These sauces are mother, you listen to them
A good sauce is key to an exceptional meal. You can save a bland dish, moisten dried meats, or star in the main event (creamy mac and cheese, full stop). Having a few simple sauces up your sleeve and in your meals is a great way to upgrade your average weekly dinners. You just have to know where to start.
Take advantage of the five basic sauces known as “mother sauces”. These basic recipes allow you to change endlessly and create well-matched sauces for any flavor profile. Each sauce only requires a few ingredients, and the method is almost the same every time. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you’ll be ready to put your own spin on salsa, for meals that will make you say “That is mother.”
The first time I ate béchamel was after make a hundred ham and cheese croissants spread on the matter. It looked so damn doughy that I was wondering how I could make anything better. Then I tried the breakfast sandwich and was completely spellbound by the béchamel.
Béchamel is a simple, creamy white sauce with a light, savory flavor. Four out of five of these mother sauces start with a roux, and this is one of them. (Read here to update your roux technique.) Since this is a white sauce, the fat and flour do not need to brown or develop a rich flavor. For about 2 cups of béchamel, use 2 tablespoons of butter, 3 tablespoons of flour, and 2 cups of milk. Stir the butter and flour in a saucepan for a couple of minutes to cook the flour, then add warm whole milk. Beat until smooth and thick. Add a pinch of nutmeg, and I always add a pinch of salt because I can’t stop myself. You can use milk with lower fat percentages, or non-dairy milk, but the texture will suffer, so consider yourself warned.
You can spread béchamel on sandwiches, layer vegetarian lasagnas, substitute red sauce and make a pizza bianca, or spoon it over a baked potato. Add cheese and you have the perfect base for some mac and cheese that will make you want to drop all this and run away to live in a cabin, just you and the mac and cheese forever. I like to add chopped onion to the earliest stage of my blonde roux and make a lazy version of soubise.
Thanksgiving may have already familiarized you with velouté. This roux-based sauce starts the same way as béchamel, with a roux. Instead of adding milk, whisk in a light-colored broth, such as chicken, beef, fish, vegetable, or turkey. For those who don’t enjoy cornstarch-thickened turkey gravy, you might want to consider a turkey velouté in November.
For about two cups of velouté, use the same measurements as the béchamel and substitute the broth for the milk measurement. Add the flour and fat (ghee works well) to a saucepan. You can take the mixture a little darker this time, but not too much. Save that for later. Cooking the roux removes the pasty flour flavor and intensifies the color, while the flavor becomes toastier and more complex. Cook it until golden, or a tinge of brown, then mix with hot or lukewarm broth. Heating the liquid first makes it easier to incorporate, as the fat doesn’t stick or clump. Drizzle over meats, vegetables or stews. For extra credit, flavor your velouté with chopped herbs or spices.
If a velouté isn’t bold enough for you, espagnole is the intensified roux-based sauce you might be looking for. Also called “brown sauce” (“espagnole” is certainly more stylish, but your choice), and is made with a dark roux and a dark broth, such as beef or veal broth. It takes an extra five to 10 minutes to give the flour a rich, toasty brown color, but it’s worth it. Use ghee or clarified butter to prevent bitter flavors from the milk solids from burning. Aside from the richer roux, the espagnole sauce gets a bigger flavor boost from other fun ingredients like tomato puree, a mirepoix, white wine, and a bouquet garni of parsley, thyme, and bay leaf, which add sweet, earthy, and savory flavors and aromas. . .
Using the same roux measurements as our other two sauces, you’ll chop up 1/4 cup each of carrots, celery, and onion for your mirepoix. In a saucepan we put butter and add the mirepoix. Sauté the vegetables until they are soft and transparent. Add the flour and cook until the roux is deeply browned. This is going to look like a lumpy mess, that’s ok, it’ll be fixed later. Add 2 tablespoons of tomato paste or 1 cup of tomato puree. Add 1/2 cup of white wine and slowly add 3 cups of warm brown broth and whisk. Add the bouquet garni. (This can be three or four sprigs of thyme and parsley, and a bay leaf, but it can be adjusted.) Simmer for 30-40 minutes to thicken slightly. Strain the sauce. Drizzle over roasted meats or serve alongside a hot sandwich as a dip. More ingredients lend themselves well to more derived sauces, but the most common is a demi-glace which is Spanish cooked. Simply return the finished sauce to a pot to further intensify and thicken. Extend the basic Spanish with other vegetables such as mushrooms or shallots, and dare with spices such as dry mustard or cumin. You can even mix the alcohol component and swap the white wine for red, try brandy, or maybe sherry.
It turns out that there is more than one way to sauce a tomato. Italian-style tomato sauce is a staple, but try the French-style for a velvety consistency and earthy flavors. Between you and me, I think espagnole is really a grandma sauce, because this mama here is basically espagnole with the addition of salt-cured pork and a pile of tomatoes. Salt-cured pork is added to the butter to cook it down, and this simple step dramatically changes the sauce by adding salt and umami.
In addition to preparing 1/3 cup minced salt-cured pork, such as bacon, pancetta, or lard, and opening 2 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes, all other measurements (for the mirepoix, roux, broth, and bouquet) remain the same as the previous espagnole recipe. Melt two tablespoons of butter in a pot and add minced salt-cured pork, such as bacon, pancetta, or lard. Cook until the pork has lost its fat and has developed a golden brown color. Add the mirepoix and cook until softened. Add the flour and cook until you have a medium brown roux. Add the brown broth, crushed tomatoes, and herb bouquet garni. Place the sauce in the oven and let it cook slowly, about an hour to 90 minutes, until thickened. Scoop out the bouquet garni and blend the sauce until smooth. Serve with pasta or meat. This sauce can add a subtle twist to classic Italian dishes that use red sauce. Modify your tomato sauce with ingredients like garlic, peppers, or olive oil.
We have come to that. The mother sauce that doesn’t bother with a roux to thicken. Hollandaise is the silky, rich, tangy sauce that lovingly coats Eggs Benedict. Since the roux has no business here, the hollandaise sauce is thickened with egg yolks. Its main ingredients are butter, lemon juice and egg yolks, which makes it similar to another famous sauce: mayonnaise.
Hollandaise is tricky because it’s an emulsion and the eggs need to be cooked gently. Some recipes add a bit of water to the yolks to loosen them up and give them a little breathing room as the water evaporates. Use a double boiler or set a pot with an inch of water to a simmer over medium low heat. Use a bowl larger than the top of the pot, and add 4 egg yolks, 1 tablespoon of water (if using), and 1 tablespoon of lemon juice. Place the bowl in the pot of water and constantly whisk vigorously. Once the heat rises and the eggs begin to cook, you will notice the mixture thicken. Remove from heat and slowly fold in 1 stick (8 tablespoons) of freshly melted or extremely softened butter, a little at a time. Season with a pinch of salt, pepper, and cayenne. Spoon over eggs, asparagus, chicken, or any blanched vegetables. Riff up your hollandaise sauce by adding chopped herbs, finely chopped shallots, or garlic. For a subtle change, swap the lemon juice for another citrus like orange, lime, or grapefruit.
These five mother sauces are a great base to start experimenting with the creamy component of your dishes. Trying to remember them all may be a long shot, but in general, you can start with a roux, choose milk or broth, and get creative from there.
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