It is all too easy for the novice of French cooking to think that all sauce preparations are delineated in recipes, long ago inscribed in some large book of official cooking instruction. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Recipes for hundreds of sauces do exist in French cooking. (Some can even be found in the archives of this web site.) But in reality, the sauce component of a French dish is often “created” au moment—on the spot—just before serving.
If you peruse the classics of French cooking, such as Escoffier’s Guide Culinaire, you’ll find hundreds of sauce recipes. Many of these sauces, although classic preparations, are in reality, variations on a theme—change one ingredient and Sauce A becomes Sauce B. By applying a bit of imagination, it is possible to see the recipes as elements of a matrix rather than individual prescriptions.
The sauce recipes that form my favorite example of the above premise are those based on a fond, whether fond de viande or fond de volaille. The French word fond is usually translated “stock,” although the word had many other meanings. But to just call it stock is, in a sense, not to describe it completely. French fonds have intense flavor, and when reduced produce exquisite glaces and demi-glaces. For the uninitiated, fonds and their variations may seem like either a mystery or too much work, but actually, a basic version can easily be achieved with inexpensive ingredients and a modicum of time. The instructions included here will produce a fond, demi-glace, or glace de volaille in little time and for little expense. The results can easily be used in the sauce matrix shown below.
The matrix consists of four basic elements: a garniture de base, a déglaçage, the fonds, and a liaison or finition. All of the elements are in one sense, optional, except the fonds—although you probably wouldn’t make a sauce just from a fond. Sauces au moment generally accompany meat, poultry, or fish that has been cooked in a pan with a minimum amount of fat. The cooking leaves behind caramelized juices that become part of the finished sauce. After the main ingredient is removed from the pan and any excess fat discarded, the optional garniture de base is added to the cooking pan and is itself cooked an appropriate amount. Juices expelled during this phase start to cause the burned-on bits of caramelized juices to release from the surface of the pan and melt.
Next the pan is optionally deglazed with a liquid, the déglaçage. This process, along with some scraping with a spatula, cause the remaining bits of juices to give up their grip on the bottom of the pan and dissolve into the deglazing liquid. The deglazing liquid is usually reduced almost totally. This process concentrates the flavors of the liquid and encapsulates the flavors of the caramelized juices and of the ingredient used as the initial graniture.
Next, the fond is added. Depending on the end result desired, the fond can be a lighter version, such as bouillon, or a richer version, such as a demi-glace or glace. No matter which is used, it will be reduced either a little or substantially. Use of a bouillon or fond will result in a thin sauce, whereas use of a demi-glace or glace will generally result in a rich sauce that can be as thick as heavy syrup.
In many cases the sauce is complete at this point, but in others, an additional ingredient is added. This can be a liaison added to thicken the sauce and increase its apparent richness. Or it can be a finition added to increase the complexity of the sauce. In some cases, both can be added. Also in some recipes, the sauce is strained before the final ingredients are added.
The matrix below delineates some of the possibilities of the various components of a sauce au moment. The column on the right lists a number of classic sauces that can be accomplished from the various components. Placing your cursor over a sauce name will cause its specific components to be highlighted. The source of the sauce recipes is Louis Saulnier’s compendium of 6000 recipes first published in 1914, Le Répertoire de la Cuisine. Recipes with the same title in other books may be prepared from a different set of ingredients. Placing your cursor over any ingredient name will cause the English translation of each term to appear.