The Grand Sauces
by Mark R. Vogel

            In French cuisine, the grand sauces, also referred to as the mother sauces, are an assemblage of fundamental sauces from which a plethora of secondary or derivative sauces are made.   This is not to say that the grand sauces cannot stand alone.  They are frequently employed in their unadulterated state in a variety of dishes.  Nevertheless they can just as readily be morphed into any number of spin-offs.  The specific sauces included in this elite club have changed somewhat over the years and even to this day there is still some divergence of opinion.  To understand the codification of the grand sauces, we must look to French culinary history.

            In 1789 the French revolution began.  The king and queen were not the only ones getting the ax.  The aristocracy in general was targeted and subsequently this meant pink slips for the country’s chefs as well.  Until that time, professional chefs worked privately, cooking for the nobility and upper classes.  The decline of the patriciate meant that chefs had to look elsewhere for work and hence the modern restaurant was born.

            Chefs who had worked for the wealthy had unlimited resources and staff.  But now as individual restaurant owners, they had to bare all of the expenditures.   Food had to be prepared in a cost-saving manner.  Economics thus demanded that the professional kitchen be systematized.  Raw materials, methodology, recipes, and staff assignments gradually became organized and/or standardized in the interest of efficiency. 

            Marie-Antoine Carême (1784-1833), known as the “king of chefs” and considered the founder of grand cuisine, was a seminal figure in the emergence, proliferation, and systemization of classic French cooking.  One of his many accomplishments included the classification of the grand sauces.  Carême identified espagnole, (a.k.a. brown sauce), velouté, béchamel, and allemande as the grand or mother sauces. 

            Aguste Escoffier (1846-1935), was a chef, teacher, and restaurateur who continued Carême’s work.  He made landmark strides in the systematization of French cuisine and the workings of the French kitchen.  His influence remains to this day and is pivotal in the culinary world.  His revamped classification of the grand sauces included espagnole, velouté, and béchamel.  But he eliminated allemande and added tomato and hollandaise.

            Escoffier eliminated allemande since it is a derivative of velouté.  To make sauce allemande, you must first create a velouté.  Again, the essence of a grand sauce is that it begets other sauces, not the other way around.  Tomato sauce was added as tomatoes had become increasingly popular in the cuisine since Carême’s time. 

Escoffier also added hollandaise which some modern chefs may take exception with.  According to “Cooking Essentials,”  the textbook of the Culinary Institute of America, (Donovan, Mary Deirdre, Ed., 1997, John Wiley & Sons), a sauce is considered a grand sauce if it can made in large batches and then be transformed as needed, (by adding additional flavorings or ingredients), into countless derivative sauces.  Hollandaise, it is argued, cannot be made in advance and then used later to produce secondary sauces.  This is because hollandaise, being an emulsion, will break if kept for an extended time.  Secondary sauces from hollandaise are created immediately after, or simultaneously with the hollandaise.

Finally, some sources acknowledge demi-glace and not espagnole as a grand sauce.      I never understood this variation since espagnole is a building block of demi-glace.  One cannot make the latter without first making the former.  Demi-glace is an unequivocal derivative of espagnole.  Although some hair-splitting chefs would argue that demi-glace is the springboard from which many final sauces are made therefore rendering espagnole an intermediate step.  

            Be that as it may, I’m adhering to Escoffier’s classification scheme for the grand sauces:  espagnole, velouté, béchamel, tomato and hollandaise.  Below is a basic description and recipe for all of the grand sauces.  As stated, they all give rise to many derivative sauces and I’ve offered one example for each.  However, for a more comprehensive list of secondary sauces for each grand sauce, I again refer you to “Cooking Essentials,” chapter 8. 

 

ESPAGNOLE

 

            Also known as brown sauce, it is alleged that this sauce was introduced to French cuisine by Katherine of Aragon’s cadre of chefs, hence the moniker “espagnole,” the French word for “Spanish.”  Brown sauce, as the name implies, is a brown colored sauce, made from beef or veal stock, roux, tomato, and aromatic vegetables.  It is viscous and intensely flavored and pairs well with all forms of red meat and game, although it can be used on vegetables as well.

