This is going to start with a bit of a tangent, so stay with me.
There’s an old saying in theatre: “Half of good directing is good casting”. Some people claim good casting may be as high as 90% of a director’s work. Because if you get the RIGHT people, in the right mix, your play is basically done before you even start rehearsals. What makes a good actor? A variety of things: from attitude, skill, talent, knowledge, to work-ethic and more. But you have to mix your options. A movie with nothing but A-List leading men won’t actually achieve much (see: The Expendables). You need other, less prestigious people to round it out. Which brings me to M. Emmet Walsh.
I was going to make a joke, but his piercing gaze makes me leery.I’m only MOSTLY sure he can’t see me.
It’s likely you didn’t know his name, but you recognize that face. How could you not? He’s had 216 acting credits since 1968. By comparison, Al Pacino, who also had his first professional credit in 1968, has 53. Maybe you saw Walsh in Wild Wild West (if so, I’m so sorry), or Blade Runner, or his brief appearance in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, but you’ve seen him.
This kind of unsung ubiquity is what I’m here today to discuss, in the Mother Sauces.
The Mother Sauces are, luckily, not at all cannibalistic. Instead, they’re five sauces that essentially form the basics of every sauce in French cuisine. They were first codified as FOUR sauces in Marie Antonin Careme’s “L’art de la cuisine Francaise au dix-neuvieme siècle”, or, in English “The Art of French Cuisine in the 19th Century”. Great naming skills, Marie. Also, weird name for a man. Later, another Frenchman pointed out that one of the original four is actually made out of another, so he knocked that one off the list and added two more. I was going to make a point how, if you get cool enough, you get to just remake the rules of cooking, but given how hardcore Auguste Escoffier is, it’s not really a joke. His SECOND cookbook is so good, that despite being over 100 years old, it’s still a TEXTBOOK in culinary schools. He was friends with, and chef for, César RITZ, a man who founded a few Hotels you may have heard of. So yeah, five sauces it is.
From these five sauces, Béchamel, Velouté, Espagnole, Tomate, and Hollandaise, you can make over 50 different “small” sauces. And trust me, if you’ve eaten at a fancy restaurant, you had at least one of these. Hell, if you’ve eaten at ANY restaurant, you’ve probably eaten at least two. So let’s talk about what they are and how to make them.
Béchamel ya Later
I would bet money that any reader over the age of fourteen has had something with Béchamel (“Bey-sha-mell) in or on it. It’s the basic cheese sauce for homemade Macaroni and Cheese, and Lasagna. Which is funny, because it actually doesn’t have cheese (more on that in a minute). Béchamel is actually just a white roux mixed with milk, salt, pepper, and sometimes nutmeg. Originally, it had meat and onions in it, but those have been tossed out.
Throwing things out is a time honored tradition in cooking. This chap threw out the tomatoes in his lasagna, for instance.
Now, if it doesn’t have cheese, why is it a basic cheese sauce? Because one of its small sauces is the Mornay, which, formally is “A béchamel with Gruyere and Parmesan melted into it”. In modern times, it’s more generally “A béchamel with whatever cheese you got” melted into it, and a lot of people don’t bother to change the name. This is really where we can see the utility of a mother sauce: most variations of a béchamel are “Just toss X in, and combine.” Mustard sauce? Cheddar sauce? Done and done. Crème sauce just adds cream and herbs. Country Gravy is just Béchamel with pork sausage.
This is why I’m certain you’ve had it, and why wanted to cover these sauces: once you’ve got them, they’re the M Emmet Walsh of your dinner rotation. Take your basic character actor, throw a funny costume or accent on him, and call it a day.
The Uniforms are pure Velouté
Now, in the Roux note, I mentioned that Velouté is a French veal sauce. That’s both true, and inaccurate, in a fun sort of quantum fuck-up. Velouté is a simple mixture of a blonde roux and a ‘white’ stock, meaning chicken, fish, vegetable, or veal. It’s also considered an “unfinished” sauce, meaning you don’t directly serve it, instead being a point on the way to another sauce.
This, for instance, is Velouté of celery root. In fact, you’ll almost always see it “INGREDIENT Velouté”, like it’s a pizza or something. A liquid pizza. Hold on, I have to go patent something.
