Read the Recipe Vol. ∞

Ingredient flexibility. What is that?! It’s a term I use to describe being comfortable changing a recipe as needed. Maybe you’ve watched a competitive cooking show and were amazed at the contestants making a complicated component, seemingly on a whim. How often have you found a recipe that you want to make, but you’re missing ingredients? Or, are you cooking for someone with allergies? Do you feel comfortable substituting or omitting ingredients? If you’ve not reached this type of kitchen freedom, this post (and a few planned for the future) is for you.

When I started cooking, I followed each recipe “to a T,” and everything was measured, even at home. Where home cooks would add their own influence, I just wanted to recreate what had been done before. My first chef would gently heckle me, but I needed to know exactly how something worked, almost to the point of muscle memory, before I could modify it. His experience gave him that bank of knowledge to feel comfortable “winging it.” I know there are others out there that feel hesitant to deviate from a recipe, but that’s what makes a dish your own. My favorite thing to do after my wife compliments my food is to say, “Enjoy it, you’ll never have that dish again!” Meaning: I’ve strayed far from the source material, and I didn’t write any of it down. At one of my favorite restaurant jobs, a coworker had a great outlook on what we did, and I have since stolen that view from him: “Cooking is the making of temporary art, our work is (hopefully) destroyed soon after it is finished.” Using that mentality, I don’t always aim for perfect reproduction.

For most recipes, substitutions can be made simply, whether that be protein, vegetable or fruit changes. For now, I want to focus on another area, one that I believe is under-utilized: sauces. It seems many of us have grown quite accustomed to dry packages and jar sauce. I won’t repeat it here, but I agree with the stance of the YouTube channel, “Nat’s What I Reckon.” (It has naughty language, so I won’t link to it. If you’re brave, check it out.) One of the great examples of ingredient flexibility is the Mother Sauces: bechamel, veloute, tomato, espagnole and hollandaise. Knowing these five sauces allows the creative cook to make a near-infinite number of variations. Also be aware that using “molecular gastronomy” opens the door to new possibilities, too. I made a small list of titles about sauces.

Modern Sauces book coverSauce-making is the magic of the kitchen. It is alchemy, it is art and science. A bit of math and a touch of inspiration. Using quality ingredients is rarely more important than in sauce-making. A well-made sauce can lift the most basic dishes to unexpected heights. There are a few great books dedicated to the making of sauces. James Peterson wrote a comprehensive tome on the basics of sauces. His book, “Sauces,” is a James Beard Award-winner and in its fourth edition. “Sauces” is quite possibly the only book you will need on the subject. Another book I need to mention is “Modern Sauces” by Martha Holmberg. Holmberg covers the prep portion of sauce making exceedingly well. Lastly, I want to mention “Mastering Sauces” by Susan Volland. I believe all three books have value and are worth the time used to at least skim the pages, especially taking note of the charts and lists.

Mastering Sauces book cover“Modern Sauces” is available as an eBook through hoopla. The layout is nice, the recipes are clear with ample textual instruction. There could be more pictures along with the recipes, but as an eBook, I guess that is not as necessary. Beyond just the preparation of sauces, the contents prepare the cook to save time by thinking about batch cooking. Yes, some items need to be made á la minute, but others are fine pre-made. “Modern Sauces” gives the reader all the necessary information and shows ways to easily make variations of the recipes.

“Mastering Sauces” has a classic cookbook feel, with heavy paper pages. The black text and off-white background make for easy reading. Included are many charts that give plenty of supplemental information on the specifics of sauces; from textures to emulsifiers to thickeners.

Sauces book coverFinally, “Sauces” by James Peterson. Beautiful paper, multi-colored text for easier differentiation of subjects, flow charts showing variations and modifications of sauces, metric and volume measurements, along with many procedural photos all combine to make this an indispensable resource. If the chapters ended with review questions, you could be excused for thinking it was a textbook.

I’d like to mention a few specific sections that highlight why I love this book: Chapter 1 is “A Short History of Sauce Making,” and it’s a nice overview of the progression of sauce-making. Especially in the culinary world, knowing how a dish or item has evolved is highly important. Understanding the history can give insight into the flavor profile and how to modify or substitute the ingredients while keeping the essence of the sauce. Learning that coq au vin is traditionally finished with rooster blood to thicken the sauce and give it a distinctive matte look was…enlightening? This is certainly not the only dish that used blood in the sauce, but it is something I know I’ve eaten in the past. Tips are interspersed throughout for the restaurant chef (still useful for home cooks): improvising sauces, fixing sauces, how to expect thickeners to react, fixing broken sauces, making your own flavored oils, sauces from around the world, even dessert sauces, and more (I did mention it was comprehensive). Lastly, a very helpful glossary is included.

Hopefully, after reading this book you can expand your sauce-making repertoire. Sauces need not be heavy and laden the dish with starch, fat and overpowering meat flavor but with a bit of restraint and creativity can be light and refreshing.

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