It would be difficult to find someone who didn’t agree that a good sauce can vastly improve even the simplest of meals. I adore sauce and basically built a career around making it when Katia and I started smak. What I love about sauces most is how approachable they are, and when you understand the basics of what makes them work, it’s very easy to take them further and through experimentation, you have reign to mould your sauces the way you like. I suppose the only fussy sauce is the Hollandaise, who if not treated to her liking, can easily turn on you, but we’ll get to that later.
To make a great sauce, you have to start with a great stock. If you do this, you’re already well on your way to a sauce that is thick, rich and full of flavour. I’ve been known to eat sauce with a spoon, no need to pour it on anything when it’s that good.
There are five sauces, typically referred to as the mother sauces, that make up the foundation of traditional French cuisine. And while there are hundreds of different sauces available, these five are what I believe form the basis of every other sauce out there, if not the exact ingredients then at least the understanding of how a good sauce is structured. “In the 19th Century, Marie-Antoine Careme anointed Bechamel, Veloute, Espagnole and tomato sauce as the building blocks for all other sauces in his work L'art de la cuisine Française au dix-neuvième siècle.”
A good knowledge of the five mother sauces will give any cook the freedom to take the further than you may have thought possible. Like I mentioned before, they’re pretty easy to talk to and quite happily mix with most ingredients.
Four out of the five mother sauces start with a roux, which is a “fancy name for flour mixed with fat. Equal parts butter and flour get cooked over medium heat, then a liquid gets added. This mixture then boils, thickens, and becomes the base of your sauce.”
Mother sauce number 1 - Bechamel:
Let’s start with Bechamel, the most commonly used sauce in any kitchen. There exists no macaroni & cheese or lasagna dish that isn’t drenched in a good Bechamel sauce (and if it does exist, I definitely don’t want to eat it). Bechamel is basically a roux with dairy (milk or cream) added. I’ve known some people who like to grate a little bit of fresh nutmeg into their Bechamel. This sauce can also be amped up by adding in Gruyere cheese, known as a Mornay sauce. I would like to meet this Mornay character, Gruyere is the perfect addition to a Bechamel!
Mother sauce number 2 - Veloute:
The same process applies when it comes to making a Veloute as it does with a Bechamel, but instead of a dairy a stock (typically chicken or fish) is added. The addition of stock makes this sauce a lot richer and more flavourful (as I mentioned above though, if your stock is bad then your Veloute will be too - so focus on that). Veloute is not technically considered a finished sauce but acts as a starting point for other types of gravy and sauce.
Mother sauce number 3 - Espagnole:
Similar to a Veloute, Espagnole sauce uses stock instead of dairy but what makes an Espagnole that much richer and more delicious is the addition of a brown stock instead of a white stock like fish or chicken. Brown stock is made using roasted bones, giving the finished product a deeper, richer flavour and for anyone that knows me, flavour is definitely where it’s at.
You can easily take an Espagnole further by adding more beef stock to create a brown sauce or demi-glace. You can then mix the demi-glace with red wine and herbs to create a Bordelaise that goes so well with steak and mushrooms it’s almost a sin to have steak any other way.
Mother sauce number 4 - tomato:
It’s your choice to start with a roux before adding the tomatoes, or follow a more typically Italian route and leave it out. Tomatoes are so versatile so you can really play around with accompaniments to the sauce like garlic, onions, herbs etc. I always like to try new versions and test what works best. Always use the best quality tomatoes you can find, personally, I love Italian plum tomatoes. The secret to a delicious tomato sauce is the reduction of the tomato to build flavour and develop thickness. There is nothing worse that watery tomato sauce, nothing.
Mother sauce number 5 - Hollandaise:
Think of Hollandaise as a cousin of mayonnaise, but from a much fancier part of town. It’s made with clarified butter instead of oil and uses the process of emulsification, “the act of using a binding agent (in this case, an egg yolk) to force two ingredients that don’t mix well together (here, butter and lemon juice) to like each other immensely.” But beware, of all the mother sauces, Hollandaise can really smell fear. If you work too quickly, or if the heat is not managed properly, you’ll find yourself with a split sauce or (worse even) scrambled egg instead of a smooth, creamy sauce. So be patient, rather go slower at first. Once you know how to treat her, she’ll reward you with her deliciousness.
At smak, we create sauces every day, and it’s our knowledge of the five mother sauces that has helped us to invent wonderful ways of enhancing the dishes we serve up every day.
You can find one of the mother sauces in our ever popular Croque Monsieur. It’s possibly the cheesiest toasted sandwich you’ll ever have. Pop in and order it, or… try out our recipe at home.
Salt & pepper.
For the bechamel start by cooking the butter and flour over a medium heat for approx 2 min.
Slowly add the milk in 4 separate parts while constantly whisking. This will ensure your sauce comes out smooth and velvety.
Finish by seasoning with salt and pepper, place in the fridge to cool completely before attempting to apply it the bread as the warm sauce will absorb into your bread and leave you with a soggy sandwich.
To assemble your Croque Monsieur butter 2 slices of white bread, place butter side down and apply a heaped tablespoon of bechamel to each slice of bread. Next in goes your cheese (strictly Emmentaler) followed by a few slices of good quality ham (at smak we use smoked ham for extra flavor), season and close leaving the butter on the exterior. Pop in the toaster until an all round golden color is achieved.
I find these extremely hard to share so make sure you make one for everyone or simply don’t invite anyone over!
But whatever you do, dig in.
Co-founder and chef at smak delicatessen and restaurant