While we’re on the subject of sauces that seriously elevate your game, we must touch on gastriques. Not only are they fairly simple and quick, they’re delicious – and they give you another tragically hip French culinarily word to casually toss about.
Gastriques are a combination of caramelized sugars and acids. They’re great for several reasons – Standing alone, they add a delightful zing to dang near anything – meat, poultry, seafood, tofu, veggies and spuds to name a few. Added to a basic pan sauce, they’ll elevate the flavor profile and add a really nice shine, (we do eat with our eyes, after all). They’ll also add depth and complexity to other sauces, soups, or stews. Of course they’re also perfect to play ‘what have I got that needs to be used’ with – If your kitchen’s like ours, fruit can find itself in that category fairly often, and a lot of that works wonderfully in these sauces.
If the description of a gastrique makes you think of sweet and sour sauce, you’re spot on. Many cuisines employ this trick in a dizzying array – whether it’s gastrique, sweet and sour, agrodolce, agre dulce, Thai sweet chile sauce, al pastor, hoisin, Worcestershire, or catsup, they’re all the same concept – Think about what most American barbecue sauces use for primary ingredients, and there you are again. Just as with those examples, a gastrique can be anything from a thin sauce to a very thick one, depending on what you like and want it to do.
These days, we’re blessed with a whole lot of options when it comes to sugars and vinegars – I see white, brown, dark brown, Mexican, rock, turbinado sugars, as well as honey, agave nectar, maple syrup, molasses, and various simple syrups we’ve put together. In vinegar, I see white distilled, cider, balsamic, white balsamic, white wine, red wine, sherry, port, malt, Japanese rice, Chinese Chinkiang (black, plumb, and white), banana and pineapple from Rancho Gordo, and likely some more I missed. You probably don’t have all that at hand, but the point is that you can if you want to. Lighter sugars give lighter flavor, even when caramelized, whereas using molasses means you won’t have to caramelize much at all. Light vinegars yield light taste, while intense fruit varieties, or smoky black Chinkiang are much bolder. Gastriques are a delight for experimentation.
All that stuff aside, a simple gastrique is fast. Let’s say you’re cooking beef, and you just want a little sparkle added to that – sugar and red wine or vinegar will do the trick – couldn’t be simpler. Add dried cherries or cranberries and you’ve got something bolder. With any variant, make sure that what you’re using tastes good to you. Taste the vinegar and the sugar, so you know exactly what to expect.
Booze, especially good stuff made from fruit, can make spectacular sauces – brandy in any of its iterations is wonderful, (plain old brandy, Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados, and so on). Port and sherry will too. The cooking process will remove the raw alcohol flavor, and if you use fairly high proof stuff, you can flambé it to do that quickly without losing flavor – and it’s fun – just don’t burn your house down.
Damn near any fruit will work great in a gastrique. You can mash, blend, or purée before you add if you want, or you can let stuff cook in the sauce – it’ll release all its goodies that way, and ripe fruit generally cooks down quite quickly. Dried can be reconstituted first, or just tossed in to do its thing. Citrus fruit can simply be squeezed, zested and squeezed, or rough chopped. Do give some thought to what sugar and vinegar you use – heavy versions of either will overwhelm delicate fruit, so pair accordingly.
General caveats – since you’re caramelizing sugars, don’t leave gastriques unattended for long, because those will burn. Cook over medium to medium-low heat. A little butter added at the end of cooking helps the shine stand out. Herbs and spices are fine and go great with all the constituents mentioned – Just choose carefully, and watch your ratios – These should be a minor flavor note, not a knock out punch. Warm spices like cinnamon or allspice go well with stuff you’d expect them to, like apples and peaches. Rosemary or thyme pairs well with berries and citrus, and so on.
Think of the gastrique as specifically providing a tangy element to your overall presentation. For instance, you might use a honey/malt vinegar/tomato/lemon gastrique for a pan sauce made from a whole roasted chicken. Gastriques will keep for a few days refrigerated in an airtight bottle, (repurposed hot sauce bottles are perfect). That said, fresh is best, so Len toward building in small batches that will get used pretty quickly.
Here’s a super simple iteration that you can customize hundreds of ways. You can serve this stand alone, or add a basic pan sauce, as the second version below does.
1/2 Cup Sweet – Sugars, Honey, Agave, Molasses, etc
1 Cup Acid – Vinegars, Wines, Booze, or combinations thereof
1 Tablespoon Unsalted Butter
Pinch of Salt
Add sweet to a sauce or sauté pan over medium heat and cook, whisking steadily, until whatever you’ve used darkens in color, about 3-5 minutes.
Add the acid and whisk thoroughly to incorporate.
Continue cooking and whisking until the sauce reduces to a syrup-like consistency, about 5-10 minutes.
Add the butter and salt, whisk to incorporate, and turn the heat off.
Plate your stuff and add the gastrique.
Sherry Gastrique is made the same way – it’s great for chicken, fish, and veggie dishes and sides. Raspberries also go great with this combination of sweetener and vinegar.
1 Cup Champagne Vinegar
1 Cup Amber Agave Nectar
1/2 Cup Dry Sherry
Urban’s Sweet Cherry Gastrique
This is great for lots of things – from beef, pork, or poultry, to Brussels sprouts. Varying the sweets and acids will yield whole new iterations.
1 Cup Sweet Cherries (dried, fresh, whatever you’ve got)
1/2 Cup Broth (see below for more on this)
1/2 Cup Cider Vinegar
1/2 Cup Blackstrap Molasses
1 Ounce Unsalted Butter
Pinch of Salt
If you’ve cooked a protein, grab the vessel you cooked things in, put it over medium heat, and add 3/4 cup water.
Scrape all the naughty bits off the pan bottom, whisk to incorporate, and let that reduce to about 1/2 cup.
If you didn’t cook anything worthy of using, any stock will do – Match that to what you’re making the sauce for, (veggie stock for veggies, beef for beef, and so on.
If you braised, slow roasted, etc, use 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid.
When your stock is heated through, add the molasses and whisk to thoroughly incorporate.
Add the vinegar and cherries and whisk to incorporate.
Let the sauce cook at a bare simmer until you reach the consistency you want – from fairly light to very syrupy is a range of about 5 to 15 minutes cooking time.
Plate your meal, add the gastrique, and smile smugly while your diners swoon and make yum yum noises.
Blackberry Gastrique goes great with beef, pork, and meaty mushrooms like porcini. Blueberries and cranberries also are great with this combination of sweetener and vinegar. Again, this will go great with a pan sauce version like the cherry one above.
1 Cup Malt Vinegar
1 Cup Dark Brown Sugar
1 Cup fresh Blackberries