Espagnole Sauce: My Culinary Everest

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[My friend Diana Fithian–playwright and home cook extraordinaire–kicks off Day 2 of Sauce Week with this epic post about one of the world’s most difficult and important sauces. Take it away, Diana!]

When Adam asked if Iʼd like to contribute to Sauce Week, and sent a list of sauces to choose from, there was one that jumped out at me right away: Espagnole Sauce, arguably the most time-consuming of the French mother sauces and the precursor to demi-glace. Itʼs part recipe, part exercise in masochism – first you make stock, then you make a brown sauce with the stock, then you reduce that sauce with more stock until you get demi-glace, and only then do you use the resulting demi-glace to make a handful of “small” sauces by combining it with other ingredients like mushrooms and wine.

I told Adam to sign me up.

Why volunteer for such an undertaking, you might ask? (My husband certainly did.) For me it was all about the demi-glace, which had always been my culinary Everest – something Iʼd intended tackling but had never gotten around to. Iʼve heard lots of chefs speak of demi-glace in hushed, reverent tones. According to some recipes, you donʼt just “make” demi-glace, you “achieve” demi-glace – the French equivalent, I suppose, of achieving nirvana, or orgasm. Surely if I could pull this off, all the secrets of classical French technique would be revealed to me, and the ghost of Julia Child would whisper sweet nothings in my ear as I slept.

I bought a steak from the butcher and, the next morning, started Googling for a recipe. I, of course, intended to make the whole thing from scratch – otherwise, what would be the point? This was no time for Sandra Lee-style shortcuts.

However, I soon learned that there was no way I could make demi-glace from scratch in just a day. One recipe informed me that it would take fourteen to twenty-six hours just to make my stock, not counting the four to five hours of reduction that would happen later to transform stock to demi-glace. I calculated that if I got cooking right away, I could have dinner on the table by 5:00am.

Then I faced another dilemma: all the recipes for demi-glace required veal bones – potentially a problem, considering that my husband and I donʼt eat veal. I had naively assumed that I could use beef bones, but it seemed that, to achieve the right texture, demi-glace must be seasoned with the tears of sweet baby cows. My ethical-carnivore panties were really in a twist!

After some soul-searching, I decided that I would buy veal bones from a butcher that I could count on to stock only humane veal, hoping to cook with the remains of an animal whose life may have been short but was at least sweet.

I called the two butchers that are my usual go-tos (McCallʼs and Lindy and Grundy), but neither one had veal bones on hand. I found a place that did, but I wasnʼt confident it was humane veal, and I didnʼt want to go to the trouble of making a sauce that would leave me wracked with guilt. Plus, a part of me was exhausted at the thought of spending a whole day making stock.

So what did I do?

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Reader, I cheated.

What you see above is beef stock made by butcher shop Lindy and Grundy, which I decided would have to do. Iʼm not sure whether it was made with veal bones or not, though its gelatinous texture suggests it was. But hey, itʼs on their consciences, not mine. As far as I know, it was made by simmering tofu and rainbows.

Finally it was time to get cooking.

I used a recipe from Gourmet Magazine, via epicurious. Hereʼs a still life of my prep – one medium onion, a rib of celery, and 1 carrot, all coarsely chopped; 1/4 cup tomato puree, 1/4 cup flour, 1/2 tsp black peppercorns, 4 tbsp butter, one bay leaf, and two garlic cloves, coarsely chopped.

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To make the espagnole, you first cook the onions and carrots in butter until golden, then add the flour and cook the resulting roux, stirring it constantly, until itʼs light brown. Meanwhile, heat 4 cups of your beef/veal stock in a separate pan.

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Then you pour in your heated stock in a steady stream and whisk to avoid lumps. Toss in your bay leaf, peppercorns, tomato puree, garlic and celery…

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And simmer the sauce, uncovered, stirring every now and then, until itʼs reduced to about 3 cups (itʼll take around 45 minutes).

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Then you strain it through a fine-mesh sieve and throw away the solids.

