Escoffier may not exactly be a household name, but without him, it could very well be that brunch would be bereft of eggs hollandaise, spaghetti would be deprived of tomato sauce, and in restaurants, we would still be confronted with a veritable smorgasbord of food served all at once (service à la Française) instead of the relaxed, multi-course format that permeates menus today (service à la Russe).
While French cuisine may still seem complicated to many home cooks, Escoffier's work laid the foundation for pioneers like Julia Child and many other cooks to impact the overall state of American cuisine in a meaningful way. And without his contributions and the work of those that came before him, the French would also be left without a way of classifying their sauces. And that, friends, would be très, très tragique.
Some of the more avid cooks out there may have heard about the "French mother sauces," while others wouldn't have a clue (and perhaps, not a care) what they are. Well, we're here to enlighten, so for a little educational vitamin C for the brain, read on.
First things first: What are the French mother sauces? While the definition has changed over the years, today it's probably safe to say that most French chefs would agree on the following five sauces:
Sauce Velouté: A sauce based on white stock thickened with a roux, a mixture of equal parts butter and all-purpose flour whisked together over heat, and reduced. Often combined with cream to make various sauces good for poultry or other white meats.
Sauce Espagnole: A sauce based on brown veal stock (a stock made with roasted bones), flavored with bacon cooked in butter, mirepoix, tomatoes, and aromatics, and simmered until reduced. Often used in savory meat dishes.
Hollandaise: The brunch staple is an emulsified sauce made from clarified butter, egg yolks, and lemon juice. The egg yolks are whisked over a warm water bath until it increases in volume to form a light custard, and then clarified butter is carefully and slowly added in. Besides eggs, it's good on asparagus, artichoke hearts, and fish. (Photo courtesy of Alberto Peroli)
Béchamel: Béchamel is created by cooking a roux briefly and adding milk, which is then reduced until thickened. It is then strained and seasoned with freshly grated nutmeg and cayenne, if desired. It's a versatile sauce used in everything from egg and vegetable dishes to lasagnas. (Photo courtesy of flickr/Javier Lastras)
Tomato: This one escapes definition. Everyone and their mother has their own version, right?
The last sauce is an addition we owe to Escoffier, who modernized French cuisine and built on the work of those who came before him, most notably Marie-Antonin Carême, author of The Art of French Cooking in the 19th Century, who helped create the taxonomy for all of the different sauces in French cuisine.
From these sauces, several derivative sauces can be created by adding or substituting various herbs, aromatics, cream, cheeses, eggs, glazes, and/or liqueurs. For example, sauce mornay is a preparation often used on eggs and vegetable dishes, created by adding Gruyère cheese and egg yolks to béchamel. And the ever popular béarnaise sauce, often served with grilled steak, is a version of hollandaise with a white wine vinegar reduction instead of lemon juice, and chopped tarragon and chervil.
All very fascinating, to be sure, and the frequent appearance of these sauces at many fine French restaurants is most welcome, but expected. What about dishes that incorporate these sauces outside the realm of creaky wooden chairs, snooty waiters, and inscrutable menu descriptions? These sauces shouldn't just be confined to French cuisine. Check out these four unlikely uses for French sauces.
Lobster Mac and Cheese
Béchamel makes a sneaky appearance in this decadent mac and cheese from chef Ted Pryor of Michael Jordan's, The Steakhouse, located in New York City…
Roasted Asparagus with Hollandaise Sauce on Toast
Clodagh McKenna offers a foolproof recipe for hollandaise sauce that pairs wonderfully with a crisp, spring vegetable…
Spaghetti al Pomodoro
Yes, it's a French sauce in a classically Italian dish. (At least, the French would insist that tomato sauce is French.) Mon dieu! Check out chef Jonathan Benno's version, which incorporates a lovely sprinkling of gremolata…
Eggs en Meurette
And finally, for the pièce de resistance, chef Luc Dimnet's transformation of sauce espagnole. Admittedly, it is a very French dish, but it is also unlikely to be found at just any French restaurant. In fact, it may be only found at chef Luc's restaurant. Or your kitchen, should you decide to attempt it…