           

2 oz. butter

2 oz. all-purpose flour

2 quarts beef/veal stock

4 oz. tomato puree

1 small carrot, roughly chopped

1 celery stick, roughly chopped

1 small onion, roughly chopped

1 sachet d’epices 

 

            Melt the butter over medium heat in a small stockpot.  Add the flour and cook, stirring frequently until a golden color is achieved.  Slowly add the stock, constantly whisking until it is incorporated.  Add remaining ingredients.  Bring the sauce to a gentle simmer and cook for at least one hour, skimming the surface as necessary.  Strain through cheesecloth when finished.  Some chefs sauté the vegetables in the butter and then add the flour, or cook them separately in oil as opposed to adding them raw. 

If you wish to make demi-glace simply take equal amounts of stock and brown sauce and simmer until it’s reduced by at least half.  The sauce should be somewhat syrupy and easily coat a spoon. 

 

Combine equal amounts of espagnole and beef/veal stock and reduce it by at least half to create demi-glace.  Incorporate red wine and bone marrow into the demi-glace and you have another derivative sauce, namely Bordelaise.

 

VELOUTÉ

 

            Velouté is a white veal stock thickened with blonde or pale roux.  White stock, as opposed to traditional brown stock, is made without first roasting the bones or aromatic vegetables.  As the name implies, this produces a more neutral colored stock.  Roux is a cooked mixture of fat and flour.  The longer it is cooked the darker it becomes.  A blonde or pale roux requires only about 2-3 minutes.  You can vary the ratio of stock to roux and/or adjust the simmering time to create different levels of thickness.  Chicken and fish veloute can be made using a white stock based on their namesake.  Velouté is obviously paired with lighter fare and white meats.

 

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons flour

1 quart white veal stock

Salt and white pepper to taste

 

            Melt the butter in a sauce pan over low to medium heat.  Add the flour and stir for 2-3 minutes.  Slowly begin whisking in the veal stock, whisking constantly until fully incorporated.  Simmer on low heat for at least a half hour, skimming the surface as necessary.  Season with salt and white pepper.  Finish by straining through a fine mesh sieve.

 

            Add heavy cream to velouté and the result is my favorite velouté derivative: sauce supreme.

 

BÉCHEMEL

 

            Named after the French aristocrat Louis de Bechameil, this sauce was first published in 1651 by the esteemed chef François Pierre La Varenne.  There is debate over whether Bechameil actually invented the sauce or was merely its namesake.  It is made with milk, yet the final product is thick and rich and more reminiscent of heavy cream.  Béchamel can be slathered over vegetables, fish or poultry.  In Italy it is traditionally combined wih tomato sauce and poured over baked pastas.

 

2 oz. salted butter

4 oz. chopped onion

2 oz. all purpose flour

1 quart cold milk

Salt and white pepper to taste

6 cloves

Pinch of nutmeg

 

            Melt the butter over medium-low heat in a saucepan or ideally, a saucier, (a sauce pan with sloping sides which prevents food from getting trapped and burning in the corners).  Add the onion and some salt and pepper.  Sweat, do not saute the onion until soft.  Add the flour and stir constantly for no more than two minutes.  Gradually add the cold milk while constantly whisking.  When all of the milk has been incorporated add the cloves and a little more salt and pepper.  Simmer the sauce on low heat for 30 minutes, frequently whisking and assessing for extra seasoning as the sauce thickens.  Strain the sauce thorugh a chinois or fine sieve and finish with the nutmeg. 

The thickness of béchamel can be altered by adjusting the amount of roux.  The above recipe will produce a béchamel of medium viscosity.  For a light béchamel use three oz. of roux per quart of milk and for a heavier sauce employ five.

 

When the béchamel is done, whisk in cheese until it melts for a Mornay sauce; ideal for macaroni and cheese.

 

TOMATO

 

            Tomato is a Johnny-come-lately to French cuisine.  This is because they originated in the New World and even after being introduced to Europe, they were thought poisonous.  Gradually they made their way into the kitchen. 

