(Bad) Technique: Misadventures in saucing!

Last night The Picky Epicurean and I enjoyed some yummy chop steaks. (“Chop steak” is code for “hamburger without a bun,” to make me sound like less of a lazy cook.) The steaks came out pretty good, but I was rather off my game for the accompaniment. I ended up with partially burnt potatoes and grainy sauce, in the process rendering half a bottle of Two Buck Chuck and some otherwise-delicious caramelized onions totally worthless.

(Apologies for the lack of pictures in this post–if I had realized I was going to write this up I might have thought of pulling the camera out before trashing the offending substances.)

My basic technique for chop steaks is not terribly outrageous: first I caramelized some onions with a pinch of salt in some olive oil, then I seared the “steaks” in the same pan. (For extra oniony goodness, I like to add the onions back into the pan when the steaks are almost done cooking.) Like I said, these came out fine. The ground beef I got was bright and fresh, not to mention on sale. I usually don’t like getting ground meat at Food Lion, but this meat was unusually fresh and it was only $2.50/lb. I also don’t usually like cooking with meat that’s only 80% lean, but it’s damn tasty stuff, so what the heck.

So while the steaks were cooking, I sautéed some white potatoes that I had chopped and soaked in water for about an hour. The soak is good for getting extra starchiness out of the potatoes, and I think it also softens them a little, encouraging even cooking. But not all the time, apparently. At some point during my cooking escapades, I got distracted by something (a cat? the mail? Dr. Phil?), and suddenly I found myself asking that dreaded question: “What’s that burning smell?” Of course, I’d been remiss in my sautéing duties, and had managed not to toss the potatoes before one side of them burned. Since the potatoes take so long to cook, I didn’t want to have to make another batch–also, my dear mother taught me never to waste food. So while the second sides of the steaks were cooking, I passed the time meticulously cutting off the burned sides of potato chunks and burning the tips of my fingers. In the end the potatoes turned out all right, but I was disappointed in my distractability.

The greater failure of the evening was in the pan sauce that I decided to prepare for the steaks. We didn’t have chicken stock, my usual sauce base, so I decided to go with a wine reduction. This meant opening a bottle of red wine (Charles Shaw cabernet, I think) and deglazing the steak pan with a good dose of it–I’d say about two cups. The brown yummies that the steak left in the bottom of the pan are full of deliciousness, and are basically the core of any pan sauce–this is why I almost always make sauces in the pan I cooked the meat in. I used a wooden spoon to dislodge the brown bits, and I also tossed the onions into the wine to add some more flavor. Then I let the wine simmer rapidly to reduce. Once it was reduced significantly–say, to a half cup–I tasted it and decided that it needed some serious rounding out, since it still had a lot of bite despite the cooking-down. Since I was out of chicken stock, I searched the fridge for whatever else we had, which turned out to be half-and-half.

I’ve never had a problem adding dairy to sauces before–I know to add them off heat and to drizzle them in slowly while whisking. But in this case, the half-and-half turned grainy nearly as soon as it hit the pan. I don’t think the sauce was too hot–if it was, I blame the accursed electric stove our kitchen is burdened with. Was it that I had used half-and-half instead of cream (mostly fat) or milk (mostly water-based)? Was it that the reduced wine was too acidic without any stock to buffer it? I’ve made wine reductions before–pretty potent ones, too–and I haven’t encountered this. A forum post on epicurean.com suggests that the heat was responsible, but I can’t be sure that this was the cause. Whatever happened, some factor triggered the rapid denaturing and precipitation of milk proteins in my sauce, permeating it with unsavory little grainy bits of badness. In any case, both sauce and onions were destined for the trash bin, much to my dismay.

Thus ended my cooking crises of last night. A dinner consisting of a sauceless chop steak and post-surgery potatoes frankly wasn’t bad, but a nice sauce would have been welcome.

Please feel free to commiserate with your own tales of saucy woe.

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One thought on “(Bad) Technique: Misadventures in saucing!

  1. the burger (i mean, chop steak) was quite good. the potatoes, with one side cut off of each, were . . interesting.

    i didn’t see the sauce, but i smelled it before it went foul and it smelled really good. next time, let’s rock the bbq sauce and forget the fancy!

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