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The secrets to the perfect sauce

(ran NP edition)

Making a really good sauce requires the home cook to:

Slave for hours making a rich stock from scratch.

Risk the highest crime of sauces, allowing ingredients to separate.

Risk the second-highest crime of sauces, lumps!

None of the above if you consult an expert.

The answer is, of course, the last. The expert is Shirley Corriher, high priestess of cooking chemistry who knows why your souffle falls, your egg yolks turn green and your sauce separates. Do everything Mother Shirley says, and you will create the perfect sauce.

Sauces are the velvety overcoat to a fine cut of meat. They add tang to rich desserts. Where would prime rib be without Bearnaise?

For some foodies, the sauce is paramount: Eggs Benedict is just a Hollandaise delivery system.

Historically, sauces come from humble beginnings. They were once used to disguise the taste of meat that so easily and quickly spoiled in the days before refrigeration.

Today, their purpose is not to cover up a bad taste but to enhance a good one. They add color. They can be drizzled onto a plate for an artful presentation.

Sauces cover a spectrum from the savory to the sweet. Many require a stock base, but good, ready-made stocks (chicken, beef, veal, fish and vegetarian) are available.

With the right techniques, the home cook can avoid the sins of lumps and separation, and, far from requiring hours of preparation, a sauce can be as simple as a flavored oil.

The biggest mistake cooks make is overheating their sauce, producing scrambled eggs or separation (the sauce breaks down, and oils separate out).

Another failing is to make a sauce with puny flavor. Be generous with seasonings.

Corriher, who began her cooking life as a food chemist, holds every sauce dear, especially classic Hollandaise, Bearnaise and beurre blanc. She is the author of Cookwise: The Hows & Whys of Successful Cooking with Over 230 Great-Tasting Recipes.

It includes a chapter on sauces with numerous recipes.

There are four basic types of sauces: purees, reductions, starch-bound and emulsions.

Purees are simply pureed fruits or vegetables that can stand alone or be used to thicken soups and other dishes. Because they are generally fat-free, Julia Child warns that purees can be "insipid." Rescue them with flavorful herbs and spices.

A good reduction sauce begins with "deglazing," dissolving with wine the browned morsels from the bottom of the pan in which you have cooked meats. Add cream and seasonings and then reduce.

This means simmering slowly to cook off liquids, thickening the sauce and condensing its flavor. A glace, or demi-glace, is the ultimate reduction, producing a rich kind of glaze.

For an easy but time-consuming reduction, simmer balsamic vinegar for several hours until it becomes syrupy, taking care not to burn it.

There are three ways to make starch-bound sauces: with a roux, with a slurry or with "kneaded butter."

A roux is made by mixing flour and fat and cooking it to the desired shade, such as golden brown.

For a slurry, dissolve cornstarch in cold water or stock. This can be used to thicken stir-fry dishes. To thicken gravy, shake together flour and cold liquid until lump-free.

For the kneaded butter-method (such as in a beurre manie), equal parts of butter and flour are worked together into a paste. This paste can be used to thicken a sauce. When blobs are dropped into hot liquid, the butter melts, releasing the starch grain by grain.

The fourth type of sauce is the emulsion: (Hollandaise, Bearnaise, beurre blanc, beurre rouge and mayonnaise). This is a challenge. You are asking two liquids to combine that do not want to combine. The force that combines them is a blender or your strong stirring arm.

One liquid must be broken down into droplets and the other made "juicy" so it can run between the droplets. Some agent, such as egg yolks, serves as the emulsifier, breaking surface tension and forcing the liquids together.

Here, Corriher details her best sauce tips. If you want to make the perfect bechamel or Mornay, take her advice to heart:

When using eggs to thicken a sauce, keep stirring, heat slowly and do not allow the sauce to go over 180 degrees unless you want scrambled eggs. Keep heat evenly distributed, or the eggs will scramble at the hot spots.

To thicken a starch-base sauce, use flour, cornstarch, arrowroot, tapioca or potato starches.

Adding alcohol to a sauce helps dissolve fat and intensify flavor. Vodka, for instance, enhances tomato sauce as the flavor components in the tomatoes are released in the alcohol. Add a little brandy to salad dressing to increase its taste.

Always add a pinch of sugar to tomato and other acidic sauces to counteract the acid.

Do not leave flavored oils containing fresh garlic at room temperature. Unrefrigerated oils may produce botulism. Refrigerated, they should keep two days to a week.

Using a microwave is acceptable for making a roux. Melt the butter and flour together first, then stir in liquid. The sauce will cook around the edges first.

Lumps are riskiest in starch-bound sauces. To produce a velvety sauce, make sure liquids are hot before you add them and stir until blended.

If a sauce separates, the problem is usually overheating, which evaporates the liquid. To save it, remove from heat, add an additional tablespoon or so of liquid and whisk like crazy.

Classic Bearnaise

{ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter

4 shallots, finely chopped

2 tablespoons fresh tarragon leaves

4 white peppercorns, crushed

\ cup white wine vinegar

cup dry white wine

4 large egg yolks

\ teaspoon salt

Pinch of cayenne

Heat the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat just to melt. Boil shallots, tarragon and peppercorns in vinegar and wine in a non-reactive medium-size saucepan over medium heat until reduced to about \ cup.

