Justifiably or not, the cuisine of France is considered the most venerable. In any case, they certainly have tradition and history on their side and, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, their sauces are the most renowned of all time.
Sauciers were highly esteemed in France during the height of the French Empire in the 18th and early 19th century. One, Antonin Carême, was considered the master of haute cuisine and developed hundreds of sauces. After his death another chef, Auguste Escoffier, would consolidate this massive ouevre into the five “mother” sauces known today. The French development of these five sauces has had a profound and lasting influence on thousands of others sauces in every other cuisine throughout the world.
These basic sauces sauces are a white sauce, Béchamel, a light stock-based one, Velouté, a brown stock-based one, Espagnole, the tomato-based Tomate and the emulsified egg sauce, Hollandaise. As mentioned each can be used as the base for any number of variations, but here we include the recipes for their most basic incarnations.
Originally created by another fames French chef, Louis de Béchamel, this classic white sauce is often referred to as the “King of Sauces” as it is the most commonly used mother sauce and appears in a countless variety of dishes.
Preparation begins with the mixing over low heat of a flour and butter roux. When darkened, milk is added. The proportions of the ingredients determine the consistency of the final product. The ratio for a thin sauce is 1 tbsp. each of flour and butter to 1 cup of milk for a thin sauce. 2 tbsps. Each for medium and 3 each for a thick sauce.
The sauce is easily prepared over low heat but should be constantly stirred to avoid any lumps. Once the sauce is ready, further ingredients will transform it into a sauce worthy of almost any dish.
Béchamel is served with every type of meat and vegetable. It is, indeed, an amazingly versatile tool that every chef should master.
Another white sauce, Velouté contains no milk in its basic incarnation although, sometimes, egg yolks or cream are incorporated. Instead, for the liquid component, it substitutes a stock made from chicken, veal or fish. The white characteristic of the sauce is maintained by making the stock using bones that have only been boiled and never roasted.
In preparing a Velouté, the stock is first prepared. A blond roux identical to the one used in the Béchamel sauce is then prepared and the stock is introduced in similar proportions to the Béchamel sauce. The resulting sauce is then named according to the stock used, for example, Fish Velouté.
The sauce is used in a variety of dishes including Sauce Vin Blanc, Suprême sauce and Venetian Sauce. Veloutés are served with any of the white meats and fish and never with beef.
In contrast to the two precious sauces, Espagnole is brown in color and extremely rich. It is a combination of a brown roux, that is, one that has been allowed to darken in the pan and a rich stock, usually veal, in which roasted bones and browned vegetables have been added.
Once the first veal stock has been allowed to reduce and strengthen in flavor, tomatoes are added. Then successive amounts of stock are added and reduced. The process is repeated until the desired flavor and consistency are produced. The result is a deeply flavored and richly colored sauce that is rarely used on food as is.
Instead it is used as the base for a multitude of other sauces including, amazingly enough, all of these haute cuisine standards; Suace Africaine, Sauce Bourguignonne, Sauce aux Champignons, Sauce Charcutière, Sauce Chasseur, Sauce Chevreuil and Demi-glace. There are very few in the developed world who have not tasted one of these sauces.
By all accounts, this sauce is the easiest to make in an average manner, but many chefs insist that it is actually the hardest sauce to get “just right.” The preparation begins, once again, with a roux but this time it is flavored with a tomato puree that has been seasoned with garlic, pork belly, sugar, pepper and, depending on the final use, thyme or basil.
The traditional sauce, as enumerated by Carême, uses thyme and is the base for such the classics Spanish, Creole, Portuguese and Provençale sauce. The replacement of the thyme with basil is the basis for many modern Italian “red” sauces, however.
In truth, there is little to differentiate the classic French Tomate sauce from a traditional Italian marinara but there are many who would say that the rendering of the pork at the beginning makes all the difference.
Probably the most familiar sauce, by name, to the non gourmands of the world, this sauce is widely used as is to flavor a variety of vegetables, fish and, of course, Eggs Benedict. The preparation of this sauce is different from the other Mother sauces as it does not involve either roux or direct heat.
In addition, Hollandaise is an emulsion, that is, it is a mixture of two ingredients, egg yolks and butter, that do not normally mix. There is no trick to making Hollandaise, it simply requires skill and experience.
First lemon juice and the egg yolks are whisked together with no heat. When light and frothy, they are place in a bain-marie and whisked until they expand two to three times in volume. Next, warm butter is incorporated in a slow, steady stream.
It sounds easy and it undoubtedly is after the first 100 attempts. In the mean time, Hollandaise is notorious for “breaking” if the temperature is not closely monitored or if the whisking is not sufficiently vigorous.
While Hollandaise is quite delicious as is, it is still mother to two of the more famous French “small’ sauces, Bernaise and Mousseline.
The Egotism of French Cuisine
Many would scoff at the idea that a particular cuisine invented most of the sauces extant in the world today. No one makes that assertion. However, the French are, indeed, the first gourmets to take the fine art of sauce making and elevate it to its just and rightful station. In fact, the saucier in a French kitchen stands just below the chef de cuisine and the sous-chef in stature. Everyone loves sauces, but it took the French to prove it.