And you should be!
Using the right ingredients and a bit of thoughtful attention, home cooks can make a variety of simple sauces to complement and enhance the flavors of a dish. Sauces can look pretty, taste delicious, make the tongue happy, and give a real sense of "moving up to the next level" in the kitchen.
It's pretty easy to cook a steak and serve it on a plate, but it's another thing altogether to pan-fry it to medium rare perfection, remove it to the plate, splash a bit of red wine into that pan where all the goodness resides, simmer it down for a bit, and swirl in a pat of butter. Pour that over the steak and watch the expressions change on the faces of your eaters!
In my kitchen, there are two basic types of sauces:
1. Sauce in a pan on its own with no help from another pan (common white sauce)
2. Sauce in a pan that takes advantage of previously cooked food in that pan
There are plenty of other types out there, but these two categories serve me well and don't stretch my brain or skills farther than a busy household can allow.
Back in the 1950s, every housewife knew how to make a basic white sauce. Today there's a fear of fat and calories, combined with the relative ease of opening a can of condensed cream soup and dumping it on some chicken and rice. Both have no place in the kitchen of someone who likes to cook! A white sauce could not be easier, and once you have the base routine down, you can mix it up and create a whole host of different sauces.
Basic White Sauce
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups liquid (milk, stock, wine)
salt and pepper
Use a good sauce pan, one with a reasonably heavy bottom. Melt the butter on medium-low heat, then whisk in the flour until it is all absorbed. Let this cook for about one minute. You've just made a roux! Gradually whisk in your liquid - whole milk is the easiest, but you can use a splash of white wine or a bit of chicken broth to replace some of the milk. Whisk until there are no more lumps, then increase the heat to medium and the sauce begins to boil. Stir and simmer for 2-3 minutes to fully cook the flour. Season with a bit of salt and some pepper. That's it!
So now what? Well, would you like a mustard sauce? Stir in a few tablespoons dijon mustard to the finished sauce. How about a cheese (mornay) sauce? Stir into the hot sauce, off heat, 1/4 to 1/2 cup grated white cheese (swiss, cheddar, jarlsburg, goat, etc.). Like a tomato cream sauce? Add 2-3 tablespoons tomato puree and heat through. Feeling herby? Tarragon, basil, dill, parsley - any of these would add nice flavor. Looking for a replacement to 'cream of mushroom soup?' Add some finely diced and sauteed mushrooms to your finished sauce!
Capers, mashed anchovies, curry powder, horseradish, minced and sauted shallots, nutmeg - any of these can elevate a basic white sauce into the stuff of legends, not to mention making your broiled fish or pork tenderloin taste really great.
If you are looking for a thinner white sauce, simply decrease your butter-flour amounts (keep the proportions even, though!). Thicker sauce requires more butter-flour amounts. The liquid would stay the same.
Restaurnts call this a "reduction" and charge you plenty for it!
1 saute' pan full of browned bits of meat, onion, shallots, garlic, herbs and flavor
Red or white wine (or dry white vermouth) (or chicken or beef stock) (or water)
Butter or cream
Additional salt, pepper and herbs to taste
Remove whatever you've cooked from the pan (pork roast, chicken breasts, fish, steak, scallops, etc.). If there is a large amount of visible fat on the top, skim most of it off, but retain as much liquid as you can! Increase the heat in the pan until the liquid is really simmering. Pour in your wine, stock or water and listen to the joy! It will sizzle and sing, and during this concert, you need to be whisking and scraping any of the bits from the pan that will add to the flavor of the sauce. How much liquid do you pour in? Depending upon what's in that pan in the first place, about a cup. Keep stirring! After about 5 minutes or so of simmering, you'll notice the sauce beginning to thicken. Take a little taste and see if you like it - does it need more pepper? A pinch of dried herbs that ought to stand out more? Need a brighter flavor? Add just a splash of balsamic vinegar or lemon juice. The sauce could either be done now, or enjoy the benefit of a "butter enrichment." Isn't that a nice pair of words? Turn the heat off and swirl in a pat or two of butter. In lieu of that, adding a splash of cream is nice, too.
A Thicker Pan Sauce
If you've cooked a roast chicken or other roast and would enjoy more of a "gravy" for the meat - go for it! Hopefully, plenty of liquid has accumulated in your pan or pot from the roast and it'll be worth your while to make this gravy. You can always add more broth to round it all out.
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons butter
additional broth or wine or water
Skim most of the fat off the surface of the cooking liquid. Remove any large pieces of skin, etc. If you like a perfectly smooth gravy, strain it all through a sieve. If the pan or pot allows, make the gravy directly in it. If not, pour the liquid and scrape any brown bits into a sauce pot on the stove. Heat this liquid to boiling and add a splash of white wine now, and up to 1 cup of additional broth. Keep it simmering. Mash together on a plate the butter and flour until it makes a paste. Drop this into your pot by pinches, whisking each addition. When the gravy thickens, keep it simmering for a few minutes to cook the flour. If the sauce doesn't thicken to your liking, you can add a spoon of cornstarch you've dissolved in a 1/4 cup of cold water. Taste for seasoning and adjust accordingly!
If you're used to the "slurry" method of gravy-making, go for it. This is essentially a few tablespoons of flour shaken in a jar of broth til smooth, then slowly whisked into the simmering liquid. Whatever works for you!
At the end of all this, just remember that there is a lot of good flavor out there to be had in cooking a typical meal. Make it special with a sauce!