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Iʼll be honest, my espagnole looked pretty grody. Greyish-brown and slightly viscous, it resembled cafeteria gravy. And the flavor–flat and blandly savory–wasnʼt any better. (Fun fact: according to The Oxford Companion to Food, espagnole sauce has “nothing to do with Spain”–the French named it thus because, “In French eyes, Spaniards are brown.” Um, okay…)

To go from espagnole to demi-glace, I poured the final 3 cups of my beef stock into the espagnole and let it simmer away until it was reduced by half. And voila! I had achieved demi-glace!

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While the espagnole sauce didnʼt impress me, I liked the demi-glace much better. It had a thick, velvety texture, a rich dark brown color and a more rounded flavor.

Now weʼre almost there! Once you have your demi-glace, youʼre finally ready to make your “small” sauces – the ones youʼll actually eat. Espagnole and demi-glace are mostly just building blocks.

First up, it was time to make a sauce to go with my steak. I decided on a classic – Bordelaise, and used a recipe from Saveur magazine.

Hereʼs what youʼll need in addition to the demi-glace: 2 finely diced shallots, 1 cup red wine, 2 branches thyme, a bay leaf (not pictured) and a tablespoon of butter.

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I threw the red wine, shallots, thyme and bay leaf in a pan and reduced it all down to a couple of ounces. Then I discarded the bay leaf and thyme and stirred in the demi- glace, and finished the sauce with a tablespoon of butter and a bit of salt and pepper.

The Bordelaise really was a snap – I was pleased to discover that once youʼve made your demi-glace, the small sauces are easy.

I plated up some pan seared hangar steak and roasted potatoes, sprinkled a bit of finely chopped rosemary and parsley on top, and spooned the sauce over the steak. Hereʼs the completed plate.

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The sauce was definitely old school, but in a good way – there was acidity from the wine, a depth of flavor and funkiness from the demi-glace, and a nice herbal note from the thyme.

Now that I had my tub ʻo demi-glace waiting patiently in the fridge, I was on a roll. I liked even better the sauce I made a couple of nights later – Charcutière Sauce.

I used another recipe from Saveur. What youʼll need: half a small onion, finely chopped, 1 tbsp dijon mustard, 2 tbsp butter, 1 cup of white wine, and my favorite ingredient, 6 julienned cornichons!

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I pan seared some pork loin chops (pork is a traditional accompaniment to Charcutière Sauce) – then in the same pan, I sauteed some onion until it was starting to brown. Next I added white wine, which I let reduce down to a couple ounces. Then I whisked in 6 tbsp demi-glace, along with the mustard, chopped cornichons, and butter.

I salted and peppered to taste, then served the pork loin, smothered in the sauce, alongside braised red cabbage.

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The sauce was tangy and rich, and tasted like something youʼd eat in a Parisian bistro. It was also reminiscent of something else, but I couldnʼt figure out what. Then my husband took one bite and blurted out: “it tastes like Animal Sauce!” (Animal Sauce, for you East Coasters, is the California burger chain In-N-Outʼs Special Sauce). I took a bite and realized he was right! With the richness from the butter, the tang from the wine and mustard, the chopped pickle and the beefiness of the demi-glace, it tasted uncannily like Animal Sauce.

Now, some people might be offended if their husband likened a French sauce theyʼd labored over for hours to a burger jointʼs special sauce. It speaks to my deep devotion to In-N-Out that I took it as a compliment.

So- what did I learn? Well, espagnole sauce is a pain. Itʼs fussy, old-fashioned, and decidedly un-PC, what with its faintly racist name and reliance on veal bones. But I do love that now I have a tupperware full of demi-glace in my fridge, just waiting to transform pan drippings and a splash of wine into a fancy French sauce within minutes.

That said, it was an arduous process, one I wonʼt soon repeat. After all that simmering and chopping, I need a break. Luckily, my husband has inspired me – avert your eyes, Escoffier – tonight, we dine at In-N-Out!

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