Image by HatM via Flickr
No one really knows how long sauces have been used in cooking. Probably since early civilizations figured out how to make cooking vessels – it is hard to make a sauce on a spit. We know that people started writing about sauces during the middle ages.
As usual – where food is concerned – the great French chef Marie-Antoine Carême did the first analytical study of sauces. His system had four basic sauces from which all the rest derived. Carême’s four sauces were: Béchamel, Espagnole, Velouté, and Allemande. By the early 20th century the great Georges Auguste Escoffier added tomato sauces and emulsified sauces. Don’t worry – we will define all of these as we go along.
There are several interpretations of the sauces, even several different groupings. For our uses here are the classifications that we will use:
Espagnole: Brown sauce based on brown stock such as beef. Sauces under this heading would include Bordelaise, Chasseur, Lyonnaise, Madeira, Robert, and many others. That is pronounced Español – just like the name of the Spanish language.
Velouté: White sauces that are made with white stock such as chicken, fish, or veal and roux. Sauces under this grouping are Allemande, Ravigote, Suprème, and many more.
Béchamel – Named after the inventor Louis de Béchamel the steward of Louis XIV. These sauces are made with milk and pale roux. Common sauces in this group include Crème, Mornay and Soubise. Modern base Béchamel is somewhat simpler than the original.
Red sauces: Usually tomato based. Spaghetti sauces and Marinara sauces are included in this group.
Emulsions: The ever-wonderful Hollandaise and Mayonnaise are in this group. Emulsions are the blending of two immiscible (unblendable) liquids. Oil/water emulsions are quite common. There are two basic type of emulsion: oil-in-water and water-in-oil. Butter is a water-in-oil – the fat surrounds droplets of water. Milk and cream are just the reverse: oil-in-water where water surrounds droplets of fat. Kitchen chemistry for real.
After you fiddle with sauces for a while you come to realize that most sauces are some kind of liquid base plus something to thicken it up a bit plus some thing(s) for flavor. Shortly thereafter you realize that the liquid is usually what determines which family the sauce belongs to. If you learn to make the mother sauces you have the basic skills to make just about any sauce on earth. Here’s the liquid breakdown for this grouping:
1. Espagnole – brown stock.
2. Velouté – white stock.
3. Béchamel – milk.
4. Red – tomato.
5. Emulsions – fat.
There are many different thickeners used.
1. Roux – pretty much equal flour and fat
a. White – cooked rather short time – white in color – used in Béchamel.
b. Blonde – cooked medium time – blondish in color – used in Velouté.
c. Brown – cooked fairly long time – brown in color – used in Espagnole.
2. Whitewash – a slurry of flour and cold water.
3. Cornstarch – a slurry of cornstarch and cold water.
4. Liason – egg yolks. Do not add until tempered.
Tempering egg yolks. Well, let see – you’ve got a really hot (as in warm – not spicy) sauce going. If you just dump in the yolks, they will cook before they mix. So what you do is add small amounts of the really hot sauce base to the egg yolks a bit at a time and mix like crazy until the eggs are blended in and brought up to temperature. Then you dump the mix back into the hot sauce and stir it in. Good blend and no mess and no lumping.
Flavorings: Kinda’ sorta’ you name it and it has probably been used in one or more sauces. Flavorings frequently begin with the base liquid and may also add changes of consistency as well as flavor.
Common techniques in making sauces will frequently involve reducing the liquid by boiling off a considerable amount of the water content, which will concentrate the flavor left.
In the spices the most commonly misused is probably salt. Salt should be added last and only after tasting. The common stocks purchased already have salt in them and it is therefore quite easy to over salt, especially if the stock is reduced and concentrated. If you can get low salt or salt free stock do so. Even better – if you have the energy (I don’t) make your own stock.
A common characteristic of good sauces is that they usually involve a great deal of mixing and whisking. Most will lump up or not begin to combine if not stirred pretty constantly. Another characteristic is the careful control of temperature required by so many of the good sauces. Holding things just shy of a boil will take a bit of practice. Works best on a gas stove. On an electric you may have to move the pan off and on the burner to maintain correct temperature. The advent of the gas stove and the electric mixing appliance has really simplified the making of sauces. However – do remember that most of the world’s great sauces were developed and perfected with wood stoves and elbow grease.
A note on groupings: Julia Child groups them as White (Velouté and Béchamel) and Brown. She then groups Tomato, Egg Yolk and Butter Sauces together as the Hollandaise family. And finally the dressing or oil and vinegar group. She also adds flavored butters as a group. While I am nowhere near Julia as an expert I tend to go with the grouping I outlined.
Roux is the basis for many sauce’s thickening agent. It can be made from standard all-purpose flour and butter or just about any other fat desired. Start by melting butter (or heating fat) in a good saucepan, then add an equal amount of flour and stir constantly. When the mix is smooth and bubbly – usually 1 to 2 minutes – then you have a basic white roux.
