a Definition: In the culinary arts, mainly in high-volume restaurants, à la minute refers to a style of cooking where an item, or particularly its accompanying sauce, is prepared to order, rather than being prepped in advance and held for service.
When a sauce is prepared à la minute (pronounced "ah-la-mi-NOOT"), it is often prepared in the same pan in which the item was cooked. Sauces prepared in this manner are, by definition, pan sauces, of which there are innumerable variations, although they adhere to a basic template:
- Deglaze the pan with wine or stock
- Add cream or demi-glace and reduce very briefly
- Swirl in butter, season and serve.
The advantage of preparing a sauce this way is that it's fresh and relatively simple. While it won't possess the depth and complexity of a sauce that's been repeatedly simmered and reduced in the classical manner, a really good wine or a prepared demi-glace can make a pan sauce every bit as satisfying as one that took much longer to prepare.
The procedure for preparing pan-seared duck breasts à la minute would be something like this:
- Melt some butter in a hot sauté pan. Add the duck breast skin-side down and saute for about 5 minutes, until the skin is crisp and brown.
- Turn the breast, reduce heat to medium and cook another four minutes or until the breast gives just slightly and springs right back when pressed with your thumb.
- Remove duck and keep warm. Drain all but two tablespoons of duck fat. Add chopped shallots, stock and wine. Reduce for a minute over high heat. Season to taste, then slice the duck breasts, sauce and serve.
A key factor in à la minute cooking is something called mise en place, a moderately grandiose term that approximately translates to "having everything prepped in advance."
In the case of our duck breasts, that would mean, at a minimum, that the skin is scored with a sharp knife to assist in rendering the fat beneath the skin, as well as ensuring that the breast has been at room temperature for at least 15 minutes, and preferably 60.
If the breast is too cold, the cook will have a harder time cooking it to the exact internal temperature required to achieve a perfect medium-rare, or medium, duck breast. (This is equally true for steaks.)
The opposite of à la minute? That would look something like this recipe for Chicken Chasseur:
- Brown 12 chicken breasts in a large brazier or sauté pan. Drain excess fat, add about 4 cups of prepared chasseur sauce, cover and simmer for about 30 minutes.
- Remove the chicken, reduce the sauce briefly, then serve the chicken topped with sauce and garnished with chopped fresh parsley.
Broadly speaking (that is, beyond the narrow sense of the pan-sauce technique), the term à la minute is roughly interchangeable with à la carte in the sense that it refers to a dish that is prepared when the customer orders it, not ahead of time.
Apart from buffets, banquet halls and the like, that's most restaurant food.