Strain into the top of a double boiler. Whisk in the egg yolks. Place the top over the bottom of the double boiler containing simmering water. Make sure that the top of the water is below the bottom of the upper part of the double boiler. Whisk constantly. The second the yolk mixture begins to thicken slightly, remove the top of the double boiler from above the hot water and continue whisking. Turn off the heat.

Add four ice cubes to cool the hot water a little. Put the pan of yolks back above the hot water. Whisk in the melted butter, drizzling it in very slowly. If at anytime the sauce looks as if it is about to break, remove the top and continue whisking to cool it down or whisk in 1 teaspoon cold water. With constant whisking, whisk in the salt and cayenne. When all the butter is incorporated, taste and add more salt or cayenne as needed.

Makes eight 2-tablespoon servings. Approximate values per serving: 263 calories, 26 g fat, 168 mg cholesterol, 6 g carbohydrates, 308 mg sodium, 88 percent calories from fat.

Source: from CookWise by Shirley Corriher.

White Sauce and Variations

2 cups milk

1 small bay leaf

1 celery rib

1 small onion, quartered

1 clove stuck into one of the quarters

2 crushed peppercorns

4 tablespoons ({ stick) butter

\ cup flour

For 2 cups of sauce, heat milk, bay leaf, celery, onion with clove and peppercorns just to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Remove from the heat and let stand for 5 minutes.

To make the roux, melt butter in a medium saucepan. Add flour and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, 2-3 minutes. Do not let brown. Remove from the heat. Strain the warm milk into the roux and whisk vigorously. Place back over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly. When sauce comes to a low simmer, turn the heat very low and cook at least 5 minutes, preferably 10, stirring frequently, which makes a medium thick sauce. For a thin sauce, use only 2 tablespoons each flour and butter; for a thick sauce, use 6 tablespoons each. Season with salt and white pepper.

Cream Sauce: Replace 1 cup of milk with cream or add } cup heavy or whipping cream and simmer for 10 minutes longer, stirring frequently.

Cheese Sauce: Add { cup grated Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Gruyere or other Swiss, after the sauce is removed from the heat, with 2 tablespoons lemon juice or dry white wine and \ teaspoon each cayenne, dry mustard and freshly grated nutmeg. Stir just to blend.

Sauce Mornay: Add \ cup grated Gruyere, \ cup grated Parmesan and \ teaspoon each cayenne and freshly grated nutmeg after the sauce is removed from the heat. Stir just to blend.

Makes 8 2-tablespoon servings. Approximate values per serving of white sauce: 246 calories, 20 g fat, 68 mg cholesterol, 10 g carbohydrates, 276 mg sodium, 73 percent calories from fat.

Source: from CookWise by Shirley Corriher.

Raspberry Sauce

2 packages (10 ounces each) frozen raspberries

2 tablespoons arrowroot

3 tablespoons Chambord or other raspberry liqueur

Defrost the raspberries in a strainer over a medium saucepan, reserving all the juice. Stir the arrowroot into the juice and heat, stirring constantly, until it thickens. Remove from the heat and stir in the raspberries and Chambord. Refrigerate to chill.

Makes 5 or 6 3-tablespoon servings. Approximate values per serving: 119 calories, .1 g fat, 0 cholesterol, 26 g carbohydrates, 1 mg sodium, 1 percent calories from fat.

Source: from CookWise by Shirley Corriher.

Roasted Asparagus with Lemon-chili Oil

1 shallot, minced

1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes

\ teaspoon white or black pepper

\ cup peanut, corn or blended vegetable oil

Grated zest of 3 lemons (scrub store-bought lemons well to remove the wax coating before zesting)

1 teaspoon water

25-30 spears fresh asparagus, about 1 pound

{ teaspoon salt

Bring the shallot, pepper flakes, ground pepper and oil to a simmer in a small saucepan. Simmer on very low heat for about 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand for 5 minutes. Stir in the zest of 2 lemons only (save 1 to garnish) and the water. Let stand for at least an hour, then strain the oil into a small bowl.

Snap off the tough bottoms of the asparagus spears. Arrange in an oblong heat-proof dish, stir in 2 tablespoons of the prepared flavored oil and roast the spears about 3 inches from the broiler for 5 minutes only or 6-7 minutes on the top shelf of a preheated 500 degree oven. Spoon the rest of the flavored oil over the asparagus. Sprinkle with salt. Taste and add more salt if needed. Sprinkle with the remaining zest and serve immediately.

Makes 6 servings. Approximate values per serving: 103 calories, 9 g fat, 0 cholesterol, 8 g carbohydrates, 181 mg sodium, 68 percent calories from fat.

Source: Shirley Corriher.

Emergency Gravy

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon minced onion

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 can (14-16 ounces) beef or chicken broth, heated until hot

{ teaspoon chopped fresh herbs or a pinch of dried (thyme or rosemary for beef; tarragon or marjoram for chicken)

Salt and pepper to taste

In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until tender, about 2 minutes.

Sprinkle the flour over the onions. Continue to cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Stir in the broth and cook, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens, about 2 minutes. Stir in the herbs. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot.

Makes 2 cups or 8-10 servings. Approximate values per serving: 53 calories, 4 g fat, 2 g carbohydrates, 253 mg sodium, 68 percent calories from fat.

Source: The Wooden Spoon Book of Old Family Recipes by Marilyn M. Moore.