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The classic brown sauce is one of the five French “Mother Sauces” from which an infinite host of variations are spun.
It begins with a roux made of flour and oil or melted butter, which is cooked until browned, eliminating the “doughy” taste of flour and giving the roux a richer flavor. The roux itself may vary in shade of brown per the chef’s preference for the taste and color of the final product. However, it is important that the roux not be allowed to scorch. A scorched roux will contribute a burned taste to the end product. The cooked roux is stirred into a brown meat stock—typically veal or beef—and this is cooked until thickened. If additional thickening is required, arrowroot, cornstarch, or another thickening agent may be added.
Brown sauce goes by a few different names. If it appears in a crockery dish beside a plate of French fries in a greasy-spoon diner, it is likely to go by the handle of gravy. If simmering in a burnished copper-clad saucepot on the burner of a swanky French place just waiting to be slathered on top of someone’s chateaubriand, it is likely to be called espagnole sauce or demi-glace. Either way, assuming the process and ingredients are essentially the same, it amounts to the same thing.
As one of the five “Mother Sauces,” brown sauce is wonderfully flexible. It requires the addition of only a few ingredient combinations to transform it into any one of myriad derivative sauces. Toss in a handful of sautéed mushrooms, voila—chasseur sauce! Add a swirl of red wine, some sautéed shallots, and it becomes Bordelaise sauce. With the addition of sautéed onions and white wine, brown sauce is now Lyonnaise sauce. Madeira, Robert, Perigueux, Diane—these venerable high-brow sauces all get their start from this simple sauce.
Asian brown sauce, on the other hand, is something else entirely. This sauce is made from molasses, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and other flavorings. It is used in cooking meat and vegetable dishes, and is often featured as a flavoring for broccoli.
The British condiment that comes in a bottle and is called brown sauce is even further removed from the idea of the classic sauce. Otherwise known by its proper name — HP sauce — this sauce is a fruity, vinegary, spicy brew that is served to accompany both hot and cold dishes.
This piquant condiment was first produced in the late nineteenth century, by a British fellow who christened it “HP” in honor of the Houses of Parliament, where a restaurant was supposedly serving the sauce. Today, Heinz® produces the venerable bottled brown HP sauce, as well as a few flavor variants, including the “mild and tangy” Fruity, the BBQ, and the Chile blends. Other brands are Branston® and Daddies Favorite®.
While it is traditionally a meat sauce, many of the bottled sauces are vegetarian or come in vegetarian versions, which I like, since even though I no longer eat meat I still really like the tangy taste of "steak" sauce on my food sometimes. However, not all varieties are vegetarian friendly, so check labels before you purchase.