There are seven mother sauces in French culinary cooking and every frugal cook needs to know them and know them well. Fancy as they are, they are also incredibly frugal and use up loads of leftovers and scraps. They are:
Béchamel. This is essentially your basic, classic white sauce made from whisking heated milk into a paste (roux to you French folk) of butter and flour which is cooked first. Then the milk is added and because it is pretty bland, it is generally aggressively seasoned. It goes on to form the basis of just about a million other sauces including my go-to cheese sauce. It is the glue that holds together every dish from lasgana to pot pies.
Mornay. This is the riff on béchamel. It’s basically the cheese sauce I mentioned above. I could not get my partner to eat any number of green vegetables without cheese sauce. And he is lying if he claims otherwise. I also get my grandkids to eat veggies by providing them with a cheesy dipping sauce, raw carrots, very lightly steamed broccoli stalks (a.k.a., trees) and other crunchy vegetables.
Veloute. This sauce is basically made with a light roux whisked with chicken, turkey, fish or any other clear stock making it ideal for your something from nothing chicken stock stash. The resulting sauce is supposed to be light and velvety (hence the name). It is usually served over fish or poultry, a protein that has been delicately cooked via a technique such as poaching or steaming.
Espagnole. Here is your basic brown sauce. It’s made of beef or veal stock, tomato puree, and browned up onion-carrots-celery, all thickened with a very dark brown roux. This sauce is also the jumping off point for demi-glace. It is surprisingly versatile, going from your humble biscuits and gravy to fancy boeuf bourguinon with ease. It is also under used and vastly under appreciated.
Demi-Glace. This is essentially Espagnole on steroids and many a restaurant’s strategy for charging you an arm and a leg. Once you make Espagnole, you whisk in an equal portion of veal stock and reduce the mixture by half. This what makes a restaurant steak so darn expensive and delicious, especially if you add a splash of red wine and sautéed mushrooms to the mix. Those French know what they are doing. This sauce takes TIME which is why so many people head to the freezer section for a cheating short cut when they want some.
Tomato. The perfect sauce for frugally using up all those excess summer tomatoes from the garden. Essentially, you cook tomatoes down, down, down into a thick sauce but it can also be hurried up and thickened with roux. This classic French tomato sauce is flavored with pork and aromatic vegetables which sets it apart from modern tomato-based funky and fusion concoctions. For the purist, this sauce is the best version of a tomato sauce that there is. From vegetables to pastas to meats, this sauce has surprising depth of flavor.
Hollandaise. This is the one mother sauce that is not thickened by a roux but by an emulsion of egg yolk and melted butter. This is a very delicate sauce because the emulsion breaks if you simply look at it wrong. This rich concoction is the finishing touch for everything from asparagus to eggs Benedict. Although any French saucier worth his butter would fling his whisks at me for saying it, but it can very successfully be made in a blender.
So, essentially except for hollandaise, you make a paste of butter and flour, cook out the raw flour taste and add scraps of magic and you have tons of sauces to take your meals from mundane to magical. I encourage you to read the chapter on sauces from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It is an excellent summation of the mother sauces and the classical French techniques traditionally used to create them.
Béchamel By the Book (with a side of Mornay)
5 tablespoons butter
¼ cup all-purpose flour
4 cups milk, heated to warm but not scalding
2 teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Melt the butter and whisk in the flour. You have to let it cook at this point and that takes about seven minutes. You want a light golden color. Don’t rush. Once you have this, whish in the heated milk vigorously. You can use your best fake French accent if you want. Let simmer until thickened, at least another ten minutes. Season with salt and nutmeg. If you add pepper, it should be white pepper according to the chefs I know. At this point you can add a couple of handfuls of grated cheese, anything from jack to cheddar to make your Mornay. You may have to thin it a bit with more milk.
