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.

An example of a sauce created from elements on the matrix can be found here.

Although the above matrix was based on fonds, other matrices could be formulated around other groups of French sauces, such as those based on a béchamel, an emulsion, or cream. The possibilities are not endless but they do encompass a large part of the body of classic French sauces.

©2004, 2014 Peter Hertzmann. All rights reserved.

Escoffier’s demi-glace involved many day’s work. First a brown stock called an estouffade had to be prepared—a 12-hour process at a minimum—from a variety of meats and vegetables. To the finished stock, brown roux, carrots, onions, thyme, bay leaves, tomato puree, and white wine were added in a multi-step process performed over two days to produce a sauce espagnole. Finally the sauce espagnole was slowly reduced over many hours to produce the final demi-glace or reduced even longer to produce a glace.

The following recipe produces a demi-glace or glace in a matter of four or five hours extended over a two-day period. The total “face” time required by the cook is only about an hour. This recipe is based on the methods I have observed in restaurants in France over the last few years. The quantity of ingredients listed in the recipe will produce about 450 grams of glace or about 800 grams of demi-glace. I usually prepare multiples of the recipe and freeze the resulting glace in 300-gram portions—enough for about 8 servings of most sauces. Note: click each picture to enlarge it.

Glace de voilaille
900 grams
chicken wings, chopped into 3-cm pieces
250 grams
chicken feet, chopped
1 medium
leek, all the white and some of the green portion, chopped
1 medium
carrot, chopped
1 medium
onion, roots trimmed, unpeeled, chopped
2 cloves
garlic, unpeeled, crushed slightly
zest from 1
fresh bay leaf
3 sprigs
fresh, flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon
tomato concentrate
black peppercorns
2-1/2 liters
cold water

My preferred combination of meat for this recipe is chicken feet and wings in the approximate proportions listed above. I use chicken wings because they are inexpensive and have a high ratio of meat to bone. The feet are used to impart more gelatin to the final glace than would be produced by using just wings. The gelatin causes the final glace to solidify firmly when chilled. I often substitute other pieces of chicken carcass for the wings because whenever I bone a chicken for some other use, I save the bones in the freezer instead of discarding them. I also substitute bones from other meats—the picture has both quail and rabbit bones, as well as chicken carcass, added to the wings and feet. Also, half a cow’s foot or a pig’s foot can be substituted for the chicken feet as a source of gelatin.

In the picture, green onions have been substituted for the leek, which wasn’t available the day I prepared this recipe for the photographs. The green onions could have even been left out, but I had some in my refrigerator that were getting old. If the carrot is scrubbed very well, I don’t bother to peel it. The onion skins are used, especially from brown onions, because they impart some color to the finished glace. Additionally, a whole, chopped pear tomato has been substituted for the tomato paste.

Brown the meat thoroughly in a very hot oven or in oil in a very hot frying pan. Pour off and discard any fat rendered from the meat. Browning the meat will produce a darker glace with more complex flavors, but I often skip this step to save time. The results still have sufficient flavor.
Place all the ingredients in a large stock pot (or divide the ingredients over multiple pots if more glace is being prepared). Place the pot(s) over high heat and bring to a boil. When the liquid begins to boil, gradually reduce the heat to produce a very low boil. As all the contents come up to heat, the level of the heat under the pot can be set fairly low to maintain the low boil. When the water initially comes to a boil, a gray scum will rise to the top. This should be skimmed from the surface with a small ladle or spoon. As the cooking proceeds, the scum will be replaced by yellow fat. This should also be carefully skimmed from the surface. Once the low boil is established at low heat, I check the pot and skim the surface only about once an hour.
The soup is cooked sufficiently when a light broth is produced and the liquid has reduced by about one-third. Retaining as much broth as possible, strain the broth through a fine chinois into a container suitable for chilling the strained broth. As seen in the picture, even though the fat was skimmed, some will still remain. This will quickly form at the surface of the cooling soup. Chill the broth overnight in a refrigerator.
The next day, use a spoon to carefully scrape the congealed fat from the surface of the chilled broth. The broth should be a loose jelly, not liquid, when it is fully chilled. Transfer the jelly to a large saucepan and bring to a full boil. When the broth has been reduced by about one third, a demi-glace will be the result. Reducing the liquid by two-thirds will produce a glace. A convenient way to determine how far the reduction has come is to measure the depth of the liquid with a small metal ruler at the start and then periodically during the reduction. When the liquid has reduced to a glace, it will be syrupy and easily coat the ruler.
When the liquid has reduced sufficiently, ladle it into storage containers and set aside to cool in the refrigerator. The liquid will expand quite a bit if frozen so leave space in the container if you plan to freeze the results. The chilled liquid should be rather firm if reduced to a demi-glace and very firm if reduced to a glace. The demi-glace or glace will last for a week under refrigeration or for many months if frozen. Thaw frozen glace in a refrigerator before using.      
©2004, 2014 Peter Hertzmann. All rights reserved.

The following sauce is one that I’ve eaten many times in small restaurants in France, but I’ve never seen a written recipe for it—so I wrote one. As seen in the preceding matrix, no one ingredient is by itself critical. Each can have another ingredient substituted for it and the sauce will still work (although the name may need to be changed). The recipe below is intended to provide an example as to how a sauce would be made from the matrix, as well as to present a rather tasty sauce. Note: click each picture to enlarge it.

Sauce au cognac et moutarde
15 grams
shallots, minced
60 milliliters
100 grams
fine salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon
Dijon-style mustard

The quantities listed above are approximate and should produce enough finished sauce for 2 servings.

This sauce is best started by cooking a couple of steaks. The sauce is then prepared quickly while the steaks rest. The caramelized juices left behind by cooking the steaks dissolve during deglazing and add to the final flavor of the sauce. Some of the fat remaining from cooking the steaks is required in order for the shallots to cook, but if there is too much fat, the final sauce may be a bit greasy.

Cook the shallots in the fat remaining from cooking the steaks, or in a little hot oil or butter and oil, over medium heat. Stir the shallots continuously to prevent them from burning.
Add the cognac to the pan all at once. Increase the heat to high. When the cognac starts to boil, ignite it to burn off some of the alcohol. Boil the cognac until it reduces to a syrup. Stir occasionally to help monitor the progress of reduction, especially towards the end so the shallots don’t burn in the syrup. If you listen to the sound of the boiling liquid, you’ll hear a change as the cognac comes close to becoming a syrup. Also, the size and the frequency of the bubbles will noticeably change.
Add the glace. Move the mass around with a spatula to speed the melting of the gelatin in the glace. Carefully reduce the glace until the desired consistency is reached. As the glace reduces, the rate at which it thickens will begin to increase. If the sauce becomes too thick, add a couple of spoonfuls of stock to thin it out.
Add the mustard to finish the sauce. Either reduce the heat or remove the pan from the heat while stirring the sauce to incorporate the mustard.
Spoon the finished sauce over the steaks, or whatever it was prepared to accompany. Note that even though all the components of the sauce are rather light in color, the finished sauce always seems to take on a pleasing, dark tone by the time it is served.      
©2004, 2014 Peter Hertzmann. All rights reserved.