As Julia Child states in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, "Sauces are the splendor and glory of French cooking." For those who don't know, mother sauces are the principle sauces used in French cuisine by which innumerable other sauces (secondary sauces) derive. The five mother sauces are as follows: hollandaise, bechamel, veloute, espagnole and tomate. In the 19th century, chef Marie-Antoine Careme created hundreds of French sauces, and later, chef Auguste Escoffier consolidated and updated these sauces into the five mother sauces we know today. These main branches of sauces can be manipulated into entirely new sauces by adding eggs, cheese, wine, stock etc.
Over the last couple of weeks, I've set out to put these sauces to memory. It's important for every cook to have these in their repertoire, and being the nerd that I am, I wanted to practice. To get back to basics and make sure I was on the right track, I turned to that classic and thoroughly comprehensive tome, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, for guidance. Beginning to know these sauces like the back of my hand has given me freedom and confidence in the kitchen. It's wonderful to be able turn a simple piece of chicken or fish, for example, into something really elegant and exciting to eat with one of these sauces.
For Americans, the most common of these sauces (aside from tomato) is Hollandaise, so that's where I've begun. In short, Hollandaise sauce is an emulsion of egg yolks and butter with a dash of lemon juice or vinegar. The most important thing to remember when making Hollandaise is to whisk the eggs over low heat, otherwise they'll scramble or become slightly grainy. Also, it's critical to allow each addition of butter to incorporate fully before adding more, as the yolks can only absorb so much butter at one time. I've provided both recipes for Hollandaise from Mastering, one for making it by hand and the other for making it in a blender. The blender version is incredibly fast and a perfect no fuss method (a great solution for a brunch party, where you don't want to be stuck in the kitchen whisking). Julia doesn't include cayenne pepper in her recipe but I like the addition of some heat. As everyone knows, the classic accompaniments include eggs benedict and asparagus, but don't forget about poultry and fish as well.
Barely adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Child, Bertholle, Beck
6 to 8 oz. unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons (3/4 to 1 cup or 1½ to 2 sticks)
3 egg yolks
1 tbsp. cold water
1 to 2 tbsp. lemon juice
Heavy pinch of salt
2 tbsp. cold unsalted butter, divided
Pinch of cayenne (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat and set aside (I find it helpful to transfer the butter to a plastic squeeze bottle for ease in incorporating later).
Place the egg yolks in a 4 to 6 cup enameled or stainless steel saucepan, and using a whisk, beat until the eggs become thick and sticky, about a minute. Add the water, pinch of salt, and lemon juice (start with 1 tbsp. and add more to taste later) and beat a few seconds more to incorporate.
Add 1 tbsp. of cold butter to the eggs and place the pan over very low heat or a pot of barely simmering water. Using the whisk, stir the eggs until they begin to thicken into a smooth creamy consistency, about 1 to 2 minutes (if the eggs look as if they're thickening too quickly, or appear as if they're forming small lumps, immediately remove the pan from heat and place in a bowl of cold water. Then return to the heat and continue beating). The eggs have reached the proper consistency when you can see the bottom of the pan between strokes. It should be light and creamy in texture. Remove the pan from heat and whisk in the other tablespoon of cold butter (this will help the yolks to stop cooking).
Off the heat, beat the yolks and begin to pour in the melted butter a little at a time (about a quarter-teaspoon) until the sauce begins to thicken into a heavy creamy consistency. Then begin to pour in the butter more rapidly. Omit any milk solids on the bottom of the butter pan (or squeeze bottle). Season the sauce to taste with salt, pepper, lemon juice and cayenne. Serve immediately, or set the pan in a warm place. It will keep well for an hour on the stove near other hot cooking pans, or in a pan of warm water. I've even placed the sauce in a thermos, which works well too (it just creates more cleanup).
Yield: 1 to 1½ cups hollandaise (serving 4 to 6 people)
- If the sauce becomes too thick, beat in 1 to 2 tbsp. of hot water, milk, or stock to thin it out.
- If the sauce does not thicken properly, place 1 tbsp. of sauce and 1 tbsp. of lemon juice in a medium-sized mixing bowl and beat to combine. Then, beat in the rest of the sauce a half tablespoon at a time, beating well after each addition before adding more (this method works incredibly well, even for sauce that separates after defrosting).
- If the finished sauce curdles or begins to separate, beat in a tablespoon of cold water, otherwise use the tip above.
- Leftover hollandaise will keep well in the fridge for 1 to 2 days, or can be frozen. When ready to use, beat two tablespoons of sauce over low heat or hot water. Slowly beat in the rest of the sauce by teaspoonfuls, until the sauce is well incorporated and heated through.
- Leftover hollandaise can also be used as an enrichment for sauces such as bechamel and veloute. Gradually beat the hollandaise a tablespoon at a time into either sauce while still hot, off the heat and just prior to serving.
3 egg yolks
¼ tsp. salt
Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of cayenne (optional)
1 to 2 tbsp. lemon juice
4 oz. or 1 stick of unsalted butter, cut into pieces
Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat until foaming, remove from heat. Transfer butter to a plastic squeeze bottle or small bowl (preferably spouted for ease in pouring).
Place the egg yolks, salt, pepper, cayenne, and lemon juice in a blender, cover and blend on high for 2 to 3 seconds. Remove the center part of the blender lid, and with the blender on high speed, slowly pour in the melted butter in a thin, steady stream (omit the milky residue on the bottom of the bowl or bottle). Once the butter has been incorporated, turn off blender and taste to adjust seasonings. Serve immediately.
Yield: 1 cup (serving 4 people)
- If not using the sauce immediately, transfer to a bowl placed in tepid, but not warm water.
- If the sauce becomes too thick, add a bit more lemon juice or water and blend it again for 1 or 2 seconds at high speed to incorporate.