Hittin' the Sauce - Recap

<-- Previous EpisodeNext Episode -->
Alton begins with a short history lesson: In Rome, 257 BC, Romans put garum on everything. This mixture of wine, water, salt and, yes, fermented fish entrails appeared on all sorts of Roman food, where it would seek out and destroy any flavor! Centuries later, in 1195 AD, Medieval palates prefer sweet sauces that showcase spices – cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, mustard and honey. The more exotic herbs, the better. If the sauce wanted thickening, there was always stale bread laying around. Perfect, Alton claims, for that après-joust party! In 1813 France, Antonin Carême developed a system of sauces based on a handful of “mother sauces” – white and brown sauce from stock, béchamel from milk, a tomato based sauce and hollandaise. From these he developed hundreds of “lesser sauces.”

Back in the kitchen, Alton notes that the typical American of today gets his sauce from a bag or a box, which he considers a shame, because one need not be a world class chef to make world class sauces. A few basic tools, quality ingredients, and a quarter cup of know-how mixed properly allow anyone to produce... Good Eats!

Quoting from a book, Alton describes sauce as “a flavorful and viscous liquid designed to be ladled, brushed or squirted onto food.” The book continues, suggesting that a thousand recipes exist... and that’s as far as Alton gets before he tosses the book in favor of his own opinion: there are two basic sauce families: “stand-alone” sauces created independently of the food they’ll flavor, and “ready-made” sauces created from the foods they’ll flavor.

Most Americans, Alton says, will profit from a ready-made sauce, so he proposes to start there. He walks to the range where his trusty assistant Thing prepares strip steaks in butter – the Continental way. Alton asks the “handy-man” how he plans to finish the steaks and Thing ducks below the counter, then reappears from a nearby cabinet holding a bottle. Walking over, Alton sees the bottle contains “B.2.” Steak Sauce, which he disparages. Telling Thing to put the bottle away, Alton asks for ten minutes to prepare a better sauce and even volunteers to finish the steaks!

Back at the range, Alton explains that the steaks aren’t the tastiest things in the scene. No, the tastiest things are the fond, or “foundation” – the brown bits at the bottom of the skillet. To start his sauce, Alton dissolves them, a process called deglazing. Any water type liquid will do, but water doesn’t bring much flavor so Alton uses broth (not stock). Explaining the difference, Alton points out that broth starts as meat, while stock starts as bone and contains gelatin – and so is thicker. It isn’t really a water-type liquid.

Pouring broth into the pan, Alton scrapes the bits off the pan to mix them in as the water in the broth boils. This mixture reduces over high heat to drive off the water and concentrate the flavors. Alton refrains from salting the mix now, as the reduction would concentrate the salt, too, and the result would be too salty. Dissolving the fond in broth starts the sauce, but Alton wants more flavoring. To get it, he adds a little cognac, warning that one can cook out some of the alcohol, but never all of it. Another layer of flavor comes from green peppercorns; to carry this flavor and add volume, Alton grabs some cream from his chill chest. He cooks this down until it reaches the nappe stage, which he demonstrates by showing how the sauce should form a thin layer on the back of a spoon dipped into it. This, Alton says, is too strong to eat by itself – but that’s a good sauce. Weaker, and it would be soup.

Alton serves the sauced steaks to Thing and a... Lady Thing? He notes that the right sauce can turn a “hunk of cow” into date food; Thing and his lady descend below the counter...

Walking by a bubbling pot, Alton inspects it. Ah... stew! Lamb stew, in fact, with browned bits of lamb and vegetables suspended in sauce. The sauce looks a little watery, so Alton proposes to fix that with starch.

Returning to the kitchen in a bulky flower suit, Alton explains that plants make sugar by photosynthesis, and then polymerize this sugar into starch granules. Tearing “himself” open, Alton pulls out some “granules” as he explains further: when exposed to heat and moisture these grains open up and the starch molecules tangle, thickening whatever liquid they’re in. Different sorts of starch thicken liquids in different ways.

At the grocery store now (and having shed the flower suit), Alton explains that the most common thickener is wheat flour. But it clumps badly, combines with fat to make a greasy sauce, and contains protein that must be scraped from the surface of the food – and that’s nasty. Asian cuisine uses a lot of cornstarch, which thickens at a lower temperature but is not heat stable. Overcook it, and you’re right back where you started. Tapioca works in pie fillings but can be tricky in sauces. Potato starch is like corn starch, although alone among starches it is kosher for Passover. That leads Alton to his favorite, arrowroot.

Arrowroot, Alton explains, comes from the arrowroot plant, found in the subtropical parts of the world. A new voice pipes up, “not necessarily.” Alton doesn’t remember calling for a nutritional anthropologist, but Deb Duchon has appeared anyway – even NAs must shop for food! She explains that starch sold as arrowroot may not actually be from the arrowroot plant. It could be tapioca, cassava, or potato starch – check the list of ingredients to be sure and find a reliable source. She also shows Alton a real arrowroot – a vaguely lozenge shaped plant whose name may have followed the discovery by Caribbean Indians that a paste made from it could draw poison from arrow wounds. Finally, she mentions Japanese arrowroot, made from the Kudzu plant.

