AN INCREASING variety of sauces can now be found on the market. In traditional and ethnic recipes, they come in liquid, dehydrated and frozen forms. Some are fully made, while others are simply base ingredients.
How do caterers select bought-in sauces? Indeed, should they buy ready-made sauces?
These and related issues were discussed at a debate organised by Caterer and held at the offices of Forte Purchasing in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. Taking part were:
lColin Okin, food purchasing manager at Bass Taverns, who works with numerous restaurant brands including Toby, Fork & Pitcher and Pantry Plus.
lKeith Hudspith, for Forte Heritage Hotels.
lJeremy Shelmerdine, food purchasing director for Forte Purchasing, which deals with all 10 Forte brands from hotels to roadside restaurants.
lMichael Thompson, general manager of the Old Parsonage at Oxford, a 30-bedroom hotel set in a building dating back to 1660.
lDavid Hodkinson, catering executive for Welcome Break motorway service areas.
REPLACING THE CHEF?
Okin summed up the benefits of bought-in sauces as convenience and consistency, adding: "There are middle-of-the-road restaurants and pubs which don't have the chefs or the skills, and need ready-made sauces to compete with the restaurants and pubs that do."
Thompson said he was concerned that ready-made sauces and sauce bases were actually contributing to the decline of kitchen skills. "Once you know what the techniques and skills are, then you can go on to using these products. But it's a disaster if you get school leavers who go straight to using bought-in sauces and bases."
A pitfall with using ready-made sauces, signalled by Okin, is that they change the nature of some dishes because chefs are tempted to pour the sauce over the top rather than cook food in them. "People cook a piece of chicken, stick a sauce on it and call it Chicken Chasseur. But when you move the sauce away, all you've got is a piece of chicken with no flavour to it."
Around the table were many fans of using bouillon, jus and other base ingredients. Even Thompson, who runs a deluxe establishment and who is insistent on fresh ingredients, said his chef uses Knorr Chicken Bouillon.
"I'm not ashamed to say so," he said. "As a base it saves time, saves storage space and is a good product."
Hudspith said he too encouraged Heritage chefs to use a stock base - the Nestlé Chef product. "You can reduce it, adjust the degree of strength and take it down to a glaze. You can take as much as you want and know it's always consistent and that you are starting your sauce from a good base. Some products you have to be careful with if you reduce them because they can get very salty."
By contrast, a unanimous thumbs down was given to stock pots. Hodkinson said that, in his days as a chef, beef stock was supposed to be cooked for eight hours, strained, skimmed, chilled and used quickly. However, he added wryly: "I'm not saying that's what always actually happened."
Hudspith said: "I personally don't like stock pots because they can become dumping grounds and because you can get a very inconsistent product at the end of the day."
Okin added: "I worked in one kitchen where we had two stock pots - one for meat and one for fish. Everything went into the meat stock pot, whether it was chicken or beef, and the fish one stank to high heaven. As a commis chef it was my job to clean out the stock pot every week and it was nauseating."
Remembering the "bad old days", there were recollections of stock pots kept going for as much as seven or eight days and the need to boil them thoroughly to prevent food poisoning.
Thompson reminisced: "The worst thing was if the night porter switched off the stock pot, thinking he was doing the best thing for security purposes!"
Okin said that around a third of the menu items at his Toby restaurants are ethnic dishes and added that other popular chains like Berni, Beefeater and Harvester are similar in this respect. He said that buying in ready-made sauces was a good alternative to buying in complete ready-made dishes.
"Even a chef who goes to a good college might well not be taught how to make an authentic Szechwan sauce," he added.
He conceded that many English people may not want really traditional hot Mexican food or really spicy Indian food - if they do, there are specialist restaurants for them to patronise. However, diners in popular restaurants want the more conservative flavours that are often provided by bought-in products, which he described as "English variations on a theme".
Thompson is passionately in favour of cooking specialist dishes from scratch and looking for an authentic flavour. Nonetheless, he said he would be interested in using a good-quality pasta sauce.
Hudspith said that Forte Posthouse hotels successfully served pasta - always linguine - with a choice of four sauces. "They could serve ready-made dishes, but this approach gives the customer the perception that the dish has been cooked for him," he explained.
No-one who took part in the debate uses dehydrated sauces, and all felt that their quality is inferior to wet products. That said, there was an understanding that there is a requirement for these products in institutional and staff catering situations where budgets are tighter.
