It’s an adage among the best: The sauce makes the cook. And it’s true. A good sauce, specifically a stock-based sauce, requires patience and finesse and attention-real cooking. But it can make the difference between a good meal and a heavenly one.
And there’s no reason a home cook can’t make a professional-quality stock-based sauce to accompany a beautiful lamb chop, filet mignon or other cut. The key is not fancy ingredients or days of preparation, but rather a simple technique: repeated reducing and deglazing.
The sugars in vegetables and proteins in meats undergo an amazing transformation of flavor when they brown. This is what makes caramelized onions so delicious, why we love a good sear on our steaks. And this same transformation is the power behind brown stocks and sauces. Sugars and proteins are released into the liquid by vegetables, bones and meat, and then, when the water has evaporated, they form a brown, flavorful glaze on the bottom of the pan. Adding more liquid loosens the glaze, freeing the flavor. This is called deglazing.
When this process is repeated several times, each reduction drawing out more sugar and protein, the sauce takes on a progressively deeper, darker color. The result is a rich sauce that’s beautifully flavorful and very low in fat (though beating in some butter just before you serve it never hurts).
We call these “quick” sauces, with emphasis on the quotes. In fact, they are anything but quick-unless you’re comparing them to classical stocks made in big batches over several days. Quick sauces should take about two hours to prepare. They’re not meant to be made at the last minute. Make them early in the day.
Neither are they something you can bang in the oven and forget. Although making the sauces couldn’t be easier, they do require attention and care-in other words, actual cooking. This makes them especially satisfying. Take your time and enjoy the process-the smell of the seared meat, the colors of the vegetables and the deepening of the glaze. You should be completely focused, especially if you’ve got other things going on in the kitchen (as you probably should have-you can’t eat sauce alone).
Judge the process by sight, smell and hearing rather than time. The oil should be sizzling hot when you first add the bones. When you add the first cup of water, the oil should crackle, then the noise should gradually subside as you scrape the browned stuff-the fond-off the pan. When the water has cooked off and the pan begins to crackle again, you know it’s time for the second deglazing, this time with chicken stock. When this has evaporated and the pan begins to crackle, the glaze coating the bones and the pan will be deeper in color.
The vegetables provide the liquid for the third deglazing--when they hit the hot pan they begin to release their moisture. Again, stir and scrape the browned coating off the bottom of the pan and cook until the vegetables are uniformly caramelized.
Deglaze finally with the rest of the liquid-you’ll use quite a bit more than during the previous deglazings. Move the sauce from a wide pan to a tall narrow pot to ensure that the bones and vegetables are submerged, and to make the surface easier to skim. The pan should be pulled to the side of the burner to create a kind of convection current that pushes fat and impurities to one side to be skimmed continually through this last reduction.
Finally, strain-several times, if you want a very clean feel on the palate. You almost can’t strain too much.
These sauces benefit enormously from veal stock, the great canvas on which so many flavors can be painted. It’s just as easy to make as chicken stock, and few products open up a home cook’s repertoire the way a good veal stock does. Just a couple of ounces, frozen in ice cube trays until you’re ready to use them, can transform virtually any dish, from pastas to meats to vegetables, adding body and deepening flavors.
The following is a restaurant quick stock recipe, a guideline of what is optimal. It can be varied according to taste and what you have on hand. If you don’t want to bother with veal stock, water is the best substitute, though the sauce will lack richness and depth, so you’ll have to mount some butter into it before serving.
An interesting variation is a vinegar sauce: Instead of using bones, begin by caramelizing vegetables, then deglaze with a good vinegar, about 3/4 cup, and carry on with subsequent deglazings. Do the same for a sweet and sour sauce, but add two tablespoons of sugar or honey along with the vinegar.
As ever, it’s not the particular ingredients of a dish but the idea behind the process that allows you to move forward as a cook.