There are different thicknesses recognized:
1. Thin – 1 Tbs flour per cup of liquid.
2. Medium – 1-1/2 Tbs flour per cup (probably the most common)
3. Thick – 2 Tbs flour per cup
4. Ridiculous – 3 Tbs flour per cup (Soufflés and the like)
Sauce Béchamel – make a basic white roux. When it is to the smooth and bubbly stage remove from the heat and when it stops bubbling pour in the required amount of boiling milk. You can add a pinch of salt at this point. Whisk the roux and milk together enthusiastically until all roux is incorporated. Return to the heat and boil and whisk for about a minute. Add salt and white pepper to taste. Did you notice the boiling milk? For most sauces you do not want to add something cold to something hot – this can really gum up the works. Pay attention to temperature.
Sauce Velouté – same as above but use a white stock instead of milk.
Milk or cream = Béchamel. Stock = Velouté. Now you see why Julia lumped them together. If you add cheese to Béchamel it becomes Mornay. If you add cream to Béchamel it becomes Sauce Crème. If you add cream to Velouté it becomes Sauce Suprème. All the other snazzy/fancy sauces in this group are simply additions or variations on these basics. Not to oversimplify, since there can be a great deal of stirring, careful heat control, and/or reduction of one or more ingredients before you get to the final product. But – if you conquer these basics and understand what you are doing you can deal with any variation with relative ease.
You should not have a whole lot of lumpy problems if the liquid is hot when it is added (and the roux is hot). If it does lump up you can force it through a strainer and then boil for a few minutes stirring like mad. So sayeth many authorities. I dunno’. If mine is lumpy it is easier to toss and redo. Suit yourself. If you got it too thin, then reduce it by simmering and stirring for a few minutes. If too thick add a bit more of the base liquid and stir it in. (Notice how many times the word stir is used in this discussion?)
The Brown sauces are harder in terms of number of ingredients and length of cooking time. But there is nowhere near the amount of constant stirring. Here is the basic brown sauce that is the mother of almost all brown sauces:
1 cup onions, diced
1/2 cup carrots, diced
1/2 cup celery, diced
2 Tbs clarified butter
2 Tbs all-purpose flour
6 cups brown stock
1/4 cup tomato purée
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp dried thyme
4 fresh parsley stems
In an iron skillet or other heavy saucepan melt the butter over medium heat until it is frothy. Add the veggies and sauté until lightly browned. Stir the flour in a bit at a time until fully mixed and makes a roux. Cook the roux for a few minutes until it becomes brown – but not burned. This only takes a few minutes. By the way – this particular mix of veggies is considered something almost mystical by most of the great chefs. In English this mix is known as the Trinity. In French they call it Mirepoix (“Meer-pwah”). Either way it means onions, carrots, celery in a 2-1-1 proportion.
Whisk in the stock and the tomato puree, whisking firmly. Bring up to a boil, add the bouquet garni and simmer for about 45 minutes uncovered, stirring regularly so as not to burn.
Remove from the heat and discard the bouquet garni. Strain through a sieve and cheesecloth. This will make about a quart of Espagnole sauce, which is pretty good over red meat and such. Mostly this will be the base for many other wonderful sauces. You can refrigerate for a while and be fine.
Notice that this wasn’t all that hard – congrats – you are halfway through the mother sauces.
Red – tomato based sauces. Aw- c’mon, you’ve made spaghetti sauce at some point in your cooking. If you count the dressings in this class – throw together some decent oil. Olive oil is good, but extra virgin may or may not have enough flavor for you. Try some EVOO and some regular olive oil in similar dressings and see which you prefer. Anyway – oil, vinegar (preferably wine vinegar), salt, pepper, and other spices of choice and you have a basic dressing. Best made fresh at the table or just before serving.
Now the fun stuff – emulsions! I’ve already written up mayonnaise – the hard way, the easy way, and the embarrassingly easy way. Actually I’ve written about Hollandaise also, but I’ll recap that one for you:
3 egg yolks
1 Tbs hot water (optional – I usually don’t)
1 Tbs lemon juice
1 stick unsalted butter, melted and hot
Salt and white pepper to taste
Put everything except the butter into a blender. Blend for 1 minute on the lowest speed. With the blender running, dribble the hot butter through the open hole of the blender lid. Use a funnel if you are making a mess with the butter through the hole routine. Season to taste with salt and white pepper and keep warm.
There you have it: the basic mother sauces. If you learn these then every other sauce that you are likely to need will be simple (and probably based on one of these!)
Oh yeah – allemande. Well – that’s actually a Velouté derivative that is thickened with egg yolk, heavy cream, and lemon juice. Allemande was known as German sauce because of the color. Escoffier renamed it when it declined in popularity at the beginning of WWI to sauce blonde. Anything German wasn’t exactly popular at that time – even if only named that. It is usually called Sauce Parisienne nowadays. And it is not really a mother sauce – it is a derivative.