            There are many approaches to making tomato sauce from a simple and quick marinara to more complex and deeply flavored concoctions.  Ingredients, cooking times, and the consistency of the final product all vary.  However, a few caveats are in order.  First, if you plan on using fresh tomatoes, make sure that’s what they are:  as fresh and as ripe as possible.  It is better to use canned tomatoes than inferior or unripe fresh ones.  Second, it’s a good idea to remove the seeds as they can add a bitterness to the sauce.  Finally, do not overcook the tomatoes as it erodes their fresh flavor. 

            Many people prefer canned tomatoes because they are always canned in their ripe state, are already peeled, and are cheaper than an equivalent amount of fresh ones.  I prefer canned whole tomatoes.  I find they always taste better than the crushed, diced, pureed, etc.     

 

1 (35-oz.) can whole plum tomatoes

1 carrot, small dice

1 celery stick, small dice

1 small onion, diced

Olive oil, as needed

Salt and pepper to taste

3 garlic cloves, chopped

4 oz. red or white wine

8 oz. beef/veal stock

Handful fresh chopped parsley

 

            Place a fine mesh strainer over a bowl.  Split open each tomato over the strainer and remove the seeds.  Place the seeded tomatoes in another bowl.  Reserve both the juice in the first bowl from seeding the tomatoes and the juice left in the can.  Sweat the carrot, celery and onion in olive oil with some salt and pepper on low/medium heat until soft.  Add the garlic and cook one more minute.  Deglaze the pan with the wine and reduce until it reaches a syrupy consistency.  Add all of the reserved tomato juices and the stock.  Bring to a simmer and reduce by at least half.  A little more won’t hurt.  Add the reserved tomatoes and cook only 5-10 minutes on low heat.  With an immersion blender, puree the sauce until smooth.  Finish with the parsley and additional salt and pepper if needed. 

 

            Add meat to tomato sauce for a classic Bolognese sauce.

 

HOLLANDAISE

 

Hollandaise is made by simultaneously whisking and heating egg yolks, lemon juice, and a little water and then slowly blending in butter until a creamy and rich sauce is produced.  It is seasoned with salt and sometimes black or red pepper.  It is decadently delicious and pairs well with eggs, steak, fish and vegetables.

The first recorded hollandaise sauce was published in France in the 1600’s but undoubtedly it existed for some time before that.  There are a variety of explanations for how the sauce was named; the common denominator being the rich butter and dairy products that Holland was famous for. 

            Hollandaise is the minefield of the culinary world.  Step a little out of line and it blows up in your face.  It’s tricky because it’s an emulsified sauce and if you’re not careful, specifically about minding the heat level, the sauce can break. 

 

6 egg yolks

1 tablespoon water

1-2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 lb. unsalted butter, melted*

Salt and pepper to taste

Cayenne pepper, to taste (optional)

 

            Place a stainless steel bowl over a pot with a few inches of water in it.  Ensure that the bowl is not actually touching the water in the pot.  Heat the water to a very gentle simmer whereby it is just barely steaming.  Add the egg yolks, water and lemon juice to the bowl and begin constantly whisking until the eggs are frothy and you start to see ribbons in them left by the whisk.  If at any point they appear to be cooking too quickly or solidifying do not hesitate to remove the bowl from the pot to cool down.  When the eggs are frothy turn off the heat.  Leave the bowl over the pot and use the residual heat from this point on.  Begin adding the melted butter very slowly, incessantly whisking.  If at any point it looks like the sauce is breaking, (as evidenced by oily melted butter forming around the edge or on top of the sauce), immediately remove the pan from the heat, add a small splash of cold water and whisk like mad.  When the butter is fully incorporated, add salt and pepper.  Also assess for additional lemon juice. 

            Hollandaise can be tricky to store without breaking.  It must be kept warm but not too hot.  But that’s more of a restaurant problem.  At home, just serve it immediately and avoid any additional complications. 

            Many chefs prefer clarified butter.  To do so, substitute 12 oz. clarified butter in the above recipe but increase the water from 1 to 4 tablespoons.

 

Shallot, vinegar, and particularly the herb tarragon are incorporated into a hollandaise to make béarnaise sauce. 

 

For a more detailed explanation abut hollandaise please see http://www.foodforthoughtonline.net/Hollandaise.html

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