Want to elevate your cooking? If you’re mostly a basic cook but want to find simple ways to make your cooking even better, then I’ve got a single word for you: sauce. Sauces are great ways to add flavors to your foods.
If you were all budding chefs studying cooking in depth, I’d go into detail here about the mother sauces: there are five (or six – depending on who you ask) including:
- Velouté – A stock-based white sauce.
- Béchamel – A flour, milk, and butter white sauce.
- Espagnole – A rich brown sauce
- Hollandaise/Mayonnaise – An egg yolk and fat emulsion
- Vinaigrette – 1 part vinegar, 3 parts oil, and other herbs/spices
From these sauces, many others are born. For example, if you add tarragon to hollandaise, you get béarnaise. If you add some gruyere to béchamel, you’ve got a great topping for mac n cheese or scalloped potatoes.
That’s really all I am going to say about the mother sauces today. Instead, I’m going to talk about some simple sauces you can make to add flavor to cooked meats. So, instead of having a plain steak, you could have steak with a wonderful port wine sauce. Instead of a plain piece of fish, you could have halibut topped with a delicate beurre blanc.
What we’re really talking about are pan sauces, and here’s what I like about them. Once you’ve cooked your protein in a pan, you can use the drippings in the pan to make a really fantastic pan sauce. To make a pan sauce.
- Remove the meat from the pan and set it aside, tented with foil. I like to cook many of my proteins in an ovenproof saute pan just so I can then use it to make a fabulous sauce.
- Put the pan over medium high heat on the stove top. If you’ve cooked some really fatty piece of meat, you may want to remove some of the clear fat from the pan before you do so.
- Add some aromatics such as shallots, onions or garlic and saute in a little oil leftover from cooking.
- Add an acidic liquid or alcohol to the pan such as vinegar, lemon juice, white or red wine, etc. As you add this to the pan, scrape up all of those amazingly flavored brown bits to incorporate them in the sauce.
- Toss in some chopped herbs. Let the sauce simmer on the stove for a bit to reduce by about 50 to 75 percent.
- Once the liquid has reduced, add about 1/4 to 1/2 cup of very cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces. I add the butter a piece at a time, whisking it to emulsify. This will thicken your sauce and add richness.
- Taste your sauce and adjust seasoning as necessary.
- Serve immediately over your protein.
This is one of my favorite sauces for seafood. I particularly like it over seared sea scallops. It has a delicate yet delicious flavor that really enhances the sweetness of the scallops.
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 1/2 cup white wine vinegar (or champagne vinegar, sherry vinegar)
- 1 small shallot, minced
- 3 sticks unsalted butter, cut into 1″ pieces and chilled until very cold
- Salt and white pepper to taste
- Simmer shallots, wine, and vinegar in a saute pan, cooking until liquid has reduced by about 80 percent.
- Remove the pan from the heat momentarily, whisking two pieces of butter (one at a time) into the pan.
- Return the pan to low heat and continue whisking butter in a piece or two at a time until it is completely incorporated.
- Taste and season. Serve immediately.
- You can change the flavors in this by adding herbs such as basil or by adding a little citrus zest.
I’m a huge fan of braising. This simple cooking technique makes a great winter meal because it favors hearty foods naturally available in the winter like root vegetables and warmer, richer flavors. It’s also a great way to cook a tough or less expensive piece of meat.
The braising technique relies on cooking over low heat (usually either on the stovetop or in the oven – although sometimes in a crockpot) in a sealed container with moisture. Braising works really well for tough cuts of beef such as stew meat, chuck roast, game meats, or pot roast.
When you braise, you break down the collagen in the meat and the fat melts through it, making it more tender and flavorful. While many people think braises are stringy, they don’t have to be. Coq au Vin is a braise, as is Osso Bucco, and Boeuf Bourguignon. If you use enough moisture and select the right cut of meat, your braise will be fork tender and not at all stringy.
Here’s what I really like about braising: it allows you to develop flavors, and if you know how to do it you can create any number of dishes simply and easily.
