Cooking Basics — Mother Sauces I

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a subject for those of you who really want to improve your baking – weighing your ingredients. In this Cooking Tip, I want to discuss something that will elevate your cooking skills. All good cooks should have a working knowledge of sauces and how to make them. That starts by understanding what is called “Mother Sauces”. Of course, there is much more to sauces than just these mother sauces, but it is a good place to start.

Sauces can be categorized in different ways but one of the most classic is the French system. It was first laid out by Antonin Carême (1783-1833) in The Art of French Cooking in the 19th Century, although he only listed four sauces. Later, Auguste Escoffier in Guide Culinaire (1902) added a fifth. Modern culinary education has refined this list to what you will read about below.

Before we get into the different sauces, let me discuss “roux” as it is essential for most of these sauces. A roux is a mixture of flour and fat that, after being cooked over heat, is used to thicken liquids. There are three types that differ by cooking time and resulting color.

  • White roux – it is barely colored, chalky or very light beige
  • Blond roux – this is golden in color with a slight nutty aroma
  • Brown/Dark roux – this roux is deep brown with a pronounced nutty aroma

The Professional Chef by The Culinary Institute of America defines a basic roux as 6 parts flour to 4 parts fat, by weight. However, most sources recommend a 1:1 ratio of flour to fat.

The procedure is to melt the fat (usually butter) in a saucepan without browning it. The flour is whisked into the melted fat to form a paste. This is then cooked to eliminate the raw flour taste and aroma. The Professional Chef also notes that it inactivates an enzyme that can interfere with flour’s thickening ability. How long you cook it will depend on which of the above rouxs you want and what your recipe requires. The length of cooking does affect the thickening ability of the roux. The longer you cook it, some of the starch in the flour breaks down resulting in less thickening power.

Liquid is then added in a thin, steady stream (or a couple of tablespoons at a time), whisking all the time to achieve a homogenous consistency. Adding it slowly or in small increments will produce a much smoother sauce. If you do get clumps, whisk vigorously or use an immersion blender to smooth it out. As the sauce is then brought to a simmer, it will start to thicken. The heat should be reduced as you continue to stir until the sauce coats the back of a spoon (nappé stage). At this point, season with salt and pepper and any other desired seasoning.

One ounce of roux will thicken one cup of liquid to the nappé stage. You may adjust the amount of roux based on how thick you want the finished product.

Now on to the five Mother Sauces. Two of these are white sauces, one is brown, one is tomato-based and the final is egg-based. In this Cooking Tip, we will learn about the white sauces – béchamel and velouté. We will look at the others in a subsequent Cooking Tip.

  • Béchamel – this is a white sauce made by using a white or blond roux and milk. If using a blonde roux, the resulting sauce will be more golden in color.

    You start by making the roux, as explained above. After adding the milk and combining it, The Professional Chef recommends to carefully simmer it for about 30 to 60 minutes to ensure the raw flavor is cooked off. Most sources (including myself) do not cook it nearly that long. Be sure to stir periodically getting into the corners to make sure the milk does not scorch. For a refined product, strain after cooking. It can be used immediately or stored in the refrigerator for a couple of days. Gently reheat before serving.

    Sometimes aromatics such as a mirepoix, mushroom trimmings, bouquet garni or a sachet d’épices will be used for flavor.

    A béchamel sauce is important for making macaroni and cheese, souffles and a traditional Lasagna Bolognese. It can also be a base for other sauces and you can add your choice of seasonings to complement your dish. Add cheese for a Mornay sauce. A Soubise sauce has the addition of pureed onions. Spread it on bread when making a Croque Monsieur. An Aurora sauce adds tomato puree to the basic béchamel sauce.

  • Velouté – another white sauce that uses a white or blond roux but rather than the liquid being milk, it is a light stock such as chicken, fish or vegetable.

    The technique is the same as with a béchamel sauce although there is less concern of scorching since you are not using a dairy product. Aromatics may also be used as with a béchamel sauce.

    This is the sauce we use to make gravy or a pot pie. If finished with cream, butter, and lemon juice, it is known as Sauce Suprême. Allemande sauce is velouté thickened with egg yolks, heavy cream, and seasoned with lemon juice whereas Normande sauce is a chicken or fish velouté thickened with heavy cream, butter, and egg yolk. The latter is primarily served with seafood.

I suspect that most of you have made these two white sauces whether you knew the names or not. They are something you can whip up easily without a recipe and enhance the flavor of what you are serving. Look for next week’s Cooking Tip as we delve into the other three mother sauces.