COGITO ERGO YUM: Perfecting Reductions

When you consider how difficult it is to get a reduction just right, it is understandable that chefs are wont to throw pots and pans across the room and then go home and hit the bottle. NOM NOM boils the many secrets of a good reduction down to a few easy to follow rules.

Like any good Frenchman René Descartes understood the philosophy behind a good reduction. But for me, reductions of the culinary kind – which involve boiling a liquid or sauce down to concentrate the flavour – invariably end in unmitigated disaster. Unmitigated disaster followed by a failed attempt to fix the problem, which usually makes the original problem worse.

This can not only be disheartening but also time consuming and expensive. So much so that I’ve decided to fix this glaring hole in my culinary repertoire once and for all. It’s time to sauce up my meals by identifying some common reduction errors and reducing my mistakes in the kitchen. I am going to learn once and for all how to perform the perfect reduction.

First on my list of common reduction errors is over-salting which is unsurprising given that I ordinarily create sauces out of ingredient off cuts made during the cooking process i.e. they have likely been salted already. This, coupled with the fact that I often add even more salty ingredients to enhance the flavour of the sauce such as bacon, butter, stock cubes, soy sauce and juices from the bottom of a roasting pan and it’s not surprising that things can get very salty very quickly. But this mistake is easily fixed. How? By only adding salt right at the end once the sauce is fully reduced, and only if needed.

The second problem with my reductions is getting the combination of flavours synched in perfect harmony. All too often the flavour of my sauces is just not quite right. And in many cases an attempt to fix the flavour only makes the problem worse. Which leads me to a good rule of thumb: if an unreduced sauce doesn’t have well-balanced flavours or tastes slightly strange in the first place, then the reduced version will mostly likely only taste worse.

Of course fixing the problem of uncomplimentary flavours is much easier when you either hone a recipe to perfection over time; use classic flavour combinations; or just slavishly follow another person’s recipe. But none of these approaches are much fun and certainly not apt for the culinary adventurous. And what is a sauce but a great culinary journey from pot to pa-late?

Another good reduction rule of thumb is to keep it simple. Understand flavour combinations and only use ones that you know work well together. That said, if you want to add unique and complex flavours, do it at the end.

For example, add lemon zest, fennel, orange juice or any other flavour that you wish, but do it at the end on top of a simple cracking sauce. Use the simple classic sauce recipes and techniques and tried and tested flavour combinations as the rich background to your sauce. Then and only then you can sex up your sauce by adding fresher more intense flavours at the end.

Also, by keeping it simple you will only be adding a few key ingredients to your sauce. This should reduce the likelihood of adding a plethora of salty ingredients. If in doubt use less of a salty ingredient and of course follow the ‘no salt till the end rule’.

And finally it is key to learn your five flavours and learn how to combine then and alter them to master the perfect mix. Follow these four rules and you really will reduce your mistakes and make reductions the key to your culinary seductions. Cogito ergo yum -I think therefore I eat delicious food!

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