Espagnole Sauce: My Culinary Everest

February 18, 2014 | By | COMMENTS

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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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Categories: Sauce Week

  • Karen in Dallas

    That was great! Thank you for going through all that effort. I laughed out loud when I read: “Reader, I cheated.”! Great writing :-).

  • Karen in Dallas

    That was great! Thank you for going through all that effort. I laughed out loud when I read: “Reader, I cheated.”! Great writing :-).

  • Edward Whalley

    Um…a little too PC for me. And, I would think, you would read the recipe at least a day or two before attempting….

  • Agent Strong

    Demi-glace is great — for restaurants. It was never intended for use by home cooks. The idea behind it is that you can prepare a variety of sauces from it very quickly and get plates to the paying customers faster, than if you reduced stock in the pan in which you cooked your food, which takes more time (but yields identical results). Sometimes I’ll simulate Sauce Espangol and Sauce Robert by using stock, vegetables and tomato paste. It only takes a few minutes to reduce it to the required consistency, as opposed to the hours required to make demi-glace.

  • Sandy

    My father, as a butcher and home cook, made demi every year. It was a weekend event and the tubs would sit in the freezer, and be used to make every sauce imaginable. Since he passed, no one has taken the helm. I think I might now. So miss the wonderful sauces that were made with good homemade demi. Thank you for your wonderful post that makes me want to make demi!

  • cybercita

    I’m a vegetarian, so I was quite relieved to read that your beef stock was composed of tofu and rainbows. Phew!

  • Anonymous

    Making broth doesn’t have to be a dreaded task. The Weston A. Price way is to put a couple of pounds of pastured bones into a slow cooker (I’ve used 8-qt and 6 3/4 qt models). Pour a couple of glugs of raw apple cider vinegar over the bones, then fill the cooker with water. Let sit as is for about an hour. Turn cooker to high and cook until surface is bubbling. Then turn down the heat to low and cook for 36 hours for beef/bison/veal bones or 24 hours for pastured chicken.

    You can add carrots, celery, onions, whatever you want when you add the bones (I add mine under the bones so the veggies won’t float; I use up scraps that I’ve frozen so I don’t waste anything). You can also add a few tsps sea salt at the beginning to give your final broth better flavor.

    In the final 45 mins of cooking, add fresh parsley (stems, too) for added minerals and continue cooking. When time is up, strain and throw away/compost the veggies. The meat on the bones can be eaten, although I find it usually tastes bland and a bit tough (especially the beef). Chill in containers then freeze. There is debate on whether or not to save or toss the fat that rises to the top because of the length of cooking time. Personally I use it. If you don’t want to, let the broth chill anyway so that the fat will rise to the top and will solidify.

    It takes a few mins to put everything into the cooker, but it is more labor-intensive to strain everything at the end.

    I only use bones from animals fed species-appropriate diets such as grass/forage for beef/bison/veal (grain makes them sick which is why they need to be fed drugs throughout their lives) and bugs and scraps/organic feed for chickens. None of the animals is fed drugs or hormones, and they are all allowed to wander outside.

    The bones can be used a few times, so you really get your money’s worth.

    If you want to be sure your final product is very gelatinous, then do not add any more water once your broth gets to simmering. Personally I don’t care so much if my broth is or isn’t. I just means I have to use more in recipes the thicker I let it get.

    Bone broth is so yummy you’ll be happy it can be frozen.

  • http://www.foxeslovelemons.com/ Lori | Foxes Love Lemons

    It’s definitely “old school,” but it’s a beauty! Looks just like the classic they taught me in culinary school. Well done :)