Especially when learning to cook, it is very easy to be tempted to simply go day after day just finding a new recipe, going to the store, buying the ingredients and then blindly and diligently following the instructions. But what about the day when you are missing just a pinch of that one spice? What about the day when you have to work with the ingredients you have in your fridge and have no ideas how to combine them?
Blindly following recipes is perfectly acceptable when trying a new or and eccentric foreign recipe, but it is more important to learn why recipes work the way they do. An awareness of the basis of flavours and cooking can be much more useful than learning by heart countless recipes without being able to understand them and, if necessary, adapt them.
This Cooking Pro series is created to give you exactly the student-friendly knowledge of the foundations of cooking that you always wanted – but never had the time to get.
Briefly said, there are only five basic sauces out there. All the other ones you can think of stem from these five. This is good news, as once you learn them, you can literally develop any other sauce.
Sauce = base + thickening agent + flavoring
1. Béchamel Sauce
The queen of the “white sauces”, is easy to make with the ingredients you have in your fridge and pantry: milk, flour and butter give you a rudimentary béchamel.
Thickening agent: White Roux (flour and butter)
Flavouring: onion, cloves, bay leaf, salt, white pepper and nutmeg
Derivations: almost any milk or cream based sauce that you can make will derive from béchamel – for example cream sauce, cheddar cheese sauce and mustard.
Goes well with: eggs, fish, veal and poultry, steamed vegetables and pastas.
2. Velouté Sauce
There are different kinds: chicken, veal and fish. Derivations can stem from the velouté directly or from one of the three. For example the fish velouté plus white wine and heavy cream becomes the white wine sauce, and chicken velouté with cream becomes the supreme sauce.
Base: stock (chicken, veal or fish)
Thickening agent: white or blond roux (flour and butter, in the blond case cooked a little more just until it starts to slightly turn colour)
Flavouring: as this sauce is used specifically as a base, it depends on the derivation of choice
Derivations: more examples include mushroom sauce, normandy sauce, shrimp sauce and hungarian sauce.
Goes well with: like béchamel, eggs, fish, veal and poultry, steamed vegetables and pastas.
3. Tomato Sauce
Base: tomatoes, either raw, or pureed
Thickening agent: traditionally it was thickened with roux, but generally the tomatoes are enough to thicken the sauce.
Flavouring: salt pork, salt and pepper, garlic, sometimes even just a pinch of sugar to balance the acidity out.
Derivations: rather than derivations, different tomato sauces simply differ in seasonings (Creole, Portuguese and Spanish tomato sauce are an example)
Goes well with: pasta, fish, veal and poultry.
4. Espagnole/Brown Sauce
Slightly more difficult to make, the Espagnole uses brown roasted meat stock and brown roux, making it in this sense similar to a velouté, but adding tomato puree and mirepoix for deeper color and flavor.
Base: roasted veal stock (sometimes chicken is used as well)
Thickening agent: brown roux (blond roux even more browned). The secret is to cook it over low heat so that it browns evenly without scorching. Compared to its white or blond counterparts, brown roux will have about a third of the thickening power.
Flavouring: mirepoix, bay leaf, fresh thyme, parsley and tomato passata/puree
Derivations: examples include mushroom sauce, red wine reduction and demi-glace (half espagnole and half brown stock which is then reduced by half).
Goes well with: roasted meats – especially beef, duck, veal and lamb.
5. Hollandaise Sauce
The Hollandaise sauce is different than the four sauces we just talked about, but it still follows the same sauce formula as her sisters. Buttery and tangy, it is made by whisking the clarified butter into warm egg yolks.
Base: (clarified) butter
Thickening agent: emulsification of egg yolks. While a roux is a mixture of fat and butter, emulsification adds fat and water.
Flavouring: black peppercorns, salt, lemon juice, white wine vinegar, cayenne pepper
Derivations: interestingly enough, mayo is based on the hollandaise technique.
Goes well with: delicious on seafood, eggs (especially eggs benedict) and vegetables (especially asparagus).