Back in the kitchen, Alton has his starch in hand. That leaves two questions, the first being how much to add. For gravy consistency, Alton would add about a tablespoon per cup. Alton only wants to tighten the stew up a little, so he’s going to add just two tablespoons for the quart or so of liquid bubbling in the pot. And that raises the second question: how to add the starch. Alton knows he can’t just dump it in, or lumps will form as the outermost grains gelatinize in the hot liquid and seal liquid out of the inner layers. To prevent that, Alton proposes mixing the starch with a cold liquid – any water type liquid will do. But as before, Alton knows water won’t bring much flavor, and he wants to “brighten” the stew – that means acid, normally wine. Arrowroot thickens quickly so there won’t be time to cook the alcohol out of the wine, so Alton selects tomato juice instead. Unique among starches, arrowroot thickens equally well in acidic liquids, but, Alton cautions, don’t use it with dairy – it will make a nasty slime. For pie filling, stick with cornstarch! Alton shakes the tomato juice and arrowroot to mix them, then stirs them in leaving the heat on medium. Arrowroot thickens quickly; in minutes Alton demonstrates how the sauce has tightened nicely.

Nothing, Alton continues, rivals Hollandaise sauce. And few things strike more terror into the hearts of cooks, either. Why? (In the background, a man pipes up that it’s because Alton is an idiot.) Alton explains that Hollandaise is basically a hot mayonnaise made like a lemon curry.

The hardware is a sauce pan containing an inch of water, a mixing bowl that sits in the pan but does not contact the water (this is important), and a big whisk. First, one must bring the water to a simmer (the background man takes the pot from Alton and says he’ll do that, since Alton would just take forever). While that’s going on Alton takes three egg yolks and adds a little water, then whisks them in a bowl. Whisking denatures some of the proteins – Alton explains how proteins normally fold into geometries that give them their chemical properties, and stay that way because of chemical links. The mechanical energy of the whisk breaks these bonds, allowing the proteins to unfold into long chains of amino acids. The water decreases the density of the yolks and permits the emulsifiers to move around. Emulsifiers, Alton reminds regular viewers, are molecules that can connect to a fat and to water, enabling them to stabilize an emulsion, or mixture of two insoluble substances (in this case, fat and water). Next Alton adds a little sugar (and the irate voice suggests he’s making frosting, not hollandaise). The sugar fits in between the protein strands and provides a little protection against curdling.

Alton whisks the mixture over simmering water for three to five minutes until it thickens. He cautions cooks against stopping – they can slow down, but not stop, or the egg proteins will certainly curdle. The sugar provides a little protection but only a little. When the yolks fall in ribbons, the whisking is complete. Alton kills the heat and removes the bowl, then begins to add butter that he has cut into small cubes. (The angry voice chides Alton for keeping a filthy kitchen, finding it amazing that he’s on television.)

Alton sighs, then explains that the butter must be slowly integrated. Cooking with the residual heat permits that; the emulsifiers “wrap” droplets of butter and welcome them into the sauce, which is essentially an oil-in-water emulsion. Emulsifiers, Alton reminds regular viewers, are molecules that can connect to a fat and to water, enabling them to stabilize an emulsion, or mixture of two insoluble substances. Because the butter is cooler than the mixture, Alton periodically “reloads” the heat in his mix from the double boiler arrangement. At this point the mysterious chef reveals himself, asking Alton just what he thinks he’s doing. Alton introduces Chef Paul, who taught him sauces in culinary school. Chef Paul reminds Alton that everyone uses clarified butter for Hollandaise, but Alton believes that whole butter he can slowly release the fat into the emulsion, giving him more control. Chef Paul tastes Alton’s developing sauce and then curtly announces he’s going to his office for a blood pressure pill. Alton apologizes for his old mentor, saying the man is really a sweet guy, just a little insecure and with a few rage issues...

When the last of the butter finishes melting, Alton seasons his Hollandaise with kosher salt, lemon juice and a little cayenne pepper. Then he contemplates pairings: Hollandaise goes will with a variety of foods, including eggs, spinach, whitefish, even chocolate éclairs and blocks of chocolate.

The trickiest part of making many sauces isn’t the cooking, it’s the keeping. Leave a sauce around at room temperature, even for a few minutes, and it’s likely to harden. Reheat that, and it will fall apart. The answer to this problem is in the hands of construction workers everywhere.

At a “construction site” Alton finds that answer: the vacuum bottle, or Thermos bottle. Sawing one in half, Alton explains that heat migrates in several ways: conduction, convection, and radiation. The vacuum bottle defeats conduction with a system of inner and outer bottles, and a minimal connection between them. It defeats convection by maintaining a vacuum between those two bottles, thermally isolating the inner from the outer bottle. And it defeats radiation with a mirror-like finish on the inner bottle that reflects infrared. Hot foods stay hot, and cold foods stay cold. For the best results, one can “prime” such a bottle by filling it with hot or cold liquid (depending on what it will store) before filling it with the sauce. Stored this way, Alton’s hot sauces will be ready when he needs them, even if that’s awhile later!

Alton concludes by pointing out that he’s only scratched the surface of this topic; there are as many sauces as there are stars in the galaxy of... Good Eats!