Spreads and Sauces
Thousand Island Spread
Roasted Vegetable Spread
Sauces run the gamut from being an optional ingredient in a dish, to an
outright deal breaker; an indispensable item that makes or breaks the
dish. Can you imagine eating a ham and cheese sandwich without mayo or
mustard? Or a beloved Italian hero devoid of oil and vinegar? Or how
about a shrimp cocktail sans cocktail sauce? These are just a few
examples of how a sauce can be imperative, but that’s not always the
How much dressing should go on a salad? How much sauce should go on
pasta? A grilled duck breast? Or your poached salmon? Should the sauce
fill the plate, cover just the entrée, or be scantily dispersed in some
kind of petite, artistic design?
Basically the answer is your personal taste. If you’re the one eating
it you have the right to have as much, or as little sauce or dressing as
you like. When preparing meals for yourself at home, it’s easy to
follow the dictates of your palate. But what if you’re entertaining a
number of guests? Or worse yet, making dinner for 50 people at a party.
Yikes! Then you are forced into a one-size-fits-all portion, at the
very least to provide consistency, the food should not be swimming in
the sauce. Excessive sauce is considered a culinary faux pas. But in my
opinion, use as much sauce as you like.
Standards vary from dish to dish and from chef to chef. A Culinary
Institute of America textbook recommends two to three tablespoons of
dressing per two ounces of salad. But still there are exceptions to the
rule. For example, the flavor and the flavor intensity of the greens
and/or the dressing may influence the amount of dressing you choose to
employ. Moreover, the flavor profile of secondary ingredients in the
salad, (cheese, anchovies, meat, vegetables, etc.), must be considered
to determine the “proper” amount. Textural and color factors may also
play a role. Yet this can still be quite subjective. My executive chef
would deem the Culinary Institute’s rule too skimpy for his spinach
And then there’s the sauce issue. The same guidelines with salad
dressing apply to sauce. The flavor, texture, and color of the sauce,
the main item, and any accompaniments, can all influence the amount of
sauce. One professional source I encountered suggested two ounces of
sauce for an average size entrée. Two Ounces? What are you kidding me?
Many upscale establishments believe a dish appears more elegant or
refined when graced with a parsimonious serving of sauce. If I were just
a little more paranoid I would wonder whether this philosophy was
generated by bean-counting restaurateurs. Yes, I’m well aware that a
culinary ten commandment is that a sauce should not overpower a dish,
but rather enhance it. But then that pesky subjectivity creeps in
again. What one chef considers appropriate may be deemed an
inconvenience by you. Such as when you’re scraping the edge of the plate
in a futile effort to moisten those last few bites of your pork chop.
Pasta is a perfect example of this issue. Virtually all chefs warn about
over saucing pasta. Interestingly, the further you move up the
professional culinary ladder, increasingly removed from the common man,
the more this axiom is embraced. My peers will begin my excommunication
proceedings upon reading this but I like my pasta with a lot of sauce. I
want sauce in every forkful, as opposed to swishing each bite around,
feebly attempting to coat it with the piddling sauce. But that’s my
Id-based constitution. Generally speaking, I don’t believe “less is
more.” Less is less. More is more.
As with everything, there are the people on the other side of the
continuum. Some prefer their food with barely any sauce/dressing at all,
or in a separate container so that they have complete control over its
Sauce making is a cornerstone to successful cooking. A sauce can
either make or break your dish. Ages ago, when food preservation
techniques were in their infancy, sauces were used to mask the foul
taste of spoiled food. This is because the sauce is the first taste
sensation your mouth experiences prior to masticating the main item.
And even then, the flavor of the sauce is intermingled with the food.
Nowadays sauces are used primarily for flavor, moisture, texture and
color. Sauces come in a seemingly
infinite number of styles. The ingredients, methods, and applications
for sauces almost know no bounds. And while sauces certainly vary in
terms of their viscosity, thickening them is an oft-needed necessity.
This is due to the fact that many sauces are based on aqueous liquids,
e.g., water, stock, broth, wine, etc. A sauce with greater body will
adhere better to the food and thus create a more noteworthy flavor
sensation. The procedures for concentrating sauces fall into one of two
categories: condensation or addition of a thickening agent.
Mother sauces, otherwise known as the grand sauces, include demi-glace,
(a reduced brown sauce), veloute, (a roux thickened white stock),
béchamel, (a roux thickened milk sauce), tomato, and hollandaise, (a
decadently rich butter and egg yolk sauce). From these fundamental
sauces, countless secondary sauces are then made, such as bordelaise,
sauce supreme, béarnaise, and Mornay to name a few. The advent of
nouvelle cuisine sparked a movement away from rich, heavy,
roux-thickened, time consuming sauces to lighter and simpler creations.
Competent sauce making requires significant dexterity in two key areas.
The first is the acquisition of the requisite culinary skills. The
second is the expertise in knowing suitable sauce/food pairings; much
like marrying a food with a wine. Preparing sauces and properly uniting
them with the appropriate foods are yardsticks by which chefs are
In regard to matching sauces with food, there are some general
guidelines. When a cooking technique produces drippings, (as in a
roast), or a fond, (the caramelized residue on the bottom of a sauté
pan), they should be employed to make a sauce. Countless pan sauces and
gravies begin this way. Likewise, if a liquid is employed to cook the
food, as in a braise, or a court bouillon for poaching fish, some or all
of the liquid can be incorporated into a sauce.
However, sauces are also made independently of the food. Here the
flavor profile of the sauce and the target food is even more critical.
