Posted by: Part-Time Audiophile | March 13, 2009

Mother Sauces: Brown, White, Red, & Butter

The sauce. I love a good sauce. And really, who doesn’t? I mean, pasta without sauce is just noodles. And for most of my culinary life, that’s kinda where the whole sauce thing stopped — tomato puree on pasta. Oh, and gravy at Thanksgiving. Oh, and butter. On just about anything. Yep. That’s about it.

This is where French cuisine is rather different from, say, oh, err, well, my personal experience. My mom was all about spaghetti and meatsauce. But Bordelaise with flank steak? A roasted red pepper coulis with salmon? Beurre blanc with scallops? Bearnaise with … well, anything you want?

My chef instructor early on set the expectation that from the perspective of the finished plate, there will be 4 things staring up at us: a protein, a starch, a vegetable and … a sauce. In French cuisine, its at least on par with any other ingredient. More so than most. Given that potatoes are considered “garnish”, its easy to deduce that everything revolves around the protein on the plate (and I say “protein” because “meat” is a little misleading — I’m not just referring to beef, but also lamb, pork, poultry, fish or shellfish). Sauce is another garnish.

So here I am, week 8 of 20 and its all about sauce. First thing: mother sauces. The idea here is that there are 5 sauces from which a whole host of other, called “small”, sauces can be derived.

Traditionally, the four “mother sauces” were: brown sauce, bechamel, tomato sauce, and veloute. The latter isn’t made much anymore (neither are its derivatives), and typically, you see two added to the original three. My instructor’s current list are all below.

  1. First up, brown sauce. This one is pretty easy. To describe at least. Essentially, brown sauce is veal stock, cooked with tomato paste, and reduced until it coats the back of a spoon. Since I make all my veal stock with tomato paste as it is, the only thing left to do is cook my stock down.
  2. Next is bechamel. This one has two major elements. One is a roux and the other, milk (better, cream). A roux is very simply equal parts flour and fat, by weight. Typically, what you’ll get is an ounce of flour mixed with an ounce of butter. But yes, rendered bacon or duck fat, olive oil or Criso — all work. Some taste a bit better than others, but there you go — fat and flour, cooked in a pan. Start with wide mouth pan, like a saute (something with straight sides) or a fry pan. Avoid nonstick unless you have a teflon coated whisk. Heat it on medium heat. Add butter and flour. Whisk them together into a paste and cook it till it starts to smell nutty. It’ll start getting a bit of caramel color to it at this point. Note that if you’re making a gumbo, you’re going to take this way way way darker, almost till it’s black (but not burned!). Another tidbit — the darker the roux, the less thickening power it has, so keep that in mind. Anyway, a bechamel is a white sauce, so we’re going to stop well short of that. Last tip: with a roux, you always add cold to hot, and never hot to hot or cold to cold — you’ll get lumps. So, add your 1.5 cups of cold whole milk (or half and half, or cream) to your hot roux and whisk until incorporated evenly. Whisking gently, reduce. You’re done when the sauce can coat the back of your spoon. Finish with fresh thyme, pepper, bay, parsley and nutmeg. Season and serve.
  3. Tomato sauce! Of course, this is French cuisine, not Italian, but the ideas are pretty much the same. Sweat one large, chopped onion. Turn up the heat and quickly saute 2-3 cloves of garlic with the onions. Add the tomatoes: one part tomato puree to two parts seeded whole tomatoes (canned are fine), chopped. Simmer an hour. Add your bouquet garni (thyme, parsley, bay leaf). Simmer 30 mins longer. Remove bouquet. Puree in a blender. Pass it through a strainer, season and serve.
  4. Coulis. This is pretty straightforward — it’s a fruit or vegetable and and some liquid, pureed. There are lots of options here, so I’m going to skip over this. But say you wanted to do a roasted red pepper coulis, take your roasted red pepper, heat it in a sauce pan with some chicken stock till both are warm. Puree them together, season, serve. Bam!
  5. Wine-Butter sauce. This is a “reduction sauce” — add a cup of wine to a saute pan along with a chopped shallot, 6-10 peppercorns, a whole garlic clove, 2-3 sprigs of fresh thyme, 5-6 parsley stems and a bay leaf. Reduce the wine to 1/4 of a cup (or more, if you like, the point is to concentrate the wine flavor) over medium-low heat. Important note — when cooking with wine, don’t cheat. Wine reductions are terrific ways to take crappy wine and concentrate that crappiness — so skip the $5 bottle. Back to the sauce. To the reduction, you’re going to add a dash of cream, then briskly whisk in 3/4 cup of whole, cold, butter, a piece at a time. You’re shooting for an emulsion, like a vinaigrette, so whisking is important. Note, if you let it get too hot or too cold, the sauce will break/separate. That’s gross — it’s a greasy mess. Finish the sauce with a small bit of stock, veal if you use red wine (beurre rouge) or veal or chicken if you use white wine (beurre blanc) and fresh herbs. Season and serve.

A note about serving sauces — the sauce goes around the sauced protein, not on it. This is in contrast to a sauced garnish, which is drizzled with the sauce.

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