sauce a la minute

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Tips and Tricks: Professional cooking explained

One of the easiest and quickest ways of preparing dinner is to pan sear your meat or fish and make a sauce "a la minute" (fancy French cooking term for "at the minute"), but it seems to me this process is little understood and vastly underutilized by home cooks. This post will be dedicated to de-mystifying the procedure. It really is very simple, as long as you stick to the principles, and most pro cooks value this method of sauce making above all others. Searing involves a pan over high heat coated with just enough oil in the bottom of the pan to cover the whole surface. As soon as whisps of smoke start to rise from the pan you're ready to go. Vegetable oil, canola, soy, peanut, and light olive oil work best for this. Don't use Extra Virgin, it has a lower "smoke point" and therefore will burn at the high temperature needed to pull this off. Next thing to think about is drying the meat. You'll get a better sear if the surface of the meat is as dry as possible. The best way to accomplish this is to wrap it thoroughly in paper towel and press it lightly with your hands on all sides. Seasoning, of course, is of high importance too. Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper are seen on every pro cooks work station for this very reason. Shellfish and poultry need very little, while heartier meats like beef require twice as much, keep that in mind. Also keep in mind it's better to under-season than over-season, you can always add more at the table, you cannot take it away.
Lightly pressing down ensures good cotact with the pan.

Lightly pressing down ensures good cotact with the pan.

The biggest rule is DO NOT overcrowd the pan. I know it's tempting, the more you fit in the pan the quicker you'll be done, right? Resist this urge, anything you put in the pan will drop the temperature of the surface. If it drops too far you'll start to cook too deeply into the meat before the proper brown crust forms (which is the whole point to this). At this point the meat will let go of too much of it's juices, and with a pan that's not hot enough for it to evaporate on contact your meat ends up swimming in it's own fat and juices and you'll end up boiling it rather than searing, which with most meats will give you an end result more akin to shoe leather than edible goodness. When searing fish or poultry the general rule to go by is skin side first (if you didn't skin the fish, that is) because this is the fattiest side. This also applies to whole beef loins and such for roasting purposes. In the pictures I've included I'm searing chicken thighs in a non-stick pan. Non-stick is not needed, and in fact, you'll get a better feel for the process without once you've done it a few times.
A nice uniform browning is the key to this method

A nice uniform browning is the key to this method.

When using a pan that's not non-stick DO NOT move things around until it's ready to be turned! You'll know this by gently nudging the meat with your tongs. If it comes free and moves it's ready to turn over, if it remains stuck to the surface of the pan, leave it be! Otherwise you'll just end up mutilating it. And ALWAYS flip the meats away from you, meaning the side closest to you over and away. If you turn the meats toward you and your tongs slip off (we are talking about high heat and oil here) there will be splash damage. I could post pictures of burn scars that I acquired learning this the hard way, but I'll spare you.
Cooking crushed garlic on heat must be done quickly, so have your deglazing liquid close at hand. In this case brown = bitter.

Cooking crushed garlic on high heat must be done quickly, so have your deglazing liquid close at hand. In this case brown = bitter = bad.

Once you've achieved a nice uniform browning of all sides, if the piece of meat you are searing is too big to thoroughly cook in the pan without burning put it on a baking sheet and finish it in the oven. Meanwhile, you've got this hot pan full of browned meat bits and juices, you can't let that go to waste! Color = flavor! Turn the heat down a bit and add your sauce base ingredients. Onions, peppers, shallots, whatever it is you wish the final result to be. Saute briefly and add your garlic. Cook that until the smell of garlic smacks you in the face, a minute or less, now it's time to deglaze. Pour in whatever beer, wine, or liquor the recipe demands. Here we're preparing a Paella so beer was the beverage of choice due to the multitude of shellfish involved (see my last post about beer). Crank the heat back up and reduce, or boil out the water content, until the pan is nearly dry.
MMMMMMMM!!!! Beer!

MMMMMMMM!!!! Beer!

Here is where we decide which direction to take the sauce in. Gravy like? Add a stock that coresponds with the dish and thicken as required. Butter sauce? Add a little stock, a small quantity of some form of acid (like vinegar or lemon juice or both, Tabasco usually works nicely too), reduce as before, and slowly whip in small cubes of cold butter. In most cases fresh herbs go in very last, right before you turn off the heat. Thirty seconds is sufficient to infuse the flavor of the herbs into the sauce. I'll get into the difference in the culinary uses between fresh and dry herbs in a later post. So, let's review: Rule 1: Pat the meats dry before searing. Rule 2: Proper seasoning with kosher salt and whatever dry spice is called for. Fresh ground black pepper is most common. Rule 3: High heat and just enough oil to coat the pan, and make sure the pan is screaming hot before you put anything in it. Rule 4: The most important rule. DO NOT overcrowd the pan! Leave at least an inch between items. Rule 5: Always turn the items away from you. Rule 6: Use that brown goodness left in the pan to start building your sauce. This may seem intimidating, but it's really not, and it's ease and quickness make it worth learning to do properly. About my insistance on Kosher salt as opposed to any other kind, it has a very clean flavor. Iodized table salt has a more metallic taste. While sea salt is quite acceptable for most applications and I'll jump for that if Kosher isn't at hand, there are still mineral traces in sea salt that may prove undesireable. The basic variety of sea salt is perfectly fine, it's when you get into the red and black varieties that this is more of an issue. Those are better left to salads or finished products rather than seasoning prior to cooking because the mineral qualities get lost in the cooking process, and that's the biggest reason to use them. If you have any further questions I'll be more than happy to answer them. Just ask in the comments. Until next time, eat, drink, LIVE! Jack