The artist has her paints and brushes; the cook has her sauces. Nothing brings together a dish than a well-prepared sauce. It may not be rock science, but it certainly has a wee bit of magic.
A good sauce can take an ordinary meal to the realm of memorable. All you need to do is let science be your guide on the journey.
The Basis of a Good Sauce
It may sound cliché, but it certainly applies in the case of sauces; a fine sauce demands quality ingredients. This means unsalted butter (not margarine), a good stock (assuming it includes stock) and kosher salt.
The unsalted butter allows you to start from scratch from a seasoning perspective. It is, after all, your creation. Your goal isn’t to create a well salted sauce, but rather a flavorful one. Salt has its place within the collection of ingredients.
Granted, homemade stock requires time and effort, both of which you may not have. Just keep a thought in the back of your mind to use those leftover bones and chicken carcass for a stock next time instead of just tossing them out.
In a pinch, you can reduce your stock a bit after adding some sauteed onion, carrots and celery. Herbs like thyme and parsley add complexity and flavor, as does whole peppercorns and a bay leaf. You can leave it to simmer while preparing the rest of your meal.
The Best Flavor Booster
The goodies that remain in the skillet or pan after you’ve cooked your meal are gold. Known as the fon, those brown bits pack a lot of flavor. Once you’ve removed your meat, you can deglaze the skillet to recapture them with whatever you have around: wine, vermouth, brandy, whiskey or even just a bit of stock. Scrape up all the yumminess.
Then, it’s time to add your stock. I highly recommend using the pan you cooked your meal in to capture as much of the residual flavor as possible. What you find here does not come out of a can. Now, you can let it reduce while your meat is resting and you prepare for plating.
Thickening the Sauce
A thinner sauce will have more intense flavor than a thick one. However, a thicker sauce offers a lot of advantages. First, there is appearance. You can control a thicker sauce much better, allowing for a better presentation on the plate.
Second, and this is a big one, you can maximize the flavor and cut down on the salt you add depending upon the thickener you use.
To thicken your sauce, you have a few options. Reducing will concentrate the flavors, but may not thicken it too much. You can add a roux of flour and fat, but you run the risk of a lumpy sauce if it doesn’t get totally incorporated into the sauce. Then, you have the flour taste.
You could also use an alternative starch, such as cornstarch instead. Cornstarch must be mixed with a bit of cold–not hot–water and added to the sauce. The sauce will need to get to simmering for it to properly thicken your sauce.
I like using cornstarch because I love the texture it gives sauces. You can also use less salt to season than you would with flour. However, you run into the same problem as you do with a roux; you may end up diluting the flavor.
Modernist Thickeners to the Rescue
A better alternative is to ditch old school and embrace the new school of so-called modernist thickeners. These ingredients include familiar and not so familiar ones, like xanthan gum, agar and soy lecithin. The advantage of these ingredients is that you can use a lot less to get the same effects.
You can get away with 0.5 percent by weight for most sauces, which translates into less than a teaspoon. I usually experiment and add by texture. For a sauce of about one cup, I’ll add a pinch, stir and wait. Repeat until you get the thickness you want.
Xanthan gum, for example, acts as both a thickener and emulsifying agent. In other words, your sauces will hold together better. It will also increase the viscosity of your sauce and give it a better mouth feel. Because you use so little, your sauce isn’t diluted. You get more of the true flavor.
In later posts, I’ll explore other ways to use thickeners to add that special touch to your meals. For now, the key to your best sauce ever is to maximize flavor with good ingredients, flavor boosters and the right consistency. Bon appetit!