Okin said Toby uses frozen Dianne, Chasseur and Hollandaise sauces in individual 65g sachets. Larger units boil them in the bag while smaller units microwave them - but all use them straight from the freezer. "They are ideal for our type of market because you don't know if you're going to get 10 customers or 100," he said. "But if you need multiple portions, I think it's better to go for cans or Tetra Paks."
Hudspith said he thought manufacturers were very clever when it came to formulating frozen sauces. "In most cases they reconstitute quite well without splitting, and they can be microwaved or held without problem."
Cans, jars and Tetra Paks were generally well accepted, but ambient sauces in foil packs were regarded with some suspicion. Several members of the panel said they felt they often tasted metallic or over-processed.
In many ways that was a pity because freezer space in some establishments is at a premium. Shelmerdine commented that frequent deliveries from Forte's Puritan Maid distribution network overcame much of his company's freezer pressure. But he added: "In the peak season, the Little Chefs and Happy Eaters, where they do have limited freezer capacity, do sometimes have difficulties."
One manufacturer, Heinz, sent samples of condensed soup for the panel to consider, and Okin reported that Toby uses the mushroom variety for one dish. "We wouldn't use it as a mushroom sauce, but we use it in a chicken dish because it is a cheaper way of getting the consistency, flavour and colour that we're after."
Hollandaise and Béarnaise ready-made sauces are disappointing, the panellists felt. "I've seen all manner of frozen, liquid and dehydrated product and I just don't think it's possible to buy a proper Hollandaise or Béarnaise," said Hudspith.
"I've not seen one to equal a home-made sauce," added Hodkinson. "Yet all the popular restaurants seem to offer bought-in versions and people seem to accept them."
Hudspith said that another "failure" for him was Cumberland sauce. In fact, he has been so disappointed with the products on offer that he now serves four jellies with pƒté in place of this traditional sauce.
The salmonella scares and the need to show due diligence have stopped many caterers from using raw egg in sauces. Hudspith said his hotels were among those using pasteurised egg, but he said: "It's a different animal from real egg."
"It doesn't hold as well, doesn't get to the same peak, is thinner with a lot less body and I don't think the flavour is the same."
Most of the panel felt that there are insufficient sweet sauces on the market. Where are the butterscotch and caramel sauces? Thompson demanded.
When good sweet sauces are available, they can sell well, but can create problems. Okin said that during Christmas 1992, Toby restaurants served frozen individual portion sachets of brandy sauce. It was a nuisance for the staff to open so many packs, the quality was not as high as wanted and after Christmas they were faced with the problem of finding freezer space to keep the left-overs for another year.
Last year they used Macphie's one-litre Tetra Brik packs and exceeded usage projections by more than five times.
Okin added he had only been able to find orange sauce in a frozen format and could not find a sweet sauce to complement a planned fish dish.
Hodkinson noted that Sauce Anglaise had proved a real headache to source. In the end, it was bought in France. "We have also tried to get a Cräme Pƒtissiäre. In this country you can get it in powder form, but not in a Tetra Brik. It comes out like hard custard that cracks and it is totally unacceptable."
After Forte Purchasing looked for a year to source the product in the UK, the company eventually settled on another French product, packed in 1.75kg piping bags with a 35-day shelf life.
Although fruit coulis products are available frozen and in squeezy bottles, the pannellists felt there was a need for them in jars or Tetra Brik packs, while Okin noted a shortage of Plum Sauce for serving with Chinese and other ethnic dishes.
Panellists were very much against dehydrated sweet sauces because they felt the powdery qualities were especially noticeable in a sauce served cold.
Many manufacturers boast about the bains marie stability of their sauces. However, the panel felt bains marie were increasingly old-fashioned.
Hudspith joked: "I'd break someone's legs if they used a bain marie - they're terrible things!
Shelmerdine has been going through an exercise of sourcing items for children's menus throughout Forte hotels. The requirement has been for foods without E numbers - something he said he has found hard to source.
Hudspith added: "It's mind-blowing how many products are full of E numbers. In the end it has been back to good old friends like Heinz who don't use artificial colourings, flavours or preservatives."o
lWe would welcome comments from other caterers or suppliers of sauces. Please write with your views to: Sourcing Sauces. Caterer & Hotelkeeper, Quadrant House, The Quadrant, Sutton, Surrey SM2 5AS.