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Classical French cooking has a way of transporting you right back to that magical trip to Paris. But preparing French food at home is less complicated than you may think.
The secret to success? Learning the fundamentals — classical French cooking relies on just five "mother sauces" as a base for all other sauce recipes. After mastering these five sauces, making French cuisine at home suddenly becomes accessible. Best of all, these classic sauces require only a few staples from your pantry or fridge, like flour, butter, stock, and milk. From these simple ingredients, you can make everything from a red wine demi-glace to the best ham and cheese sandwich of your life. Try any of the following sauces to give your dinner some French flair this week. Bon appétit!
Béchamel may sound fancy, but if you’ve ever made mac and cheese from scratch, then you know how to make this French classic. The simple white sauce requires combining a roux — a French term for flour and fat cooked together — with milk. For this mother sauce, butter, flour, and hot milk are combined on the stovetop to make a creamy, thick, white sauce. Often used in lasagna recipes or for a croque-monsieur — a tasty French version of grilled ham and cheese — béchamel is guaranteed to add richness and depth to any dish. To build on on this mother sauce, add cheese (Parmesan or Gruyère are good additions) to make a Mornay sauce to fold into a vegetable gratin.
Hollandaise is another ubiquitous sauce that dresses up any basic dish. Take Eggs Benedict, which would be much less exciting without hollandaise sauce drizzled over the poached eggs, crispy Canadian bacon, and toasted English muffins. In fact, the ever-popular brunch dish would just be a basic, open-faced sandwich. To make this creamy condiment at home, you'll need egg yolks, lemon juice, and butter — plus a little bit of patience and determination. Once the ingredients have been heated and whipped to create the indulgent sauce, use it to enrich dishes like grilled asparagus or poached salmon. When you add fresh tarragon, minced shallots, and vinegar to hollandaise, you’ll suddenly have Béarnaise sauce, a perfect addition to a steak dinner.
Although it’s arguably the simplest of the mother sauces, velouté (pronounced veh-loo-tay) isn’t as widely known to home chefs. Perhaps that’s because it’s often used as a jumping point for other sauces, like gravy, and isn’t typically used as a finished sauce. Similar to béchamel, velouté is created by combining a roux with a white stock, such as chicken, vegetable, or fish stock. After combining the butter, flour, and stock, this uncomplicated sauce can be used to dress chicken or fish or to make something like chicken pot pie or mushroom soup. From this derivative, velouté can be improved upon a number of ways, like making a sauce seprême, which adds heavy cream to the mother sauce and turns ordinary chicken into a decadent dish.
Unlike the previous sauces, Espagnole sauce (which translates to “Spanish” sauce) is categorized as a brown sauce. That’s because it is made by combining brown stock, like beef or veal, with tomatoes and a roux. Other common additions to an Espagnole sauce include an aromatic base of onions, carrots, and celery, called mirepoix, and herbs such as bay leaves, thyme, and parsley. It may sound difficult, but this type of sauce is actually quite simple with a little mise en place (setting everything up before you cook). It also serves as the base sauce for a demi-glace or a red wine demi-glace, two traditional sauces that pair well with roasts and other cuts of meat. Beef bourguignon, the French version of beef stew, is also a great way to practice making Espagnole at home.
Most of us have made some version of tomato sauce in our lives, whether it was for a homemade pizza or a big bowl of pasta bolognese. But the French version of tomato sauce, called sauce tomat, is a different variation on this Italian classic. As one of the mother sauce recipes, this traditional French dish is created by cooking mirepoix in pork fat, before simmering the tomatoes with chicken stock and a sachet of thyme, bay leaves, and parsley (no basil is added to sauce tomat). Traditional versions may add a roux, but more modern recipes settle for tomato paste as a thickening agent. The end result is rich and flavorful and can be used in an infinite amount of ways — including over pasta or polenta, atop a grilled pizza, or in a shakshuka.