Quicker, Lighter and Not So Fussy

Many people, both in the kitchen and in the dining room, consider sauce making the ultimate test of a chef’s mastery of technique and finesse within the culinary realm. Nothing can unite all the disparate parts of a dish into one cohesive whole better than a perfectly chosen and prepared sauce. A sauce gives the chef the chance to create something with the perfect texture, balance of acid and richness, complexities of flavor and visual appeal that will change a plate from just a serving of protein, vegetable and starch into a unified culinary statement.

In a more practical sense, a sauce can also be handy when one feels the need to cover up less than perfect grill marks or distract a dinner from a slightly dried-out serving of trout. Whether an appropriate sauce for your restaurant is a cutting edge roasted poblano-red currant sauce over a wild boar chop, or sausage-cream gravy over a biscuit, it pays to give your sauces some consideration in terms of quality, guest-appeal and the time and effort required from your kitchen.

The great chef Auguste Escoffier in his 1903 masterpiece, Le Guide Culinaire, codified what we now consider to be the “classic French sauces.” Although his discussions of sauce making seem anything but straightforward and uncomplicated to us today, he succeeded in his intention to simplify and streamline the process of making the prevalent sauces of his day in the commercial kitchen. The gist of his system (which had its start a little over one hundred years before with an earlier über-chef, Marie-Antoine Carême) consisted of using four “mother sauces”: espagnole, velouté, béchamel and tomato as bases from which to make innumerable variations using different specific additions. There was also an emphasis on using flour, in the form of roux, as a thickening agent. While sauces made in this manner can, when done correctly, be unmatched in terms of depth of body, silkiness of texture and complexity of flavor, they often take a lot of time, effort and expensive ingredients to pull off, three things most chefs feel a need to ration whenever possible. It is with this in mind that I’d like to offer some more contemporary options for your sauces: jus lié, coulis, beurre blanc and compound butters. These sauces will be quicker, less fussy and every bit as appealing to your guests.

Demi-glace, a refinement of espagnole, can be considered the crowning glory of classic sauce making. It is a beautifully rich, translucent, glossy, silky brown sauce used as a base for many great, traditional “small” sauces (sauces derived from the mother sauces.) It also requires much more time, expense and effort than many restaurateurs would consider practical. Jus lié (“zhoo-lee-ay”) is an excellent, less labor-intensive option. It is basically a brown stock simmered with extra flavorings, then thickened with cornstarch or arrowroot. Compared to a demi-glace, a jus lié will have more clarity and sheen, but less depth of flavor and color. Since jus lié is simpler and quicker to produce, an advantage it has is that more specific versions, like roasted garlic, lamb or rosemary can be made for use with a particular dish. For these flavored sauces, just add the appropriate ingredients to the basic recipe. After you’ve made a batch of plain jus lié, any additional flavors you would like can be added at the end to finish the sauce for a particular use. Some traditional options are: roasted shallots, green peppercorns, mushrooms, diced tomatoes, tarragon, Madeira or black truffles.

Jus Lié
   Yield, 1 gallon

Brown veal stock 4.5 quarts
Tomato paste 2 ounces
Carrots, chopped .5 pounds
Onions, chopped 1 pound
Celery, chopped .5 pounds
Cornstarch 8 ounces
  • Coat the carrots, onions and celery in the tomato paste. Roast in a 350-degree oven till brown, approximately 45 minutes.
  • Combine roasted vegetables and stock in a pot and simmer for approximately 3 hours, skimming as necessary. Strain.
  • Bring the strained sauce to a boil and thicken by adding a cornstarch slurry (the cornstarch combined with just enough water to make a paste.) while stirring briskly.
  • This sauce should be chilled and kept refrigerated until used. Additional flavorings can be added to portions of it as needed. For flavors such as veal or lamb, add 4 pounds of the appropriate bones, roasted, to the stock in the beginning. For a vegetarian sauce, start with roasted vegetable stock instead of brown veal stock.

A coulis (“koo-lee”) is a sauce that is made by puréeing its various ingredients after cooking. It is one of the most traditional of sauce making techniques, and also one that has a lot of potential in a modern kitchen when ease of preparation, bold flavors and lighter menu items are the goals. A coulis will have a different texture from a starch-thickened sauce. They will not be as smooth or glossy, but will have an appealing, rustic quality, as well as the potential for adding very attractive colors to a presentation. Traditional tomato sauce and pesto are two examples of popular, common coulis. The two basic uses for this type of sauce are normal, 2-ounce portions over or under the main item on a plate, or more colorful and strongly flavored sauces used as visual and culinary accents. Once you become comfortable with making this style of sauce, the sky’s the limit in terms of what you can create. Here are two examples: red mole (“MOH-lay”) and watercress purée.

Red Mole
  Yield, 2 quarts

Ancho chili 2 each
Chipotle chili, dried 1/2 each
Yellow onions, chopped 4 each
Canola oil 1 ounce
Garlic, chopped 8 cloves
Tomatoes, chopped and roasted 4 each
Tomatillos, chopped and roasted 6 each
Peanuts, toasted 1/4 cup
Sesame seeds, toasted 1/4 cup
Almonds, toasted 1/4 cup
Tortilla chips, crushed 1/2 cup
Chicken stock to cover other ingredients
Salt, lime juice, maple syrup to taste
  • Toast chilies in a 350-degree oven until they puff, then seed and stem them. Wash your hands thoroughly afterwards, or wear latex gloves.
  • Caramelize onions in canola oil in a saucepan, then add garlic till lightly browned. Add the rest of the ingredients (except salt, lime juice and maple syrup.) and simmer for half an hour. Purée in a blender, then push through a chinois. Season with salt, lime juice and maple syrup. This is a great sauce for use with grilled chicken or beef.

