Mother Sauces or Grand Sauces
In french cooking there are five basic foundation sauces that form the base for a many variations used in dishes. Whether you cook at home for yourself or you are a professional chef, understanding and using a range of sauces will add to your enjoyment of the dishes you cook. In cooking I mainly enjoy seeing other people enjoying what I cook for them. A good sauce can really be the clincher for a dish.
While the grand sauces may not be as important as they used to be (as people of rightly moved away from sticking to french recipes) they still form that basis for many interesting variations and 'fusion' type recipes. This can mean bringing in some flavours and techniques from, for example, Asia, to really add a new and fresh twist to some of the traditional french approaches that sometimes can be too heavy and over-produced.
As you'll see many of the base sauces require use of a quality stock of some kind. For the home cook this can be the most difficult aspect of the dish as 'instant' stocks, such as in stock cubes and powder, often don't have the strength of flavour to make the sauce really tasty. In most cases experimentation with different stock products might be the answer in order to find the quality you are after. Most people would not be willing to make their own special veal stock or fish stock for future dishes and you can't buy quality veal or fish stock from your local store (at least not that I am aware of). So for these two stocks you can be in a bind. However fish stock isn't hard to make and when made fresh at home is very tasty and takes as little as 20 minutes to cook. The same can be said for chicken stock which I believe is the one people at home are most likely to make even though it will take up to 2.5 hours to cook. Of course I am making these comments based on my own local cooking experience.
Béchamel is a white sauce made by thickening milk with a white roux(roux blanc). A roux is a combination of butter and flour cooked in a saucepan. When making a roux it is important to ensure that the flour is actually cooked to a small degree so that the raw flavour of flour is removed. Also, make sure you don't burn the roux. Any hint of burnt flavour can ruin the béchamel.
A roux can also be cooked a little longer until the flour starts to brown thereby giving a nutty taste and slightly coloured look to the roux. As you will see this is used below to make a Velouté or when significantly browned can be (and is traditionally) used in a demi-glace. For a Béchamel in most cases you want a white roux.
Milk is added to a white roux and then simmered to form the basic bechamel. Often you will get lumps as you add the milk. Make sure to add the milk slowly on a low heat and to keep stirring the mixture. A whisk is invaluable in the process. A good tip to remember if the mixture is lumpy as you are making or later when you want to reuse the roux is to add either a cold liquid to a hot roux or a hot liquid to a cold roux. This is a general rule for saving sauces or mixtures when they have split - in particular hollandaise and mayonnaise.
Once you have the desired thickness for the roux you can add aromatics (herbs and spices, bouquet garni) for whatever dish you like. Cheese is often added and melted into the béchamel for lasagna dishes or as a coating for vegetables with cheese sprinkled on later and grilled for a grilled cheese topping. Béchamel can also be used souffles and terrines.
Velouté is based on veal, chicken or fish stock and is made with a white roux. Interestingly the traditional recipe for béchamel calls for the use of some veal stock but this is rarely used today. Velouté only differs from sauce espagnole (brown sauce) by being made with white stock, bound with a roux that is kept as white as possible. Simply you make the white roux and add the stock. The mixtures is then simmered for 1.5 hours to ensure 'clearing' of the sauce and to obtain a transparent sauce. As the mixture slowly cooks scum rises to the surface which must be removed (cleared). Addition of cold stock helps in the clearing process. As a note, egg whites stirred into a broth, which is brought to a boil, and then the eggs whites, which float to the surface, and skimmed off can be used to make a crystal clear consomme (although it can end in disaster). The preference is to use tall saucepans to help in the process. Once cooked the sauce has a noticeable sheen.
Naturally, the base stock used in the sauce is reflected in the dish. Sauce suprême is velouté sauce made from chicken stock to which cream may be added for richness. Adding cream and some meat jelly produces chaudfroid sauce which is used to coat eggs, chicken or game. Also tomato puree can be added to velouté sauce in the ratio of 1 to 3.
- Sauce Espagnole (Brown sauce)
Sauce Espagnole is a brown stock bound with a brown roux. Brown stock is made from veal (shin), bacon rind, carrots, onion, garlic and bouquet garni however other meat bones can be added. Reduction of a brown stock produces a meat jelly called glace de viande which sets at room temprature. The same can be done with white stock (above). Glace de viande is often used to finish off sauces giving them a strong flavour and a translucent and highly glossy appearance.
After adding brown stock to the brown roux, carrots, onions and herbs are once again put in the mixture. This is left to simmer and is cleared (as above) for a good 3 hours In order to keep the stock clear it must not be boiled. The addition of meat jelly to the sauce espagnole makes a demi-glace which is a common addition to finishing off a whole range of sauces.
In modern cooking the addition of a roux to thicken a sauce is becoming less fashionable. A preferred method is to reduce the sauce and let it thicken naturally. This can mean perhaps deglazing the pan of the cooking juices with wine or water, adding some demi-glace or glace de viande (perhaps even cream), herbs and spices and reducing the sauce until the desired thickness is achieved.
Hollandaise is an emulsified sauce made by combining egg yolks with butter and lemon juice in a double boiler. The lecithin in egg yolks is a natural emulsifier and binds the butter and lemon juice to form a light pale yellow coloured, some what frothy mixture that is light, creamy and buttery smooth. Hollandaise can be used on fish and vegetables and in egg dishes (eggs benedict). Mayonnaise is also an emulsified mixture but tends to get classified as a dressing rather than a sauce.
The making of Hollandaise requires careful control of temprature therefore the use of a double boiler is required. The important requirement is to not cook the eggs at too high a temprature and instead of a sauce get scrambled eggs. The egg yolk ( 2 or more depending on quantity desired) and a few drops of water are added to the steel bowl. Move the bowl over the simmering water and whisk. The eggs should begin to foam and become slightly firmer. Begin adding small pieces of butter. This can also be made with clarified butter. You might have to move the mixture on and off the heat several times throughout the process. Keep adding butter and perhaps add a tablespoon of water. The sauce should become fairly thick but also lighten and frothy. You will need 2- 4 oz of clarified butter or half-a-lb of fresh butter. Add salt, pepper and some lemon juice to taste.
Making this sauce successfully can require some practice and maybe another pair of helping hands initially until you get the temprature, timing, quantities and coordination required. One of my favourite variants is bernaise sauce made by reducing vinegar, wine, tarragon and shallots and adding this liquid to the egg yolks and whisking in butter as you would for hollandaise.
- Tomato sauce
The tomato sauce is very well known by most people. Whenever you get the chance to buy a good quantity of quality tomatoes at a low price do it and make yourself some tomato sauce. Simply halve the tomatoes and remove the seeds, put them in a pan with oil (good quality cold pressed virgin olive oil if possible) and butter, seasonings (salt, pepper) and flavourings (parsley and garlic - lots of it). Cover and simmer for 30 or so minutes, strain through a sieve. You want to cook it fairly quickly so that it is fresh and flavoursome.