Nothing has made me feel more confident and liberated as a cook than learning the basic components and techniques for making sauces. It’s a big category, to be fair, but the techniques that apply to sauces can be extrapolated and applied elsewhere in the kitchen. Bang-for-buck-wise, learning sauce is probably the best way to take your skills as a cook to the next level.
In old-school French cooking, there are five “mother sauces” from which almost every sauce you can imagine is derived, by making small additions. The five are béchamel (milk sauce), velouté (light gravy), espagnole (dark gravy made from roasted bone stock), hollandaise, and tomato sauce. By adding cheese to béchamel, you make mornay sauce, by adding shallots and tarragon to hollandaise you make béarnaise, etc. A lot of sauce derivatives you’ve never heard of, because they’ve fallen out of fashion (ever heard of aurora or choron sauce? didn’t think so!). But these concepts were canonized back in the day when France was the most authoritative voice in our culinary landscape and, frankly, things have changed.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the most common sauces used and eaten today, and breaking down the skills required to make them. With no disrespect to the old way of doing things, I’ve sort of reached my own conclusion about how they should be organized, and it’s completely different. My not-mother (father?) sauce categories go like this: starch-thickened sauces, reduced sauces, chopped sauces, and emulsified sauces. Most of the sauces I can think of fall into one of these categories, and understanding how to create even one sauce from each category will set you up to understand a plethora of other concepts and dishes (like soup! it’s basically just sauce with chunks of stuff in it).
Not only does understanding sauce make you a better cook, it frees you from a lot of the processed crutches that reside in the center-aisles of the supermarket. Bottled dressing, cream of whatever soup, gravy in a packet – all these are rendered unnecessary and even undesirable once you’ve had the real versions, and once you see how easy they are to execute.
Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be breaking down each sauce-making technique and providing a few basic formulas and recipes to get you started taking control of your cooking. I really want this series to be helpful and I’ve put a lot of work into making it so, but it’s impossible for me to consider every angle. So, if you have a question or see an issue, tell me – pretty please, so I can make this thing as awesome as it is in my head. And away we go.