Chicken Vesuvio, chicken pot pie or chicken Parmesan?
It all depends on how you sauce it, say a local chef and a cooking instructor.
“What a sauce means to me: it’s the ability to transform the profile of a dish,” said Chef Adam Larkin. A culinary arts instructor at Gateway Technical College for the past nine years, Larkin’s particular forte is sauce art.
A sauce can be a broth that is thickened and flavored for the base for a soup, a roux thinned with milk with grated cheese stirred in for au gratin potatoes or a cream-broth-and-egg yolk veloute ladled over a grilled chicken breast. When the ratio of liquids to solids is tipped in favor of solids, the accompaniment becomes a relish, chutney or salsa. And different as they are, all belong to the food category of sauces.
“According to French culinary tradition, there are five ‘mother sauces’ — five sauce bases that can be added to and changed up,” Larkin said. These are: bechamel, which is thickened milk or heavy cream; espagnole, a brown sauce; hollandaise, the emulsification of eggs with butter and lemon; tomato; and veloute, a light stock sauce.
Small shifts in these sauces can change the flavor profile of a whole dish, Larkin said. “For example, a chicken breast with a veloute sauce changes depending on the herbs or type of stock.”
Because “the big five” are so versatile, flavor possibilities are nearly endless, Larkin said. “These basic sauces have the power to take bland-on-their-own proteins like chicken or pork into “completely different directions,” Larkin said.
Whether creamy and thick or on the more delicate side, sauces also make foods “feel better” to diners, said Larkin. “They give a better mouth feel to dishes with meats naturally low in moisture or fat like loin pork chops or chicken breasts.”
But as a food concept, sauces go way beyond mother sauces, with the category encompassing flavored butters, soy sauce, chimichurri (an uncooked sauce for grilled meats originally from Argentina and Uruguay) and mango chutney.
“Sauces are basically things usually eaten with other food,” noted Brian Haberski, head chef at Wine Knot, 5611 Sixth Ave. “This is why macaroni and cheese is a sauce, but so is fish sauce.”
The complexity of creating interesting sauces can sometimes get the better of home cooks, Haberski said. Some sauce techniques can be painstaking and their ingredient lists can call for things not used very often, he said. “Some sauces can take longer to make than it takes meat to cook.”
For these reasons, “Not a lot of people whip up sauces at home because sauces can be kind of intimidating,” he said.
Some of Haberski’s favorite sauces are not necessarily the mother sauces of classic cooking, but what some might call condiments: combined ingredients that enhance other foods, such as mayonnaise or soy sauce. “The most important sauce is mayonnaise because it’s very convenient and versatile.”
“We don’t think of mayonnaise as a sauce, but it is an emulsion of egg yolk, oil and an acid,” Haberski said.
While some chefs make mayo from scratch, the easiest route is to mix seasonings like mustard, fresh garlic or wasabi into the jarred version.
Home chefs who want to explore new sauces can find them at their fingertips at the grocery store, Haberski says. “If you see something different, try it — there are so many sauces already made.”
As a restaurant chef, Haberski espouses going to restaurants as a way for the sauce-curious to sample a lot of different types of sauces without the fuss.
Currently, menu sauces at Wine Knot include blue cheese cream sauce for filet mignon, tomatillo sauce for a grilled chicken bowl, hollandaise sauce, cranberry wine reduction, stroganoff with truffle cream and rosemary sage demi-glace for lamb chops.
Larkin contends that working with sauces at home is a snap, once chefs get their technique down. Even building a sauce from a roux (equal parts flour and fat) takes time at first, but eventually can be completed in a few minutes, he said. The advantage, again, is creating sauces with many possible applications. “A bechamel cream sauce, for example, can go on top of chicken, beef or pork or can be thinned down to make strognaoff or soup.”
For those who do want to try making them at home, Haberski suggests experimentation. “When I was figuring out sauces I forced myself to use whatever was in my pantry — olives, raisins, whatever.” The best advice, he says, is to make them often and just practice.
Larkin too espouses the spirit of exploration. “Work with mother sauces and experiment. It’s all up to your imagination.” The effort will be worth it, he says. “A good sauce is the frosting on the cake and the writing on it.”