This includes secondary seasoning elements in both, particularly herbs.
For example, a lemon and tarragon infused cream sauce would probably
taste better on salmon than a porterhouse. One should also consider the
flavor intensity of the sauce as well as the food. A sauce should not
overwhelm the food and vice versa. Much like wine, a light and subtle
sauce would not accompany a hearty roast, nor would a strong and
overpowering sauce be mingled with a delicate piece of fish. Your own
palate, experience, common sense and erudition will all expand your
knowledge of prudent flavor pairings.
Something very important to remember: I cannot stress enough the role
that stock plays in producing sauce. Stocks form the basis of
innumerable sauces. Generally speaking, chicken stock is used with
fowl, fish stock with seafood, and veal stock for red meat sauces.
Vegetable stocks are also vital and are a delicious alternative for
calorie counters and vegetarians seeking alternatives to meat based
Other fluids such as water, wine, cream, citrus juices or oil can also
be the basis of a sauce. Hot pepper sauces can be made from simmering
peppers and spices in water and vinegar and then pureeing them in a
blender. One may forgo the stock and utilize only wine to deglaze a pan
and produce a sauce. Alfredo sauce is made from cream, butter, and
cheese. Citrus juices can be substituted for vinegar to make a brightly
flavored and refreshing vinaigrette. And where would pesto be without
the olive oil? Sauces can even be created from cooked vegetables,
(tomato being the archetypal example), or vegetable purees.
Other concerns include how the sauce is to be presented and the
appropriate quantity. Items with a crispy exterior, such as a breaded
and pan-fried chicken breast, are often placed on top of a pool of the
sauce to prevent the top from becoming soggy. Other sauces are drizzled
on the food, around it, (often for aesthetic purposes), or purposely “on
the side” as in dipping sauces.
The simplest and most straightforward method of thickening a sauce is
to reduce it over high heat. Unlike any of the ensuing methods to be
discussed, this has the added benefit of intensifying the flavor by
evaporating the excess water. This technique is almost always employed
whenever wine or liquor is added to a sauce in order to vaporize the
alcohol. But alcohol or not, any sauce that can be cooked can be
reduced. How much to reduce a sauce will depend on the specific
recipe. Generally speaking, when the sauce has congealed enough that it
can coat the back of a spoon without running off, (known as “nappé”), it
is completed. Remember that when a sauce is reduced it will naturally
become saltier. Thus, hold off seasoning until it is finished or near
done to prevent over seasoning.
The most common thickening agents are starch-based thickeners, namely
flour, cornstarch and arrowroot. Less common are potato starch and rice
flour. Starch is simply chains of glucose molecules, a type of sugar
produced by plants through the process of photosynthesis. When added to
sauces and heated, the long chains of glucose molecules unwind, bond to
the water’s hydrogen molecules, and thus gelatinize the sauce. This
would be analogous to tying everyone’s hands together at a cocktail
party. The individuals, (water molecules), would not be as free, (or as
“fluid”), to move around the room, since the rope, (starch molecules),
are holding them together.
Starches cannot just be directly added to a sauce. Doing so would
cause dreadful lumps that will never incorporate into the surrounding
liquid. They must be prepped first. Flour is almost always mixed with
butter, (or some other form of fat), before being introduced into a
sauce. Take an equal amount of flour and softened butter and knead them
together until a pliable, but not melted paste is achieved and you have
what the French call beurre manié. To employ beurre manié as a
thickener, bring the sauce to a simmer, and whisk it in one piece at a
time, waiting for the previous one to melt before adding the next. When
all of the beurre manié is incorporated, bring the sauce to a near boil
and simmer for three minutes.
If you were to cook the flour and butter together first, then you
would have a roux. Melt the butter in a skillet or saucepan over low to
medium heat; add an equal amount of flour and cook, stirring constantly
until the desired degree of doneness. The longer you cook roux the
darker it will become. If you do not wish to darken your sauce but
merely want to cook out the raw, floury taste of the roux, cook for just
a few minutes. You can add the roux to the sauce or vice versa but they
must be at different starting temperatures, (at the very least, one room
temperature and one hot). You must also gradually add one to the other
and whisk incessantly. All of these steps help prevent lumping.
Employing a roux is the premier method for making gravy for your
chicken or turkey. After the bird has roasted, add flour to the
drippings in the roasting pan, cook for a few minutes, and then
gradually whisk in chicken stock. Bring to a near boil, simmer to the
desired consistency, and season with salt and pepper.
Cornstarch and arrowroot will thicken more efficiently than flour
since they contain no protein. They have 50 to 100% more thickening
power than flour and thus, less of them is needed. They also thicken at
a somewhat lower temperature and do not need to be pre-cooked, like
roux. However, they do need to be dissolved in fluid first. Mix the
cornstarch or arrowroot in just enough cold water to form the
consistency of heavy cream. This is called a slurry. Add it to your
simmering sauce, bring to a near boil and then simmer for only a minute
or two. Extended cooking will reverse the thickening process.
Every chef in the world will tell you to bring your roux or
cornstarch/arrowroot thickened sauce to a full boil to achieve its
maximum thickening potential. This is not scientifically correct.
Beyond 200-205 degrees (boiling is 212), the starch will begin to break
down. Thus, bring it to almost a full boil, immediately reduce to a
simmer, and stir gently.
Finally, sauces can be thickened by adding
a liaison, (a mixture of cream and egg yolks), butter, gelatin, and
pureed vegetables or fruits. Which of these are utilized will depend on
the type of sauce and it’s specific recipe.
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