Adventures of a Culinary Padawan
École des Techniques à la Cuisine
Lesson Four: The Mother Sauces
Dear Foodie Voyeur,
I always thought it was a bit obscene to call them the "mother sauces" -- but they beget other sauces, so in that sense the term "mère" is accurate. The "mothers" are:
The "daughters" include: Bordelaise, made with Espagñole and a red wine and shallow reduction; Chasseur, made with mushrooms and both Espagñole and Tomate; and Mornay which adds gruyère to the Bechamel. These are the ones we'll be making during this class.
In reality, sauce making is creative and no two saucemakers will produce the same product, but the rules and recipes exist to help categorize the sauces and their creation processes. It also helps to define what a sauce is.
A sauce is a flavored compound, usually a liquid, that enhances and elevates the flavor of the basic food. The flavor and texture of the sauce is usually complex, and subject to many processes, often more than it took to cook and plate the food. Sauce can also act as a binder for other foods, like the American classic macaroni and cheese, or croquettes, or soufflé.
A sauce can also be as simple as melting some butter over a dish of veggies, or boiling down stock with butter till it's thickened into an emulsion (remember à l'étové?). But as warm sauces to be made on demand are what really makes French food special, this is what this class is about.
Classic sauces have a liaison -- a "binder" to hold the fat and aqueous phases of a sauce. The fat is often a flavoring agent, like bacon fat or butter, and the "watery" component tends to be stock or milk. The classic liaisons include:
Ideally, sauces should be made with a roux or a reduction; everything else is considered a sort of "second best" situation in terms of stability (meaning the sauce should hold together and not break, which means separates).
A sort of variation of making a roux is called singer (as in the English word "singe," meaning to burn superficially, or on the surface), where the fat is rendered or melted, vegetables cooked in it, most of the water is chased out, and the flour is "thrown" over in a thin layer, then mixed to make the roux.
These vegetable components are considered "the aromatics" and can be sweated or browned as required. The Espagñole and Tomate also have lardons added -- double-macedoine sized pieces of fatback. This is the unsliced "back of the bacon" -- a large piece of pork fat streaked with meat layers. You have to trim off the skin (which can be used for stock), then cut up tranche, then batonnet, then macedoine -- same as for vegetables.
After the flour is singé'd and the roux is made, the hot liquid is added with a lot of stirring to avoid lumps. Then additional flavorings (like herbs and spices) are added and the sauce is simmered for at least an hour to "marry" (leach and develop) the flavors. The hot sauce is strained through a chinoise -- a very fine sieve -- to remove the "chunkies" for a smooth sauce, or is ground through a foodmill so that the vegetables can be puréed for flavor and texture. (A coarser chinoise is called a "china cap." Go figure.) The foodmill doesn't pass through seeds or skin, so it's a good way to separate pulp flesh from the tough bits.
Mise en place cups have to be set up for each of the sauce components to avoid delays. Often, when a roux is browned or a certain heat level reached, the next ingredients must be added quickly. Waiting too long can ruin a sauce. Ingredients also have to be measured out or weighed to avoid problems with. Mushrooms are peeled, mirepoix cut, butter and flour weighed, bouquet garni tied into a sachet, etc. (Why a sachet? So you can pull it out easily for puréeing later. Cut a large piece of cheesecloth, rinse in cold water and squeeze it out, then roll your parsley stems, thyme, bay leaves and peppercorns within, pull up the dangly ends and tie into a knot. Dump into the sauce.)
Sauces are cooked/reduced till napoint -- meaning it coats the back of a spoon and if you draw your finger through the coated sauce, it doesn't run back together. In other words, it's a bit sticky and thickened. Some get thicker; if it's too thick, add more stock so that the sauce can have the full cooking time to extract flavors.
Colors and flavors of sauces tend to vary from cook to cook. Since these are infusions, reductions, extractions, etc. the small differences tend to make a bigger difference than for, say, a soup or stew. How a cook plates or fuses different sauces will make differences in the dining experience. One serving suggestion with a fillet steak: sauce bordelaise made with a reduction of red wine, shallots, herbs, then an addition of sauce Espagñole, then mounted with butter and/or poached veal marrow, served with a Sauce Mornay made with Roquefort, or even mounted with a fatty bleu cheese. The mix of sharp, smooth, salty, milky goes incredibly well with the beefsteak. Yum!
The term "mounting a sauce" means to add a macedoine of cold fat to a warm or hot sauce, and to swirl it in to melt and incorporate into the sauce. The result is a silky, enriched sauce with a smoother flavor. If you taste a bordelaise before and after mounting, it's hard to believe it's the same sauce -- before is sharp, vinegary, strong winey flavor. After, it's smooth, rich, with the same wine flavor. It's a miraculous transformation. As mentioned, you can mount with a soft, fatty cheese, or other fats like bone marrow. (By the way, tamponir is similar, in that a cook dots the sauce with butter and swirls, but try to keep the butter on the surface. It helps to protect the sauce from oxidation on the surface.) And of course, after mounting, don't boil the sauce again, or it will break.
Prior to mounting, sauces can be frozen for future use, since it's already bound and stable. We all scrambled to find enough containers to take the hard-earned sauces home!
By the way, the pastry class had an exam where they had to make a large container sculpture out of chocolate. The glass-sided de-humidified refrigerator held their effort, and we pressed our noses up against it and ooh'd and aah'd. We were happy to leave our noseprints on the temporary museum! The leftover pieces of "white chocolate on dark chocolate tree bark" was there for us to break apart and munch happily. And bread, of course -- great basket-proofed breads, with the decorative swirls on the surface. I wrapped my half-loaf and took it home. Sauce and bread for meals, yum yum!
Susu, the Culinary Padawan
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