On the cover of her 1,200-page master work, “The New Making of a Cook: The Art, Techniques and Science of Good Cooking” (1997), chef Madeleine Kamman intently whisks butter into a glistening, dark brown, syrupy sauce, holding the saucepan outward, as if the reader were an onlooking student.
The photograph is a reminder that it’s all well and good to know how to make a fluffy omelet, break down a salmon like a surgeon or turn beet juice into “caviar,” but until you know how to make a decent sauce, you will never be a truly great cook.
I’m not referring to the squeeze-bottle dots, flavored-oil dribbles or immersion-blender purees that define many of our modern sauces, though they warrant future discussion. I’m talking about one sauce in particular, born of Italian-influenced French culinary tradition: the basic red wine sauce for meat, an ethereal amalgam of an ultra-rich meat essence, a red wine reduction, butter and herbs.
I have finally come as close as I can to perfecting this sauce, and the process has taken only about 30 years. It won’t take you that long if you follow my directions and come to know that the secret to a great sauce for beef, lamb or veal is actually turkey.
In my early days as a restaurant cook, brown sauce was not part of my repertoire.
But before that, as a waiter in French restaurants, I would watch the cooks go through their weekly routine of making veal stock. First, the kitchen would fill with the nauseating odor of cremating bones. The next day, giant pots of liquid burbled on the stove; the aroma emanating from them, though still primal and carnivorous, had graduated overnight from an assault to an integral and pleasant part of the restaurant’s environment.
The cooks would take that stock, add roasted vegetables, nutty roux and tomato paste, and reduce it for hours, occasionally using a wide skimmer to discard the goo floating on the top. The resulting sauce — thick, shiny and chestnut brown — would be whisked with butter and then used as the base for several of the menu’s meat dishes. Years later I learned that the French name for the sauce, before the butter addition, was sauce espagnole.
My firsthand knowledge of the subject was scant until 1991. I call that the year I became a cook, because, even though I was four years into my first chef’s position, that’s when I learned how to make a transcendent sauce under the watchful eye of Madeleine Kamman herself.
In July of that year, I had the opportunity to attend Kamman’s School for American Chefs in California’s Napa Valley. That program, now defunct, was for chefs who had worked for at least five years in an American restaurant. The admissions process was rigorous, but worth the reward: Four students spent two intensive 40-hour weeks with Kamman in a picturesque kitchen cottage nestled on the verdant grounds of Beringer Vineyards.
Mornings were spent preparing lunch using techniques from Kamman’s curriculum, afternoons picnicking on our output under a shade tree and launching into intellectual deconstructions thereof. Kamman was, to us, Plato, and we were students of her Academy, earnestly jotting down her every word on our clean slates.
During every session, the vineyard shrewdly scheduled a large dinner for important clients and local notables, to be catered by Kamman and her eager students. For our dinner (we did two, actually), beef tenderloin with lavender-scented red wine sauce was the plat de resistance.
I recall our mentor being exasperated by our poor understanding of classic saucemaking yet excited to pass down vital knowledge to another generation. She went through the history of sauces from Roman times to the present, explaining how the traditional method of creating our sauce — making a stock, using it to make espagnole sauce and reducing that into a thick glaze called a demi-glace — had become too cost- and time-prohibitive to be practical.
Her method cut out the middleman and turned stock directly into a rich essence that could be used like a demi-glace, as a base for sauce. Kamman made rich veal stock with 10 pounds of roasted veal breast chunks, their deglazed pan juices, aromatics, a bouquet garni, and bouillon cubes for salt. Because she made the stock with collagen-rich meat instead of bones, it required only four hours of simmering rather than 12.
Kamman showed us how that veal stock could be used as a neutral base to make sauces for lamb, veal and beef. She browned cubes of each of those meats separately until they were covered with a dark brown glaze. She defatted the pan, then added veal stock in several batches, letting each addition reduce to a syrup as she scraped up browned bits from the bottom of the pan. By the end, each liquid had taken on the concentrated flavor of the meat she had matched with the rich stock.
These essences, she explained, need to be balanced with acid and fat and flavored with herbs to achieve layers of complexity and greatness. The ability to create perfect balance was something that came with time and experience, trial and error.
For our dinner sauce, Kamman stood over us to make sure we took the time to brown the beef scraps to maximum darkness and then add the stock patiently, so our essence would sing. Acid was introduced in the form of excellent-quality red wine reduced by half with aromatic vegetables and lavender. She demonstrated how to bring the essence and the reduction together, to mellow and enrich the sauce with butter and to know when enough was enough.
As I made that sauce, I tasted and tasted, added butter, tasted again, added more butter and tasted again, adjusting the seasoning at the final moment. At some point, by some tacit instinct, I knew it to be just right. That was the moment I felt like a real cook.
Is this an everyday part of my repertoire? No. Not even every year, actually. But it is a rite of passage all cooks must undertake to understand that it’s worth an entire day of work to transform a pot of liquid into a few quarts of stock, a quart of stock into a cup of sauce and a cup of sauce into two tablespoons on a plate in a supporting role.
As I set out to reproduce Kamman’s method, I could not justify the time I spent finding acceptable veal ingredients, and certainly not their cost. To take the edge off $8-a-pound veal shank or breast and resisting the temptation to cheat by buying prepared veal stock for $16 per quart, I replaced half of the veal bones required for stock with turkey necks.
Taking the experiment further, I remade the stock and got rid of the veal entirely. I blanched five pounds of turkey necks and put them in the stockpot. (Blanching cuts down on the necessary skimming.) I roasted five pounds of turkey wing portions to golden brown and proceeded per Kamman’s prescriptions.
In addition to the cost savings, my endeavor yielded other bonuses. Turkey stock takes two hours instead of four. The wings and necks gave up six cups of meat, which would be frozen and used for two meals.
The liquid yield of my day’s work was one cup each of lamb, beef and veal essence. Following Kamman’s formula — essence, acid, fat, herbs — I developed separate sauces for beef, lamb and veal.
The exercise was revelatory: I found I actually preferred the more subtle flavor of turkey stock to veal stock and will probably never make veal stock again. It’s a good thing, too, because when I added up the costs, the sauces came in at $4 per serving.
Whoever said greatness came cheap?
Hagedorn’s The Process column appears monthly in Food. He’ll join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.