There is a secret ingredient everlasting and present in most recipes; it is water. A good, generous, and free ingredient, water gives moisture, texture, and juiciness to food. It is responsible for enhancing the natural taste of food and is, therefore, a giver that does not alter or take away from the food.
Water is by far the most indispensable ingredient in a kitchen. Try to think of a restaurant kitchen without water for a minute. What would the sauce cook do for his stock? How would the soup and vegetable chef steam vegetables and make soup? How would the pastry chef make puff pastry? Water goes into the dough, creates steam in the coking process, and disappears, leaving thin and tender flakes of pastry behind.
Water is the most modest of all ingredients, (a fine LADY). She helps highlight the flavor inherent in each product, without asking for recognition, as wine, juice, or stock does. The quality of water is often paramount to the quality of the dish. Great water is needed to make beer and whisky. And for the true taste of vegetables, a vegetable soup should be made with vegetables and water, rather than stock. Great vegetable sauces are made by cooking one vegetable, like carrots, red peppers, or mushrooms, with water only and emulsifying the moisture, adding seasonings and clarified butter (ghee). That’s where the true taste is. In the great classic dish Carrots Vichy, thinly sliced carrots are cooked in a little water, clarified butter, salt and a dollop of raw honey. The water created the moisture to cook the carrots until tender and then evaporates along the way, so the cooked carrots are lightly glazed in the clarified butter and honey mixture at the end.
When making stocks or sauces, water is the medium that controls the end result. It is the medium because, to use the example of a plain beef stock, the bones have to cook a good six hours to release all the taste and nutrition necessary for a good stock, and water is the indispensable vehicle for the outcome. During the cooking, one adds water regularly to compensate for the evaporation. How much water is added is immaterial as long as the stock cooks long enough to get as much taste as possible from the bones. If, for arguments sake, the yield is supposed to be two quarts and is only one quart, additional water will bring the stock to proper consistency and taste. Likewise, if the result is three quarts, reduction will bring it to the correct strength.
Water is paramount to deglazing solidified juices. For example, when chicken has finished roasting, the accumulated liquid in the roasting pan consists of fat and glaze. Pour most of the fat off, add water, and bring the mixture to a boil to melt the glaze, and then strain the mixture. If too much water has been added, reduce it to the proper taste. One may be generous when adding water, because it is easy to correct. This is not so when deglazing with stock, wine, or liquor, because these liquids add flavor to the drippings. If too much wine is added, the juices will be acidic and harsh, and if the mixture is over-reduced, it will become strong, overpowering the natural taste of the chicken. Wine and alcohol should be used in moderation and at the right moment.
Sometimes cooks turn their noses up disdainfully at water. They feel that deglazing with stock, Madeira, cognac, or deep red wine shows knowledge and sophistication. More often than not, mediocre dishes result from an excess of goodies rather than a lack of them. Too much reduction or an excess of butter, cream, wine, and cognac tend to muddy a dish and make it too rich, taking away from the clarity and taste.
There are recipes for cooking chipped onions, shallots, leeks, or scallions that advise sautéing them for a few minutes, until they are tender and translucent but not brown. The best approach is to put the onions in a skillet with clarified butter or oil, add water to the mixture, and cook until the water evaporates. At that time, if the onions are not cooked enough, add additional water and continue cooking until the liquid evaporates again. When the mixture starts to sizzle or sing, you know the evaporation is complete, and the onions will be transparent, tender, but still white. The water, a discreet and innocuous friend, will not have added any flavor of its own to the dish.
There is nothing like water to clean your palate between dishes or between sauces, so that you can distinguish between ingredients and nuances of taste. When one cooks behind the stove, with the heat of the kitchen, beer and wine are not preferred beverages, and nothing will cool you off better than a couple of glasses of cool, fresh water. As an extra bonus, water is free, doesn’t put any weight on you, and keeps you healthy. Enjoy it, and not in moderation.