How to Make a Quick Sauce
The sauté pan is actually where I create most of my sauces. Most people cook their sauces in a sauce pan. I do not because the wider and shallow shape of a sauté pan increases heat distribution and promotes quicker evaporation of water vapor. This builds bigger, bolder flavors quickly. In my experience, waiting 4 hours for a sauce to finish is simply unacceptable. Using this method, I can create a quick from scratch red sauce in 45 minutes or less. Because a sauté pan is so versatile, you may cook up your sauce bases and then bring them into fullness very quickly and easily inside of a sauté pan.
Concentration of Flavor
One very important subject that I have not touched on is the concept of concentration of flavor. Very simply, the strength of a flavor is determined by the concentrated amount of water present in a food item. Because water itself is pH neutral and because of its nature, pure water has no flavor. I know you may be thinking to yourself that you can taste water, but the truth of the matter is that what you taste are minerals that have dissolved into the water naturally. When you remove these minerals completely, you will find that water simply has no taste and what you are discerning is the sensation of liquid being present in your mouth alone.
Because of this, water actually dilutes anything it comes in contact with. Knowing this, we can very easily manipulate the content of water to either increase the concentration of flavor or decrease the concentration of flavor. Think of it like this. Flavor and water are opposites. In this regard, they work to each others inverse. As water increases, flavor decreases. As water decreases, flavor increases.
Water is not the enemy though. It must be present to keep foods edible. Otherwise, everything would be hard and crunchy, like a potato chip or pretzel. Even potato chips and pretzels contain small amounts of water. The key here is to find a balance that you like and works for each unique dish.
Concentration of flavor is very important to consider when you are creating sauces. Concentrating flavors makes the difference between balsamic vinegar and balsamic reduction, light soy sauce and dark soy sauce, beef stock and demi-glace. By varying the concentration of water, we can create rich, flavorful sauces or light delicate sauces. This is very important to understand, because not every application is appropriate for an overly flavorful, overly bold sauce. Sometimes, all you need is a touch of moisture and an emphasis on the already natural flavors.
Concentrating flavor is as simple as boiling the water out of the liquid. The longer you allow something to boil, the more concentrated the flavor becomes. This happens because water changes from liquid to gas at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. It does not take the flavor with it as it escapes. This water leaves the flavor as a deposit in the pan. The rate of evaporation is affected by the surface area of the liquid. This ties back into why I use a wide, shallow sauté pan as opposed to a narrow, deep sauce pan. By increasing the surface area, (wider opening) the liquid water can phase change quicker and evaporate from the sauté pan at a quicker rate. This allows me to build my desired flavors faster and easier.
This is a double edged sword though. If you evaporate your water too quickly, you can overly thicken a sauce or burn whatever you are cooking. Risotto is a situation where this can happen very easily. The solution is incredibly simple, just add more liquid. I recommend using flavorful liquids that fall in line with the flavor profile of whatever dish you are creating. IE: Instead of water; use tomato juice, milk, cream, chicken stock, or beef broth to re-hydrate your sauce or dish.
Components of a Sauce
A sauce is made up of several key components. Each component serves a function inside of the sauce to create the final desired product.
The base of a sauce can be just about anything. Just as it sounds, the base serves as the foundation that the sauce is built upon. This could be something as simple as sautéed garlic or as complicated as a mixture of meat, vegetables, and seasonings.
Examples of sauce bases:
Country gravy uses breakfast sausage as its base.
Marinara uses sautéed garlic as its base.
Marsala wine sauce uses portabella mushrooms and Marsala wine as its base.
Bolognese uses ground beef or Italian sausage as its base.
The body of the sauce is the main liquid component in which all ingredients are held. It determines much of the character of the sauce, as well as the liquid concentration. All of the ingredients are suspended inside of the body.
Examples of sauce bodies:
Country gravy’s body is made up of milk.
Marinara’s body is made up of tomatoes.
Marsala wine sauce’s body is made up of chicken stock.
Bolognese sauce’s body is made up of tomatoes.
3 Seasonings and Aromatics
Seasonings and aromatics are the most important part of the sauce. These seasonings define the personality of the sauce. When seasoning a sauce, it is very important not to overly salt or overly season the sauce. These seasonings should be complimentary to whatever dish you are creating. You need to decide if your sauce is the star of the show, like in spaghetti bolognese, or if it is a complement, like brown gravy on mashed potatoes. This will help you determine how flavorful of a sauce you should create. Remember to utilize the Roundness of Flavor seasoning techniques when you are seasoning your sauces.
Examples of seasonings and aromatics:
County gravy seasonings include salt and black pepper.
Marinara seasonings include oregano and sugar.
Marsala wine sauce seasonings include oregano and salt.
Bolognese seasonings include basil and sugar.
4 Liquid Content
As I discussed earlier in this section, the liquid content has to do with the concentration of flavor. As you decrease the liquid content, you increase the concentration of flavor. By varying the amount of water, aka liquid content, inside of a sauce, it changes the flavor concentration.
Examples of reducible water content:
In country gravy, milk is reducible.
In marinara, the tomatoes are reducible.
In Marsala wine sauce, both the wine and the chicken stock are reducible.
In Bolognese, the tomatoes are reducible.
5 The Thickener
Thickeners determine the texture and the stickiness of a sauce. When a sauce becomes thicker, it actually adheres more flavor to whatever it is applied to. The thinner a sauce is, the more moisture it imparts into a dish.
There are 2 commonly used thickeners when making sauces:
Cornstarch is the easiest of all thickeners to use. Simply mix 2 tablespoons of cornstarch into 4 tablespoons of cold water. Mix into the sauce. Stir well and bring to a boil. The cornstarch thickens with the presence of high heat. Continue mixing until entire sauce is sufficiently thick. Cornstarch is mostly opaque and can give a cloudy appearance to clear sauces.
2 Wheat flour
Wheat flour is applied in the form of roux. (Pronounced ROO) Roux is created by mixing the flour with fat and then cooking it together until it is lightly brown. Roux is typically used in cream sauces and cream soups. It is employed in applications where the clarity of sauce or soup is completely irrelevant. Roux can be made as you are creating a sauce base or it can be made ahead of time by mixing 40% flour with 60% melted butter.
Not all sauces use a thickener or thickening agent. Some sauces self thicken simply by reducing the water content found in the sauce naturally.
Examples of thickeners in action:
Country gravy uses roux as its thickener. This roux is created by cooking the grease out of the breakfast sausage and incorporating flour into this grease.
Marinara does not utilize a thickener. Instead, marinara thickens naturally with the reduction of water. This is due to the natural fiber that exists inside of tomatoes. Marsala wine sauce utilizes cornstarch as its thickener. Bolognese does not utilize a thickener. Instead, Bolognese thickens naturally with the reduction of water.
Steps to Making a Quick Sauce
1 The key is to start with your base ingredients.
2 Stir fry these together and season them with flavorful herbs and spices.
3 Add whatever wet ingredient makes up the body of your sauce.
4 Bring all of this to a simmer.
5 Add your thickener, if necessary.
6 Taste for flavor profile and adjust as necessary.
7 Serve, if it’s perfect.
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