Sunday, January 23, 2011

Some Thoughts About Sauces

My son (age 10) learned a lesson about sauces this morning, specifically that when you allow a sauce containing dairy to boil, it breaks.

He was making biscuits and sausage gravy for breakfast and got distracted watching his older brother (age 13) play computer games, and the sausage gravy boiled until it looked all grainy.  We strained it to keep the sausage bits and remade the gravy and breakfast was saved, but that got me thinking about sauces.

There are very few milk-based sauces in medieval European cuisine.  Off hand only one comes to mind - Gauncile, which is a garlic flavored cream sauce.  Even Jance, which looks like a dairy-based sauce, uses almond milk.

In the sauce recipes found in medieval English and French cookbooks, the vast majority of them are made with an acid (vinegar, verjuice, or wine) as the base and bread crumbs as the thickener.  This makes sense considering that they had limited control of temperature while cooking over open flame or coals, and this combination of ingredients makes for a sauce that is almost impossible to ruin.

Really, I've tried.  I've many times left a pot of medieval sauce on the heat while distracted by something else (hmm... I think I see where my son gets it from), and even when it's come to a furious boil a little stirring and maybe some water sets it to right again.

Contrast this to many of the modern sauces.  The dairy based ones will break, and the ones thickened with flour or eggs will form lumps if not made correctly.  Medieval sauces just aren't prone to these problems.  This is the reason I frequently say that medieval European cuisine is perfect for new cooks or those who just can't seem to get the hang of working in a kitchen.


Nom de Blog said...

Quick question about sauces: I tried making camel sauce for the first time, and it tasted great but it was... I don't know how to describe it. I thickened it with toasted bread. You know how cornstarch and water is, mixed together? How you can slap it and it's solid, but pour it and it flows? The camel sauce was kind of like that. If you stirred it, it was a different viscosity than if you poured it.

What did I do wrong?

Doc said...

That's really odd - I've never had that happen. I don't toast the bread first, so that may be part of it.

Did you strain the bread solids out of the liquid before cooking? Also, what was the proportion of bread to liquid?

Nom de Blog said...

I didn't strain it. I soaked the bread in the pomegranate juice and then pureed it. I was kind of going off two recipes: the one from Sent Sovi, and the one from Nola's Libro de Guisados. The proportions were about 2 cups pomegranate juice and 1/2 c. apple cider vinegar to 2 slices bread. It thickened up nicely in the pot, but the cooler it got the more it had that weird viscosity differential.

Doc said...

Ok, your proportions don't sound that off. I suspect then that it's a combination of toasting the bread and not straining out the solids.

Try using un-toasted bread and straining. If you haven't made it that way before, the results can be really impressive (e.g. smooth and clear sauce). If it doesn't thicken enough, you might need up to 6 slices or bread for that amount of liquid (since most of the bread ends up being discarded).

Pureeing it isn't necessary, just stir it until it's all mushy.

Mind you, I generally do English and French, so the intended results may be different. I'll take a look at the version in Nola and see if something seems squirrelly there.

kathie said...

I am a nightmare with sauces. Love them, but can't make them for anything.