Ready to create a braise? The steps are simple.
- Select your meat. Don’t use an expensive, naturally tender cut like a rib-eye or filet mignon. This method does not work well for those meats. Instead, choose something that is less tender and, frankly, cheaper. I like chuck roast, bottom round, and brisket. You can choose similar cuts of pork, as well.
- Select your aromatics and herbs. What flavors would you like in your braise? I recommend starting out with a basic mirepoix – a dice of one carrot, one celery stalk and one half onion. To that you can add just about any herb. Some of my favorites with beef are garlic, thyme, rosemary or tarragon.
- Select any vegetables you might like. Beyond the basic mirepoix, would you like carrot chunks, parsnips, tomatoes, mushrooms, or others? Root vegetables work well in braises.
- Select your braising liquid. I usually use about half chicken stock and half wine or beer. Other add ins to braising liquid may include citrus or other juices (I once braised a pork roast in pomegranate and orange juices with chicken stock and some cayenne. It was fantastic!), or a hard liquor such as whiskey or rum (use sparingly.) You can also use something acidic, such as vinegar, but balance it with stock.
Once you have your basic flavors, make your braise.
- Season your meat with salt and pepper.
- In a large pot, use some kind of fat (I’m a fan of cooking a little bacon to toss into the braise for flavor and searing the meat in the bacon fat) to sear the meat on all sides. Leave the meat in contact with the pan to caramelize it for several minutes on each side before moving it.
- Remove the meat from the pot and set it aside.
- Using the same oil, add your aromatics (except garlic). Allow them contact with the hot pan for several minutes without stirring in order to caramelize and add more flavor. Stir and brown aromatics. If you are adding garlic, toss it in for the last 30 seconds in this step, just until it releases its scent.
- For more flavor, add a tablespoon of tomato paste if you want and allow it to brown with the aromatics. This will deepen the flavor without giving it a tomato taste.
- Leave the aromatics in the pot and add a few tablespoons of flour. The flour will thicken your final product. Stir the flour with the oil until it is a tan color. This will remove the raw flour flavor and add an additional depth to your dish.
- Add your alcoholic beverage (or vinegar) to the pot, using your wooden spoon to scrape up all of the brown bits (called fond) on the bottom of the pot.
- Add the stock and stir to combine. Total liquid should go about half way up a roast.
- Return the meat to the pot and add any vegetables and herbs.
- Bring the pan to a simmer, and cover tightly.
- Either leave the tightly covered pot on the stovetop over low heat or in a 300-350 oven. Braising time will vary depending on the cut of meat you are cooking. For chicken, it may take just an hour. For small cuts of beef chopped up, it takes around two to 2-1/2 hours. For a full roast, it may take as long as six hours. Look at a recipe for something similar to your braise to estimate a cooking time and temperature.
- When the meat is cooked, remove the lid and turn up flame on the stove. Remove the meat and simmer liquids to reduce. Taste for seasoning and adjust.
- Serve with a starchy side covered in your braising liquids. Good sides include rice, polenta, mashed potatoes, spätzle, and herbed egg noodles.
Easy, right? Here are a few combination suggestions.
- Beef short ribs and bacon with red onions and thyme, braised in Guinness Stout and chicken stock. Serve with smashed red potatoes.
- Chunks of beef roast with bacon, mushrooms and pearl onions, braised in red wine and chicken stock. I like thyme to season this one. Serve with egg noodles or spätzle.
- Whole chicken pieces with bacon and pearl onions, braised in white wine and chicken stock with tarragon. Serve with rice or egg noodles.
- Pot roast and root vegetables seasoned with rosemary and garlic, and braised in beef stock and red wine.
- Veal shanks braised with mirepoix, sliced carrots, garlic, and chopped tomatoes in white wine, juice of an orange, and chicken stock (osso bucco). Season after cooking by stirring in a chopped combination of parsley, garlic, and lemon/orange zest (gremolata). Serve with egg noodles.