the time to put them in. After you turn off the heat, and are ready to serve, mix these in at the very last minute. The fragrances in the herbs are from the oils, and any long term amount of cooking will make them dissipate into the air before you can even taste them. Hearty herbs could be added again at this time to, to give it a little extra flavor.

10. Season to taste. The difference between a good cook and a great cook is the ability to season properly. Salt is not just an ingredient to add salinity, it also enhances the flavors in everything you cook. You are not going to be able the taste the herbs, vegetables, beef, chicken, etc properly if they are not enhanced by the salt. But, this is also a very tricky thing to master. Too little and your not going to get the right flavor. Too much, and there’s not a whole lot you can do to tone it down. This step takes a lot of practice and experimentation. My advice: add a little bit at a time, until it tastes just right.


12. Mounting at the end means to add a little bit of cold, unsalted butter to the sauce. This is not a necessity; however, it adds a great shine, and smoothes out the texture of the sauce.

13. Ultimately, you have to use high quality, fresh ingredients.

Will these tips help you to become the next great saucier? Probably not, but your sauces might be better for it. There are so many variables involved, that it would take a volume of Blumenthal proportion to properly touch on this subject. Plus, it would probably be quite a boring read.

Other chefs and home cooks feel free to comment and add your own 2 cents on the subject if you wish. Or if you have questions, feel free to post here.


Nick N said...

Do you have a "go to" sauce?

CHEF said...

My favorite is a chasseur sauce I do with a tenderloin which is a smooth mushroom demi variation. I tend to do alot of gastrique variations with vinegars and fruit purees. But as for a "go to" sauce, is always depends on the application I'm using it for.

Nick N said...

got it. I'm a big fan of veg purees finished a la minute with bacon fat.

Manash said...

Good Article
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Siladitya said...

Wow!Nice story.
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Amy B. said...

Sauces, soups and stocks I think is the heart of the food. All the taste is in there, why I just love nicely done and tasty sauces, soups and stocks.