3 cups something from nothing chicken stock, warmed
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
Salt and pepper to taste
Melt he butter and whisk in the flour, allowing it to cook about seven minutes until light golden in color. Whisk in the chicken stock until velvet smooth. Season with salt and pepper if needed but taste first. Some people add an egg yolk for extra richness and a dash of hot sauce. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Espagnole, the Unsung Hero of Mother Sauces
1 small carrot, one small onion and one celery rib all coarsely chopped
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
1/4 cup flour
4 cups hot beef stock
1/4 cup canned tomato paste
2 large garlic cloves, minced
One bay leaf and 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper corns
You are already getting the idea so just make the flour-butter paste and cook the veggies in a bit of oil in a different pan until well cooked, about ten minutes over medium heat. Add in the garlic and cook for a minute or two longer. Whisk the hot beef stock and add the cooked veggies along with the tomato paste and seasonings. Now for patience. Let this simmer over medium low heat until reduced to about three cups, about 45 minutes. Treat it with respect. There is a lot going on here. Once thickened, strain the solids out and serve over anything, even an old shoe would taste amazing with this sauce.
Amazing Grace Demi-Glace
Espagnole sauce, see above
3 cups veal stock
1 teaspoon minced fresh or dried thyme, sale and pepper to taste, tablespoon of whole peppercorns and a bay leaf
Frugal additions: 8 or so parsley stems
Make the Espagnole sauce, recipe above. Whisk in three cups hot veal stock and seasons. You are going to need to babysit and speak softly to this sacue for about 50 minutes, until reduced by half over medium to medium low heat. Strain the solids and serve over steak. You can add a good glug of red wine and a handful of sliced mushrooms sauted in butter.
Tomato Sauce The French Way
1/4 cup salt pork cut into chunks (some people substitute bacon but I wouldn’t mention this to anyone if I were you)
1/4 cup each: onion and diced carrots
4 cups roughly chopped tomatoes
2 cups tomato puree
4 ounces browned pork bones (saved in your freezer for just such an occasion)
Sachet of cheesecloth wrapped up with a clove or two of fresh garlic, one bay leaf, three sprigs of fresh thyme and a large sprig of fresh rosemary
To finish: Salt, pepper, sugar and red wine vinegar
In a heavy pan, cast iron is best, render the salt pork without browning it. Add in the onions and carrots and sauté until soft but not brown. Add in tomatoes, puree, bones and the sachet. Bring to boil and simmer for at least 90 minutes until it has reduced to a nice smooth consistency. Remove bones and sachet and let cool until you can puree the sauce safely in a blender. Taste and finish the sauce with salt and pepper to taste and then balance it out with a bit of sugar and red wine vinegar. The thickening can be moved along with a cooked mixture of butter and flour but say nothing. Those traditional French chefs can be pretty judge-y.
Hollandaise the Way No French Chef Would
3 egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Dash hot pepper sauce
Freshly melted butter, 1/2 cup
Place all the ingredients but the butter in a blender and blend for about ten seconds. Slowly pour the butter into the mixture (blending on low) until thickened. Serve immediately. You can delay a bit by putting the mixture in a glass bowl which is placed in a dish of warm water but don’t delay very long. This sauce is a finicky as it is short-lived.
A note about veal stock. This can be made from scratch but it takes up to 12 hours to accomplish. For some of us frugal cooks, this isn’t an issue. You can sub out the veal knuckle bones for beef bones but I would collect veal bones until you get 7 or so pounds before attempting to make veal stock. I found a great recipe that makes stock like a pro and I like to give credit where credit is due: Recipe here. I’ve made demi-glace from scratch using beef stock but frankly it misses the mark in depth of richness. If you know a bunch of guys who go deer hunting every season you should be able to get veal bones for free or nearly so. The rest of us have to pay the butcher and here in Northern California, the butcher makes you pay. I’ve seen veal bones on line, 25 pounds for about $35 that you can share with an enterprising friend and fellow frugal cook if you like. That still means that a double batch of veal stock will cost you about $20 which is a lot for stock. You can also do as I do, collect veal bones like they are precious gems again, until you have about seven pounds and then make your stock. You can also make friends with your local butcher and hope he/she gives you a head’s up on when bones are most plentiful and priced lowest but generally speaking veal bones are expensive so pounce when the opportunity presents itself.
Part 2 of this blog will explore the very frugal, fast and flavorful Seven Sister Sauces you can whip up in no time at all and for pennies.