Most Americans may recognize it best in giblet gravy, where you combine the roux and stock with the giblets and herbs, or on Chicken Supreme, where the veloute gets cream added to it. It’s also the type of sauce we tend to put IN foods, like Chicken Pot Pies, or coating Swedish Meatballs.
As a ‘fun’ side note, the sauce “Allemande” was the sauce that got kicked off the original mother sauce list, because it’s just a Velouté with egg yolk, heavy cream, and lemon juice. It also almost got kicked out of French cuisine entirely at the start of World War 1, because of its name: “Allemande” is French for “German”, so when Germany attacked France, they renamed it Sauce Blonde. Making the whole “Freedom Fries” idea a little more historical than most people think.
No Hablo-le Espagnole
Espagnole is the last of the original four Mothers, and isn’t very popular today. It’s a combination of Brown Roux and “Brown” stock (Basically, veal or beef), thickened with beef bones, mirepoix, and tomatoes or tomato paste. It’s the heaviest, and the more directly flavorful, and that’s why it’s not as common. However, it does hold one spot pretty firmly: its small sauces are go-to red meat dressings in fancy cuisine.
This is technically “Robert” sauce, one of the small sauces. Presumably named for notable fat king Robert Baratheon.
If you’ve ever eaten a steak or pot roast with “demi-glace”, or “bordelaise”, “madeira”, or “chausser” then you’ve had a touch of the Espagnole.
Tomate sauce is kind of the let-down of the group, because there’s not much to say. It’s French tomato sauce. You get some pork fat, mirepoix, garlic, and tomatoes. You add thyme and bay leaf. You used to start with a roux, but nowadays people just reduce the tomatoes longer.
OF all the attributions I’ve typed for this site, this guy’s handle was the most frustrating. Half those symbols aren’t allowed in file names.
You can put this on, well, just about anything. Pasta, pizza, chicken, fish, dumplings. It’s a workhorse, despite being boring. Then again, I don’t know many workhorses who are also scintillating conversationalists.
Going on a Hollandaise
Hollandaise, on the other hand, is the weirdest of the mother sauces. It’s one of the two Escoffier added, along with Tomate, it’s the ONLY sauce that NEVER uses a roux, and I’m willing to bet it’s one of the names you directly recognized, because it’s the one that’s MOST used on its own rather than into a small sauce. You’ll see this guy at breakfast restaurants around the world on Eggs Benedict.
A dish I refuse to eat. Because I LOVE AMERICA. TRAITORS DON’T DESERVE BREAKFAST. (They’re not actually named for Benedict Arnold. That’s just a lie someone told me when I was young.)
It’s just clarified butter, eggs, lemon juice and cayenne, but it’s also very popular at restaurants. Why? Because it’s fairly easy to screw up at home, (most commonly, it just won’t whisk together right) so most people don’t bother. Now, I’ve made homemade mayonnaise, which follows the same principles, so keep an eye out, and I may try my notably clumsy hand at whipping up some Hollandaise (or, rather, its son Bearnaise) later this summer.
All over but the Cryin’
There’s one last point I wanted to address before we go. There was another reason I related using these sauces to using specific actors: the importance of familiarity. I’ve met MANY picky eaters in my time, from people who didn’t like ANY vegetables, people who ordered the grilled cheese at Chinese restaurants, to people with direct biological issues. But among those without their own crippled bodies as an excuse (ALAN), one of the biggest reasons I hear is that “they don’t know it”. I wanted to talk about the mother sauces, because, like, half of all the sauces you’ll ever meet in a restaurant are at least related to them. And if you know what those are, maybe you’ll give the dish a shot. Like how I am always willing to watch a movie if I learn Karl Urban is in it. I may not like the movie (and trust me, he’s been in some ROUGH movies), but I like him enough to give it a shot.
This picture takes up a whole page in the draft, so the whole post stops for a single picture of this magnificent man.
NEXT TIME ON KITCHEN CATASTROPHES: JON EATS HIS GREENS. WHICH ARE TECHNICALLY WHITES, BUT “JON EATS WHITES” FEELS A LITTLE CANNIBAL-Y.
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Check out our newly completed FAQ section, where I get weirdly invested in the temporary beauty of failure, and then over-describe eating microwave burritos!
No recipes today, since I’m running a little long, but I’ll make it a point to try and incorporate several of them in future posts, and link them in here later.