Let's be saucy...Start with the basics
Last updated 1/11/2007 at Noon
Many a cook has forged a fine reputation simply by knowing the wherewithal of a few sauces. Think of a steak served with a fine peppercorn sauce, vegetables topped ever so lightly with a swirl of cheese sauce and certainly a plain Jane cheesecake with a dazzle of chocolate or caramel sauce has heightened eye and flavor appeal.
The secret of sauces is this: there isn’t any secret. And many a sauce that might secure “stars in your culinary crown” is not that complicated either.
My observation is that some cooks think sauces are too much work, too hard, too likely to fail and therefore not worth the time and effort. Little could be farther from the truth. This is not to say that some sauces are not more temperamental than others. There are sauces that require a bit more coddling.
Today let’s focus on those delicious sauces that are less likely to give you any problems. As with other endeavors, you may find that success with these basic sauces will give you the confidence and courage to try more and more and more sauces.
The most basic sauce is a white sauce. In France it would be called a béchamel sauce (pronounced “bea-sha-mel”). It was a classic of high school home economics classes for decades. I may have even made my first white sauce in a home ec class. Wherever it is taught, the basics are the same: butter, flour, milk, salt and pepper. It is the base for a soufflé, a curry or cheese sauce. With the addition of tomato paste it becomes Sauce Choron (“Sauce of the Dawn”).
This is a sauce every cook can use. Most general cookbooks will have this sauce in almost exactly the same manner.
White Sauce (Béchamel Sauce)
2 tbsp. butter
2 tbsp. flour
1 cup whole milk, heated
Freshly ground black or white pepper
Melt butter in a small heavy-bottomed saucepan. Stir in flour and cook, stirring, until the paste is smooth and bubbles, about 2 minutes. Whisk or stir in hot milk, continuing to stir as the sauce thickens. Bring to a boil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat.
For cheese sauce
Add ½ cup grated cheddar cheese during last minute or so of cooking along with a pinch of cayenne pepper and a bit of grated nutmeg.
For Mornay sauce
Add 2 tbsp. each freshly shredded parmesan and Swiss cheese during last two minutes of cooking. Just before removing from heat, beat 2 tbsp. of the sauce into l lightly beaten egg yolk. Stir the yolk-mixture back into the sauce and add 2 tbsp. softened butter. Cook, stirring, 1 minute.
Hollandaise sauce is a bit tricky. Therefore, there are possibly dozens of versions of mock hollandaise sauces that are quite acceptable. Certainly if Julia Child were to create and promote a mock hollandaise sauce, it would be fine, wouldn’t it?
From her first television series Julia devised this mock hollandaise. My yellowed and nearly paper-thin paperback copy of her book “The French Chef” (Bantam Book; published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.) details the beginnings of this culinary TV blockbuster.
It started so humbly and without pretension. The mission, said to have been “to take the bugaboo out of French cooking,” is as direct as Julia Child was and the series, of course, now an American classic success story.
In this tiny gem Julia writes about the simplicity of Veloute Sauce, noting that the flour must be cooked in the butter before the liquid is added. Her “why” explains that without the cooking the sauce will have the “horrid pastry taste of uncooked flour.” She also wrote that she always asked “Why?” and “I, myself, will not do anything unless I know why.”
Here is Julia Child’s Veloute Sauce from her show #101. It was to be made into a Mornay sauce to grace poached sole, flounder, ocean perch, pollack or baby halibut.
(Basic White-wine Fish Sauce)
1 ½ cups bottled clam sauce
1/3 cup thinly sliced onion
¼ cup thinly sliced carrot
1/3 cup chopped mushroom stems (optional)
½ bay leaf
6-8 parsley stems
An enameled or stainless-steel saucepan
Place all the ingredients in the saucepan. Add l cup water. Simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes, letting liquid boil down to about 2 cups. Strain through a fine mesh sieve and correct seasonings. Rapidly boil down this liquid until it is reduced to 1 cup. Remove, set aside. Keep hot.
3 tbsp. butter
4 tbsp. flour
About 1 cup milk
Melt butter in a heavy-bottomed stainless steel saucepan. Blend in flour with a wooden spoon and cook slowly until butter and flour have foamed together, without coloring, for 2 minutes. Remove from heat, pour the hot fish poaching liquid and immediately blend vigorously with a white whip. Set over moderate heat and bring to a simmer, stirring and thinning out the sauce with dollops of milk. Sauce should be thick enough to coat a spoon fairly heavily.
From show #49 Julia featured vegetables served with a mock hollandaise sauce.
Mock Hollandaise Sauce
(For cauliflower, broccoli, asparagus, broiled lamb, chicken or fish)
2 tbsp. softened or melted butter
3 tbsp. flour
1 ½ cups hot vegetable-cooking water or milk
1 egg yolk blended in a bowl with ¼ cup cream
Salt and pepper
1 to 2 tbsp. lemon juice
2 or more tablespoons softened butter
Blend butter and flour in a small saucepan with a rubber spatula. Using a wire whip, beat in the hot liquid, then bring to a boil, beating slowly. By driblets, beat this hot sauce into the egg yolk and cream, pour back into the saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring. Remove from heat and season to taste with salt, pepper and lemon juice.
If not to be used immediately, clean off sides of pan with rubber spatula and dot the top of sauce with softened butter to prevent a skin from forming. Reheat just before serving, remove from heat and beat in softened butter by tablespoons.
Bordelaise sauce is a classic; you’ll see it on the menu of fine restaurants. This is a version you can make at home. It is traditional with steaks… and makes a feast out of grilled hamburgers.
2 tbsp. butter
1/8 tsp. fresh ground pepper
2 tbsp. flour
1 cup beef stock
2 green onions, minced
1 tbsp. minced carrot
1 spring parsley
½ bay leaf
1 whole clove
1 ½ tsp. Worcestershire sauce
Melt butter in a saucepan. When butter is barely brown, stir in pepper and flour and cook slowly until the flour is brown. Gradually add stock, stirring, and boil for 1 minute. Add remaining ingredients. Simmer for about 15 minutes. Strain before using.