My 5-Step Method for Preparing Professional Quality Brown Sauces
As a home cook, one of the hardest things for me to accomplish when first starting out was making a rich, velvety brown sauce to serve on steak, lamb, veal, pork, or chicken. Then, I could put together a good pan sauce using the dripping after sauteing or roasting a piece of meat. Still, it never quite had that incredible intensity I experienced when dining out at a great restaurant.
It wasn't until I spent some time reading about sauce making and speaking with a few chef friends that I learned it isn't so much the "how to" but the "ingredients" that make the difference. Using my 5-step method to make a great brown sauce is easy if you have all the necessary ingredients, and I will give you some great resources to find them.
Spoiler Alert - The key ingredient for many of the restaurant quality sauces is demi glace (demi-glace)
What is a Sauce?
According to Food Lover's Companion, a sauce is "a thickened, flavored liquid designed to accompany food to enhance and bring out its flavor."
Now that can cover a lot of territories. It goes on to say, "In the days before refrigeration, however, sauces were more often used to smother the taste of foods that had begun to go bad."
I'm sure we have all had experiences that have proven this true, even in the days of refrigeration……Think back to your high school cafeteria.
But in the 19th century, the French created an intricate process for making sauces that are still being taught in cooking schools worldwide. This process involves numerous steps.
I highly recommend James Peterson's "Sauces" and Raymond Sokolov's "The Saucier's Apprentice" if you have the time. They are entirely devoted to just this subject.
Why is it so difficult to make great sauces at home?
As Chef Alton Brown says in his cookbook, I'm Just Here For The Food, "By and large, most home cooks don't do sauce…and that's too bad. Traditional sauces are indeed scary."
Preparing the key ingredients that go into a sauce takes a lot of time. It starts by making a stock with roasted beef and/or veal bones, reducing them for at least 12 hours, continuously skimming the pot, straining the liquid to remove the bones, reducing some more, adding a roux (a mixture of flour and butter used as a thickening agent). You now have a nice brown sauce or sauce Espagnole.
A professional chef will reduce this brown sauce further to make a demi glace, the mother of all sauces. These guys spend a lot of time in cooking school learning how to do this and take great pride in the sauces they can make with it.
These stock reductions are the foundation for hundreds of classic sauces being served in fine restaurants.
Why can't I just use a bouillon cube?
Unless you want to ruin an expensive cut of meat by covering it with a salty corn syrup reduction, I will stay away from bouillon cubes or any of those cheap packets of instant sauces you see in your local supermarket. Instead, look at the ingredients to see if what's inside is real or simply processed.
You can't build a solid house without a strong foundation. The same is true when making sauces.
What's a home cook to do?
Since making a great sauce at home depends on finding a good stock reduction or demi glace, I would like to offer you the following resources.
Make it yourself. A great experience but one most of us will not take on.
Make friends with your favorite upper-end restaurant chef and see if they will share some of their brown gold with you. Be prepared to beg or pay through the nose to get them to part with this stuff. Not likely, but worth a try.
Hire a personal chef to make it for you. You may have to subscribe to years worth of dinners, which isn't all that bad, but you will have your demi.
Buy it at a high-end gourmet store. If you search hard, you may be able to find stock reductions in the refrigerator section of some high-end stores. You won't get much, but you don't need a lot, and it won't be cheap.
Check out Amazon. Hey, they have everything else, so why not a good selection of commercial demi-glace products? Of course, they do, and below, you can see a selection of them that are all fine products but different in how they are made, what they are made from, and how much they cost.
My Quick & Easy 5-Step Method Quick Look
1. Sauté a shallot in butter
2. Deglaze pan with wine
3. Add demi glace
5. Season with salt & pepper
More Detailed Explanation
1. Sauté a chopped shallot or small onion in one ounce of butter (¼ stick) for 1-2 minutes until translucent.
2. Deglaze with ½-cup red wine and reduce to an essence (approximately one tablespoon of remaining liquid). Be sure to remove the pan from the heat before deglazing.
3. Add 8 ounces of demi glace.
4. Reduce the sauce until it is thick enough to coat a spoon.
5. Season with freshly ground pepper to taste.
(Optional) One last item that is optional but often used by professional chefs is a pat of butter. It adds a bit more flavor and shine to the finished sauce.
At this point, you have a delicious sauce that you can serve or use as a base and layer in more flavors by adding additional ingredients, including fresh herbs and spices, fruits, chutneys, relish, or cream.
If you are adding mushrooms or other ingredients that need to cook a bit, add them to the pan right after you add the wine and let them cook while the wine is reducing.