05 July 2010

Kitchen Basics: Intro to Mother Sauces & Béchamel

"A well made sauce will make even an elephant or a grandfather palatable." -Grimod de la Reynière

I'm not so sure about that, but leave it to a Frenchman to come up with a great quote about sauce. The French worship sauce. And boy, can they make some good ones. There are five basic sauces in classical French cuisine, often called the Mother sauces due to being the most common and simple bases to most French sauces. The first 3 of the 5 sauces share a common makeup: your roux, and a liquid. The first four sauces listed were identified by Antoine Carême, and good ol' number five was later added by Escoffier.

Here are your 5 "grandes sauces" as they call them in French:

1. Béchamel or White Sauce: So called because it consists of milk thickened with a white roux (one that has just had the raw flour flavor cooked out, but hasn't gotten any color). This forms the base of Mornay - i.e. cheese - sauce (hm, wonder where I'm going with this one), 
2. Velouté or Blonde Sauce: So called because it consists of a "white" stock - poultry, etc - thickened with a blonde roux (one that's gotten a hint of color, blonde, easy enough to figure out). Ever had Chicken Supreme? Or gravy on your Thanksgiving turkey? That was a Velouté based sauce my friend.
3. Espagnole or Brown Sauce: So called because it consists of a "brown" stock - think red meat, beef, veal, etc. - thickened with a brown roux (one that's been cooked to a nice deep brown color - really, the naming isn't rocket science). Demi-glace and Madeira Sauce are common derivatives. 

Also included are:

4. Hollandaise or Emulsion Sauces: also includes Mayonnaise. These are sauces that involve (you guessed it) an emulsion, usually involving fat and egg yolks. 
5. Tomate or Tomato Sauce: Although not necessarily French at first glance, it's still a good, basic sauce. You can thank Escoffier for tomato sauce's addition to the list.

Although these are all very important sauces in their own right, today we are going to focus on the first 3, with notes specifically for Béchamel Sauce, as Part II of my Stovetop Macaroni & Cheese series. (The process is basically identical for the Velouté and Espagnole Sauces, so there you go).


Here's What You Need:

Roux (see Part I of the series for the method), 1-2 TB per cup of 

Liquid, as stated above

Note on Béchamel: I think whole milk is best used here; please use at least 1%. You're adding the equivalent of 1-2 TB of butter to every cup of milk with your roux anyway - so go big or go home. However, do not use cream - trust me.

Here's What You Do:

First, make your roux. 

Traditionally speaking, Béchamel employs a white roux, but I kind of like the flavor that a blonde or brown roux imparts. If you plan to use this sauce for something like a Creme Sauce or a Mustard Sauce, you may want to stick to the white roux, but if you plan to go on to some stronger flavored sauce (like, I don't know, a cheese sauce for instance), the nutty flavor of a darker roux may be in order.

In terms of thickness, your final application will determine your roux to milk ratio. Keep in mind, you can always add more liquid to thin out your sauce, but it is a lot harder to add more roux once your liquid's been added. Err on the side of too much roux until you have the experience to know exactly how thick you want your sauce. 

Once your roux has cooked to the desired point, add your liquid, about a cup at a time, and WHISK CONSTANTLY. Don't be concerned if it lumps up initially - as long as you keep stirring, it should break up. Just don't add too much liquid all at once - this can result in irreversible lumps. On the flip side, if you add to little at a time, it can result in a big congealed mess. To avoid these problems, I tend to add it in a steady stream as I whisk, to incorporate the liquid as quickly as I can, without allowing the starch to completely take over my liquid. 

Once you've whisked in all your liquid, allow your sauce to simmer for a few minutes. In order for the flour to thicken fully, it MUST reach at least a low boil. To reiterate, if you don't boil your sauce, it WILL NOT thicken. Period. I know I'm pushing this point hard, but it's crucial.

With a milk-based Béchamel, make sure it is a low boil, barely above a simmer. You want a bubble or two to break the surface, but if you heat it too high, you can scald the milk, or cause it to separate. 

Optional final step: Concerned about lumps? No worries, just pour your sauce through a fine sieve and you're good to go.

One final note: starch-thickened sauces tend to get thicker as they cool, so keep this in mind. While your sauce is on the stove, thicken it to a point that's thinner than what you want, because once it cools, the change in thickness may surprise you.

Tune in tomorrow for Part III of my series on Mac & Cheese: Mornay Sauce and Cheesy Choices.

Stovetop Mac & Cheese series - In case you missed it:

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