I waited a long time to start sauces. They were always willy-nilly, whatever dripped off the roast, thickened with flour diluted in cold water, etc. and were occasionally tolerable, but never reliably good. I always thought that I would take a class and fix the problem. However, the wait was interminable, so I began studying on my own. Here is my concept of roux based on study in everything from French and American cookbooks to Alton Brown’s sauce episode of Good Eats.
|1 tbsp||fat (butter, roast drippings, etc.)|
|1 heaping tbsp||all-purpose flour (see here for gluten-free)|
Use a saucier (sauce pan) or a frying pan with very rounded corners so that the wire wisk can reach into them and leave nothing there. Otherwise, you’ll have poorly mixed and, in some cases, burned roux.
Ensure that the fat is fat. You cannot pour meat drippings containing water into the roux or you will either create lumps while you are trying to cook the roux or fail it by reason of inaccurate proportions.
The correct proportion for a roux is 1 part fat to 1 part flour by weight.
I have weighed and measured flour and butter for example. Butter packages are typically gradiated by tablespoons. 1 ounce of flour works out roughly to a heaping tablespoon. So, one tablespoon of melted fat off a roast still corresponds to 1 heaping tablespoon of flour. Incidentally, when I say heaping, I don’t mean 2 tablespoons. I don’t like to measure, but we’re talking about roughly 4 teaspoons. It’s just that if I tell you 1 tablespoon of fat to 1 tablespoon of flour and you remember to heap the flour a little bit, which you cannot do with the fat, then you’ll have an easier time remembering this fact and avoid coming back to my web page for it.
Melt the fat over medium heat—just barely to frothy in the case of butter. It should not be as hot as say, a steel furnace. Douse with the flour and work the whole vigorously until homogenous. Keep working it, chasing it around the pan, breaking it up with the wisk and collecting it back together for at least 3 minutes, but no more than 5. Remove from fire and set the fying pan into a bit of cold water to halt the cooking. This creates a "white roux." For more stages, read on.
It goes without saying that the enemy of sauce thickening success is lumps. This is the first reason roux is so superior to any other method of thickening. The second reason is that the flour of a roux is completely cooked before going into the sauce. It is, however, not impossible to put flour into fat and have it ruined. This will occur when the fat isn’t pure fat, but there is a substantial quantity of water in the case of meat drippings. It can also occur when you are making a larger quantity of roux, the fat is too hot and the flour forms a polymer barrier of cooked flour around an uncooked center. You must break down this little lumps when you make the roux. This is generally possible in a roux; it is nigh impossible to do directly in the sauce you are trying to thicken.
Roux comes from a French word for "reddish brown." Depending on heat applied, two or three tablespoon roux will take about 3 minutes to achive the status of "white roux" which is the color of (and foundation for) béchamel sauce. It is important to cook a roux long enough to cook the flour or the uncooked flour will more than subtly affect the taste of your sauce. There are various states of roux up to a fairly dark brown, the darker, the more darker tasting, so caution is needed to reach the state you want without going over. Also, the darker the roux, the less thickening power it has.
Last, lumps are most easily avoided by mixing a roux and the liquid to be thickened at temperatures as opposite each other as possible (cold liquid, hot roux, or vice versa).
Once your roux is complete, you can incorporate it into the corresponding amount of liquid: one tablespoon flour/1 tablespoon fat roux per cup of liquid. Because you may be adding other ingredients, ultimately, only experimentation will reveal exactly how much liquid to add or to withhold to achieve the desired effect. What liquids can be used?
The béchamel is a white milk sauce. It typically contains nutmeg and can be augmented with additonal salt, ground pepper, and other herbs or spices. Do your children turn up their noses at green beans on the plate? Soak them in a white milk sauce and see if they don’t ask for more—a fond memory of my childhood. Do they not like broccoli or asparagus? Add some white-colored cheese to the sauce and ladle generously over the vegetable.
Alfredo is merely a béchamel cream and milk in desired ratios augmented with quantities of cheese (or cheeses, usually Parmigiano, Asiago or Romano), in about equal parts to the liquid in the recipe. Many alfredo recipes don’t not include roux because their authors are afraid you are too stupid to make it. Using roux not only imparts a better flavor, but it also reduces the amount of cheese that you would be tempted to add to "thicken" the sauce. Here’s my recipe.
The two most important things about cooking meat are not to cook it too much and not to fail to caramelize part of the piece. Caramelization greatly enhances meat flavor. Roast beef should be consumed as rare as possible, but even at that, if the outside isn’t well seared or braised, the result will not be very appetizing.
The secret to a meat sauce is gathering the fat from the drippings for making the roux and then deglazing the pan in which the caramelized or braised bits are gathered. This also has the beneficent side-effect of making the pan much easier to clean.
Deglazing is what you do when you add a bit of water, wine or meat stock (broth) to the pan while scraping and washing the sides of the pan where the meat was "burned on" with a wooden spoon. Once you have done this, you can simmer for a while to "reduce" its volume and concentrate it. To this, you add the roux for thickening. Obviously, the challenge is to know how much roux to make when gleaning meat drippings and deglazing produce very indefinable quantitites. The adjusting factor is sauce reduction which, it is my believe though in my mind the jury is still out, can be achieved either before or after the roux is added.
I have a ragú sauce among my recipes on this site, but it is not mine. I don’t yet understand anything about tomato sauces except that they should be meat (stock/broth) based. I hope this will change one day.
The easiest choice is to use cornstarch, about 1 tbsp per cup of liquid. Do not cook into a roux. Just dilute the cornstarch in a couple of tablespoons of cold water (or whatever your liquid is going to be, but cold), then wisk vigorously into the hot (or wisk into all the liquid cold, then bring up to a hot temperature).
One characteristic of cornstarch is that it tends to grab, then let go as you fuss with it. The best thing to do is to get it right the first time, then serve it. Do not keep fussing with the proportions.