The mother of all sauces - Part 2
By Dennis Patillo
Dec. 5, 2017 at 4 p.m.
Updated Dec. 6, 2017 at 6 a.m.
Sometime in the 1800s, Marie-Antoine Careme declared that bechamel, veloute, espagnole and tomato sauces were the four sauces upon which all sauces were built. A little while later, hollandaise was added to the list and the five mother sauces came to be. Learning to execute these sauces is foundational skill for all cooks at all levels.
A couple of columns ago, we explored tomato sauce and hollandaise sauce along with some of their derivatives. Today, we are going to look at the roux-based mother sauces - bechamel, veloute and espagnole.
These sauces are simply a combination of two ingredients.
Bechamel is a roux plus dairy. It is a white sauce that is used as the foundation for a lot of our favorites - think cream gravy or macaroni and cheese.
Veloute is a roux plus white stock. Traditionally, chicken stock is used but you can also use fish or vegetable stock. Technically, veloute is not a finished sauce but a starting point for gravies and bisques.
Espagnole is a roux plus brown stock. To espagnole sauce, add onions, celery and carrots along with tomato paste and more beef stock. Let simmer for a couple hours, and you have demiglace. If you add red wine you have a bordelaise sauce. These are wonderful with red meat.
The one thing that these sauces have in common is a roux. If you have never made a roux you may feel a little intimidated, but you shouldn't. Making a roux is a technique that is essential in your cooking arsenal. I thought the only way to mess up a roux was to burn it and the only way to burn it was to stop stirring it. I was just reminded by a friend that her gravy always tastes like flour. So there is at least one more way to mess up a roux and that is to not cook it long enough.
A roux has only two ingredients. It has equal parts of flour and a fat. In Mr. Careme's time, clarified butter was the fat of choice. Today's chefs use every kind of fat imaginable. Butter, vegetable oil, vegetable oil and butter, bacon drippings, schmaltz (chicken fat) are all used.
Roux is used both as a thickening agent and for flavor. As a rule of thumb, the lighter the roux the more it is used to thicken - think chicken pot pie - and the darker the roux the more it is used for flavor - think gumbo.
You need two tools to make a roux: a skillet and a whisk or large wooden spoon. My favorite skillet for this is cast iron. It is important that the skillet you use heats evenly across its surface. Hot spots in a skillet almost always destroy a roux. I use a large whisk. The combination of hot fat and flour creates something like napalm. If it gets on your skin, it stays there and you will have a nasty burn.
Today, let's use butter. Begin by melting butter over medium to medium-low heat. Once the foaming subsides add an equal part of flour. Now stir and stir constantly. It is said that a watched pot will never boil, and it is also true that a roux that is not constantly stirred will always burn.
You will see that initially the mixture is somewhat liquefied. As you cook and stir longer the mixture will be more like a paste. You will also smell the nuttiness of the butter and the smell of raw flour will disappear.
You have now made a white roux. Add cream or half and half or milk and you have bechamel.
Let's make a blonde roux now. Do the exact same things you did to make a white roux but continue cooking and stirring until the mixture starts to turn color. Once it becomes a nice blonde color, add chicken stock and you have a veloute. You can now add some minced shallots and fresh herbs. This would be great over Swedish meatballs or roasted pork loin.
Let's make a dark roux now. The technique is similar but slightly different. As you melt the butter let it get a little color. The color is caused by the milk solids starting to brown. Now add the flour and stir until the mixture becomes the color of a Hershey bar.
Quite often, inexperienced cooks tend to lose their nerve and do not allow the color to darken sufficiently. Once the mixture starts to color, the process moves along very quickly so be on your toes. Add beef stock and you have espagnole.
If you like, before you add the stock, put in the Cajun trinity of chopped onion, celery and bell pepper. Be careful, when you add the vegetables as a tremendous amount of steam will be released and the roux will darken further.
Never stop stirring the mixture until you add the stock. You now have the base for a wonderful gumbo.
I hope you try this. In my next column, we will cover the foods that were eaten at the time of the first Christmas.
Dennis Patillo is a committed foodie and chef. He has spent a lifetime studying foods from around the world as well as regional cuisines. His passion is introducing people to ingredients and techniques that can be used in their home kitchen. He and his wife, Louise, own two restaurants, The PumpHouse Riverside Restaurant and Bar and The Sendera.