Stovetop Espagnole Sauce (Sofrito)

This multi-purpose sauce is commonly made in quality dining establishments. Or at least it used to be. Once restaurants stopped hiring professional cooks and started buying ready made products, cooks themselves began to forget that they ever knew how to make sauces and soups.

What the cans and powders lack in quality they regain in convenience and consistency. Usually labeled as “Brown Gravy” or even “Demi-glace,” these products bear only a vague resemblance to the time honored mother sauces. Even the more expensive ones are composed primarily of artificial food coloring, various forms of sodium and maybe a tiny hint of actual meat extracts.

This is unfortunate, but is the inevitable result of labor costing more than product–exactly the opposite of the conditions that prevailed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Not that I long for the way things were in the “old days.” Apprentices were routinely abused and mistreated, all in return for minimalist room and board and the hopes of learning a trade.

One can hardly blame restaurant owners for replacing temperamental, high-priced sauciers with cheap, idiot-proof powders and pastes that need only be reconstituted with a little water. This is a decision driven by simple economics rather than preference.

There are still a few of us who stubbornly cling to methodologies that were practically beaten into us long ago, even if they have no value in the modern market.

Note: Even though this sauce can be made without killing any animals, if meat trimmings are available they greatly improve the flavor and body of this sauce–they are part of the classic recipes. Simply brown them thoroughly as the first step before adding the vegetables to the pan. For this amount approximately 1 lb/450 grams of lean trimmings is adequate.

If you want to use bones, simply roast them for 1 hour at 350 F/176 C and add them to the stock after you have added the water. Allow an extra 2 hours to extract the flavor from the bones. If you have drippings left over from browning land or air dwelling proteins, use that pan to brown the root vegetables, etc.


Carrots, 2 each.
Celery, 4 stalks/heart.
Onions, 1 each.
Tomato paste, 4 oz/120 g.
Red wine, 2 cups.
Water, 4 cups.
If you have the urge to cheat, there is no shame in fortifying this sauce with a little beef or poultry extract. Knorr. is good and carries with it a certain amount of umami.

Equipment required:

Flat bottomed skillet, approximately 12″/30 cm. and 3″/90 mm deep.
Wooden spoon.

Stovetop Sauce Espagnole (sofrito)
Cut the carrots and celery into 1″/3 cm pieces. Heat a skillet to 250 F/121 C and and add the vegetables. Listen for sizzling. A hissing sound means the pan is too cold. A popping sound means the pan is too hot.

Caramelize the carrots and celery as pictured–approximately ten minutes.

Cut the unpeeled onion into 1″/3 cm pieces and add to the pan with the celery and carrots. Continue browning the vegetables for another ten minutes. I do not attempt to multitask while I am making this sauce, so I can get away with slowly increasing the heat as the process continues. Every time you add an ingredient to the pan, the surface temperature goes down. I use an infrared thermometer to monitor it, and I try to keep it as close to 250 F/121 C as possible.

Combine the tomato paste with half of the red wine and add to the skillet, stir to coat the vegetables.

Continue frying this mixture (sofrito) until a brown crust forms on the bottom of the ban–approximately ten minutes. The contents should be very thick and sticky.

Add the rest of the red wine to dissolve the crust on the bottom of the pan. Wine provides flavor to sauces like this–but NOT volume. Wine in sauces should always be reduced to as little as possible before incorporating into a sauce.

Add 1 quart/1 liter of water to the pan, bring to a boil and simmer until the stock is reduced by half–usually about an hour or so. This means you will have approximately 2 cups when you are done. It is difficult to know how much you have until you strain it–chefs go through this too. There is always a certain amount of estimation required.

If you over-reduce the stock, you will notice it sticking to the vegetables, making it difficult to strain. Believe me, no one at the dinner table will cringe and lament “this stock is clearly UNDER-REDUCED!”

Strain out the vegetables and pour the stock into the an appropriate container and allow to cool on the counter for up to one half hour, approximately 70 F/21. Cover and store in the refrigerator.

Norm King

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