One of the most notable differences between home-cooked meals and those served in restaurants can be found in the flavor of the sauces. While some cooks are comfortable adding a little of this and a splash of that, recreating a sauce sampled on the town is a challenge for many. For those who need a little boost of kitchen confidence, here are a few tricks from behind the hot line to stir up some culinary creativity.
- Reduce sauces to increase flavor. To reduce a sauce, simply cook it over a low heat in order to evaporate water from the pan. As the sauce simmers, the volume decreases but its intense meaty flavor will remain, certain to complement your dish.
- Deglaze your pan to capture the richest flavors. After sautéing aromatic vegetables or searing meats, begin the sauce by adding wine, juice, or stock to the sauté pan. This releases the sweet browned bits of food from the pan and into the sauce.
- Spike up the flavor. Acid ingredients such as wine, vinegar, and citrus juices are used to bring out full flavors that may be otherwise hidden in a heavy sauce. A touch should bring a flat sauce to life, but the heavy-handed will suffer from too much tang.
- Adjust salt just before serving. Masked by water, fiber, and other naturally occurring flavors, salt tends to hide within many basic ingredients. As a sauce reduces and its flavor becomes more intense, so does its salt content. Rather than adding salt while starting a sauce, sprinkle it in at the end to make sure you don’t end up with an unpalatable disaster.
- Use fresh ingredients. From meat to stock, from vegetables to wine, use only products that look, smell, and taste good on their own. While fine wines may be overkill in a sauce, make sure your cheaper alternative is drinkable before committing it to the pot.
- Thicken sauces as naturally as possible. If there’s enough protein in your stock, reduction alone may give your sauce the body it needs, but at times you’ll need to look elsewhere. Avoid using cornstarch where possible, as it creates an undesirable sheen and feel. Try vegetable purees instead. Flour slurries or roux are the next best option.
- Allow your sauce time to grow. Make your sauce in advance and hold for a few hours under refrigeration prior to serving, allowing flavors to meld together and bloom. Sharp acids often calm down and aromatics and spices intensify, leaving you with a complex, flavorful sauce just like you’ve tasted in restaurants.
- Finish sauces with delicate flavors just before serving. Toss in a little pat of butter, a hint of truffle oil, or a handful of fresh herbs just before your reheated sauce is ready to plate, giving it one last kiss of personality as it heads to the dining room.