Watercress Purée
Yield, 1 pint

Watercress leaves 4 bunches
Salt to taste
  • Put the watercress in a blender and add just enough water for it to purée on high speed. Season with salt. This can be put in a streaker bottle and used to decorate plates and add a pleasant, slightly bitter, earthy flavor. It’s also great for decorating bowls of potato-leek soup.

Beurre blanc (“bur-blahnk”) is a traditional sauce from Brittany and the Loire valley in France. It became very popular in the late 1960s as part of the move away from flour-thickened sauces, and has remained so ever since. Many people have the impression that it is a difficult sauce to make and are afraid to give it a try. The truth is, it’s really not hard to make, is open to an infinite number variations, and is excellent on both delicate fish and chicken. One variation, beurre rouge, might be the perfect steak sauce. These sauces are made by incorporating slightly softened butter into a highly acidic reduction containing shallots. Traditionally they were made with no cream, but a little cream makes a big difference in terms of stabilizing the sauces and keeping them from breaking. If someone gives you a hard time about using cream, tell them you do it because the butter in the United States is different than in France, and you are just making an adjustment for the sake of the final product. Hopefully, that will shut them up.

Beurre Blanc
Yield, 1 quart

Shallots, minced 3 ounces
Dry white wine 12 ounces
Lemon juice 2 ounces
Heavy cream 8 ounces
Unsalted butter, slightly softened 1.5 pounds
Salt and pepper to taste
  • Put the shallots, wine and lemon juice in a saucepan. Reduce over high heat till almost dry and syrupy. Do not brown at all. Add the heavy cream and reduce slightly.
  • Over very low heat, gradually whisk in the butter, a little at a time. If the butter won’t melt, raise the heat, but use as low a temperature as will work. If it’s too hot, the sauce will break. If the sauce looks like it’s separating, take the pan off the heat immediately and place it on a cool surface. Continue to add the rest of the butter while whisking aggressively. A stick blender will come in handy at this point.
  • Finish with salt and pepper. The sauce should have a focused acidity and crispness. If it doesn’t, add a little lemon juice. If it’s too acidic, add a little more butter. Additional flavors such as tarragon, lemon zest, green peppercorns or blood orange juice can be added when making the reduction.
  • The sauce can be held in the pan you made it in, off heat, but in a warm place. Whisk it occasionally, and whisk in a little heavy cream or stock if it gets too thick. Alternately, it can be held in a sealed vacuum bottle. Don’t forget, it’s meant to be served warm, not hot.

Beurre Rouge
Yield, single serving, a la minute

Shallots, minced 1 Tbs.
Olive Oil 1 tsp.
Tomatoes, diced 1 Tbs.
Tarragon mustard 1 tsp.
Dry red wine 3 ounces
Unsalted butter, slightly softened 3 Tbs.
Salt and pepper to taste
  • After sautéing a steak such as a New York strip in a pan, remove the steak and keep it warm.
  • Add the shallots and oil and cook, over high heat, till translucent.
  • Add the tomatoes, mustard and wine and reduce, still over high heat, till almost dry.
  • Off heat, add the butter, stirring and swirling the pan till the butter emulsifies and creates the sauce.
  • Season with salt and pepper, correct the acid/fat balance (add more butter if too acidic, a little balsamic vinegar if not acidic enough) and serve, immediately, over the steak.
  • Since you are serving it right away, not holding it, cream is not necessary. The mustard is not mandatory, but helps with the emulsification, as well as adding a nice flavor.

Compound butters are simply butter to which various flavorings have been added. They have been used for years as “sauces” in their own right, especially on grilled or sautéed items. Just put a medallion of the slightly softened compound butter on the item as soon as it comes off the grill or sauté pan, and it will melt into an instant sauce. They are also a handy way to finish and improve other sauces or soups.

Depending on the items added, you can either use a mixer with the paddle attachment or a food processor to blend the ingredients. Simply let the butter soften, add the desired ingredients and let the mixer or processor evenly blend them together. Since the compound butter is not cooked, make sure any ingredients you add are ready to eat as is. Once completed, a compound butter can be rolled into tubes in parchment paper and refrigerated for a few days until needed. For longer-term storage, it can be frozen.

Here are a few examples to get you started. For each, follow the instructions above.

Maître d’Hôtel Butter (aka, Parsley Butter)
Yield, 2.25 pounds

Unsalted butter, softened 2 pounds
Italian parsley, finely chopped 1.5 bunches
Lemon juice 2 ounces
Salt and pepper to taste

Shallot Butter
Yield, 2 pounds

Unsalted butter, slightly softened 1 pound
Shallots, chopped, blanched and drained 1 pound
Salt and pepper to taste

Garlic Butter
Yield, 2 pounds

Unsalted butter, slightly softened 1.25 pounds
Garlic, roasted and puréed .75 pounds
Salt and pepper to taste

Ginger-Cumin Butter
Yield, 2 pounds

Unsalted butter, slightly softened 2 pounds
Fresh ginger, grated 2 ounces
Turmeric 4 Tbs.
Cumin 2 Tbs.
Salt and pepper to taste

Shrimp Butter
Yield, 2 pounds

Unsalted butter, slightly softened 1 pound
Shrimp, poached, shelled, chopped 1 pound
Salt and pepper to taste