Want to wow your guests with an impressive dish? A well-made sauce adds that finishing touch by heightening flavors and adding visual appeal.
A zesty marinara or decadently rich Hollandaise sauce can be the highlight of a meal. It’s hard to imagine that less than 100 years ago, the primary purpose of a sauce was to mask the flavor of spoiled or inferior quality meat.
Thanks to modern refrigeration, the role of a well-made sauce has changed. “Think about using a sauce to complement your food, not hide it,” says Jennifer Witting, chef/owner of Spokane’s CaPear Catering.
Along with partner Debbi Collins, Witting regularly whips up impressive sauces like lemon beurre blanc, port wine reduction and sherry cream sauce. Sound like something best left to the experts? Don’t be intimidated. “It can be as easy or complex as you want,” says Witting.
Santé Restaurant chef/owner Jeremy Hansen recently taught a class on sauce making. He recommends keeping things simple. “A common mistake is using too many ingredients,” Hansen says.
Start with the basics
While a good homemade stock is the ideal starting point for many sauces, the process of making stock is time consuming. Meat bones and vegetables are simmered with herbs and spices for several hours and then strained, resulting in a stock that can be used immediately or frozen for later use. (Foodnetwork.com has some easy-to-follow recipes.)
If you’re looking for a faster alternative, Witting suggests using canned broths. “Kitchen Basics brand has the best flavor. It’s the closest to real stock,” she says. Be careful with canned broths that are too salty, and avoid bullion cubes for the same reason. “Get low sodium or sodium-free broth so you can season it the way you want.”
A traditional French roux, made from fat (typically butter) and flour cooked together, is often used to thicken sauces. As a roux is cooked longer, it develops a darker color and a rich, nutty flavor that enhances sauces. Don’t rush. A roux must be cooked slowly and patiently, and whisked often so it doesn’t burn.
Cold liquids, like stock or wine, are slowly whisked into the hot roux and will begin to thicken into a sauce.
Pairing sauces with food
Sauces should elevate a dish by complementing the subtle flavors, not overwhelm it. To decide on which sauce to pair with a specific dish, Collins recommends playing with herbs. “Buy some fresh herbs and smell them. What foods do you think of?” she prompts. If fresh basil makes you think of pizza and spaghetti, use it in your favorite marinara recipe.
“Pairing is a complicated issue because there is so much to consider like texture, mouth feel, acidity level, sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, and salty,” explains Santé’s Hansen. For a fatty fish (like King salmon) Hansen will use a sauce with a higher acid to cut the fat. “It’s all about balance and practice of using sauces for different things.”
Wisk in wine
One of the quickest and simplest ways to prepare a sauce is to deglaze the cooking pan with a bit of wine. Once you have finished cooking or browning meat or fish, pour a little wine into the pan while it is still hot and use a wooden spoon to scrape the browned bits stuck to the pan.
Collins and Witting often use wine in their sauces. Replacing a small amount of stock with wine adds an extra dimension of flavor without added fat or salt. Try port in sauces served with pork, and red wine in brown or tomato sauces. Marsala adds a note of sweetness and changes the flavor of a sauce. But choose carefully – don’t use cheap wine. “If you don’t like to drink it, don’t cook with it,” Collins advises.
Traditional sauces made with roux and homemade stock can be high in fat. Replacing homemade stock with canned chicken broth (available in reduced fat and low sodium) greatly reduces the amount of fat in a given sauce. Thickening a sauce with cornstarch instead of a butter and flour roux also reduces the calorie content. Using fresh herbs and dried fruits in sauces gives them a flavor boost without adding fat.
To lighten up a creamy sauce, “The Frugal Gourmet Cooks with Wine” by Jeff Smith recommends making a “mock cream” by blending one pound of low-fat cottage cheese with one cup of low-fat milk until creamy, adding a little water if necessary. Use this “cream” in any sauce recipe that calls for cream, but don’t cook it for as long. It will separate and appear grainy when first added to the hot sauce, but stir it over the heat for a minute and it will smooth out.
Skip the lumps
“Start with a good roux. Melt the flour into the butter, don’t add flour to the liquid,” advised Collins. Slowly whisk the cold liquids (stock or wine) into to the hot roux. “Be patient and watch the temperature. Don’t walk away or you’ll have a mess,” Collins says.
When using cornstarch to thicken a sauce, always mix the starch into a cold liquid before adding it to the hot sauce to thicken. This will prevent lumps.
If you do end up with lumps or pieces of herbs in your sauce, simply use a small strainer to remove them.
Here are some sauce recipes to try at home:
Dark Rum Glaze
Courtesy of CaPear Catering. This glaze goes well with ham, turkey and chicken, or drizzle it over roasted vegetables.
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 cup dark rum
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Place all ingredients in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring constantly. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the mixture is thick and syrupy, approximately 5 minutes. Brush over meat or drizzle on vegetables.
Yield: 1 1/4 cups, enough for 4 pounds of meat.
Marchand de Vin – Red Wine Sauce
Courtesy of CaPear Catering
2 cups red wine
2 tablespoons chopped shallots
¼ cup butter
¼ cup flour
2 cups beef stock
½ cup finely chopped mushrooms
1 teaspoon minced rosemary
1 teaspoon minced tarragon
Salt and pepper to taste
Put red wine and shallots into saucepan. Cook over medium heat until liquid is reduced by half. In a separate pan, make a roux by melting the butter over medium heat and whisking in flour. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes, then set aside.
Add 2 cups of beef stock, chopped mushrooms and reduced wine mixture to the roux, whisking in slowly. Simmer for 5 minutes and add minced rosemary and tarragon. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Yield: 2 ½ cups sauce.
Courtesy of Chef Jeremy Hansen, Santé Restaurant and Charcuterie
1/4 cup butter or oil
1 pound chopped fresh tomatoes
6 ounces diced onion
3 ounces diced carrot
3 ounces diced celery
1 quart water
1 cup red wine
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
Heat butter or oil in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Add onion, carrot and celery. Cook the vegetables gently, stirring frequently until tender. Do not brown. Deglaze the pan with 1 cup red wine. Add tomatoes and cook for a few minutes. Add water and simmer for one hour. Puree in food processor. Put sauce back on stove and slowly cook to desired consistency, adding water if too thick. Season with salt and sugar.
Yield: 2 to 3 cups.
Reduced Fat “Creamy” Sauce
Courtesy of CaPear Catering. This sauce is thickened by a cornstarch slurry instead of a butter-flour roux, reducing the fat content. Use this recipe as a base and season with mushrooms, sherry and rosemary to make mushroom rosemary gravy or make a cheese sauce by adding grated parmesan.
1/3 cup corn starch
1 quart chicken broth
8 ounces evaporated skim milk
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix the cornstarch with enough cold water to make it smooth. Bring the chicken broth and evaporated milk to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the cornstarch mixture (called a slurry) to the boiling broth. Stir constantly until the sauce thickens. Season as desired.
Yield: Approximately 4 cups.