5 classic sauces to add to your culinary arsenal
As any culinary student could tell you, “mother sauces” are an iconic and fundamental part of the culinary school curriculum, including some of the most ubiquitous sauces imaginable (tomato, béchamel, and hollandaise, to name a few- ones). Others, including the velouté and the Espagnole, are less well known, but just as important.
To put it bluntly, the sauces make the meal. Yes, yes, protein, starch and vegetables are paramount, but the sauce is what ties it all together. It makes the meal cohesive, it adds moisture to dry proteins, it adds color to nondescript dishes, and it adds flavor to dishes that are a bit…mild.
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A thick sauce, ranging from gravy to gastriques, can turn an average dish into a sensational one. But what about the area of sauces that are not part of this esteemed list of “mother sauces”?
Well, all sauces fall under a fairly standard matrix: they’re all basically an amalgamation of fat, acid, herbs, and aromatics. Mix and match as you see fit and you can come up with a wild myriad of flavorful and robust sauces. In the meantime, here are five sauces that should be in contention for Mother Sauces V2.0.
Beurre blanc is a sour, shiny sauce that is often off-white in color. It is wonderful served with lighter foods, such as fish or vegetables. It consists of shallots, white wine or vinegar and lemon. Sometimes the shallots are removed before serving, resulting in a smooth sauce unencumbered with slivers of shallot that clings beautifully to anything it’s drizzled over. The translated name literally means “white butter”. It’s often tweaked or modified in various ways, but as a base sauce it’s relatively clean and neutral, with a subtle acidity that balances the warmed butter.
The Soubise sauce is viscous, elegant and centered on the onion, with butter and béchamel (or heavy cream) to complement it. It’s thick, rich and clearly cutting edge, so it might not be your favorite if you have allium aversions. Onions are traditionally pureed, but they don’t have to be if that extra bit of chewiness and texture is to your liking. Soubise is deliciously added to any dish and is also sometimes added to casseroles (think homemade swap in place of canned “cream of anything” soups). It is one of the few sauces listed here that is enhanced by one of the mother sauces, béchamel, in this case.
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Conventionally, the onions are cooked gently, without caramelization or coloring, which results in a purely white sauce. When blending, a high-speed Vitamix is a great option – a standard food processor may not break down the onion as well as possible, so straining through a sieve or fine-mesh strainer after blending is a necessary step in this case.
A recipe by Marcella Hazan in Food & Wine describes salmoriglio sauce as a “tangy, buttery Sicilian classic…”, and that pretty much sums it up. This is yet another sauce that is often served with fish, its inherent flaky character complementing the tangy notes of salmoriglio. It often contains Dijon, lemon, butter, oil and sometimes fresh herbs. The Piedmontese notes that salmoriglio also works well with grilled meats and comes from the Sicilian word ‘salmurigghiu,’ which means ‘a light brine’. Some variations also contain garlic. This sauce is a simple emulsion that unites the flavors disparate and becomes something far greater than the sum of its parts.
Nantua is luxurious, smooth and reminiscent of classic French seafood dishes. While some fish can be subtly flavored, this sauce is anything but what the LA Times calls an “aromatic essence of crawfish…with a mirepoix of onion and carrot, white wine, and fish stock.” accompanied by generous knobs of melted butter. in the rich sauce. It is (obviously) mainly served with fish, as well as with a fish quenelle, a delicate and elegant preparation of a kind of seafood mousse.
The sauce also sometimes contains a thickening and creaming agent like fresh cream. The Spruce Eats notes that its hue is akin to that of the iconic lobster bisque, but of course the Nantua sauce has a bit thinner consistency. Taste Atlas indicates that its name comes from this town in the French region called Bugey.
It’s a sophisticated sauce that takes a little more work than some of the others listed here, but it’s worth it.
La Bordelaise is a sauce that does not come together easily, but which sings glamor. It is unctuous and incredibly deeply flavored, with a meaty heaviness and the roundness of butter, cream, demi-glace and veal stock. It is almost always served with red meat and contains red wine originating from the Bordeaux region – hence its name.
A little goes a long way, and shallots are always included. Some even incorporate pith for an exponentially rich touch. The classic iteration is very time consuming and its ingredients – mainly veal stock and demi-glace – also take quite a bit of time, so there are plenty of “shortcut” recipes across the interwebs and cookbooks.
The New York Times calls béarnaise “the zesty child of Hollandaise,” an emulsion of yolks, butter, vinegar, shallots, and tarragon, the now nearly elusive herb that frequently appears in classic recipes. French. Its name comes from the city of Béarn.
Its relationship to Hollandaise is evident in both appearance and flavor, with Bearnaise clearly encompassing the same balance of butter and lemon, but a little amped up with wine, vinegar and the aforementioned tarragon. It also uses clarified butter, as well as sometimes white wine vinegar in place of the white wine itself. It’s a stellar option that can enhance almost any dish.
While it may be tempting to just serve a well-cooked or seasoned piece of protein as is and enjoy it on its own, adding a sauce to your meal will help make the dish much more cohesive, imparting color, flavor and moisture, and amplifying every flavor on the plate – from the starch to the vegetables and even the protein itself.
When using sauces like this, remember the importance of texture, temperature and accompaniments: a soubise can play well with a tangy, flavored oil drizzled on top, while a bordelaise can be topped with a tangy, acidic dressing to help cut its richness. All of these sauces add a nice, shiny aesthetic and mouthfeel, but don’t skimp on a garnish that can help add contrasting textures. Fresh herbs are always welcome, but sometimes a “soft on chewy” dish can also benefit from something like toasted nuts, puffed rice, pickled fruit, or buttery, crunchy breadcrumbs.
The interplay of ultra-smooth and silky sauces, well-cooked proteins, starches and veggies, and a bit of textural differentiation by way of garnish will ensure your dish is a surefire, A+ hit.
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