By Owen Morris
Last night's class was all about sauces and making the classic five sauces. The mantra: there is no harder station in the kitchen than the saucier's. All five of the leading sauces require constant attention and stirring and skimming over long periods of time lest they turn out murky and too thick, or the the vegetables sweat just a minute too long and start to caramelize, turning a white veloute an ugly brown. Making a proper sauce is like walking a narrow trail on the side of a mountain -- one small misstep and it's over.
We made four of the five leading sauces last night. For veloute, the basic ingredient is a white stock, like chicken stock or fish stock, that's heated and then added to a blond roux until the proper thickness. Roux is one of those fancy French terms for equal parts flour and fat (nearly always butter) mixed together. For a blond roux, the flour and fat is cooked just long enough to congeal and turn slightly golden. Once the roux is the proper color, the stock is slowly incorporated into the roux (this requires constant beating and stirring) and then brought to a boil. While it sounds easy, variables such as temperature -- if the roux and stock are too close or far apart in temperature, they won't mix -- that make it a headache.
Besides veloute, the other four leading sauces are bechamel (milk and white roux), espangol (brown stock and brown roux), tomato (tomatoes with no roux) and hollandaise (butter and eggs). From each of these sauces come a dozen or so niche sauces called small sauces. For instance, after making the leading sauce bechamel, adding cheese and butter makes the small sauce mornay.
Which brings me to my specific job last night.
In my group, four of us had to make all the leading sauces minus hollandaise, plus a small sauce for each. We quickly realized that it would be much easier and less risky if each member watched over one sauce, instead of trying to work in assembly line fashion. So I took bechamel sauce, which mainly consisted of throwing some diced onions and spices into some milk and then scalding it (simmering) on the stove-top. Bechamel is easy compared to veloute or espangol, since it doesn't need to be skimmed. Having accomplished the task rather quickly, I handed it off to my teammate who was in charge of making the roux and started on the tomato sauce.
Tomato sauce is the easiest. It's really just diced tomatoes mixed with tomato puree until the consistency is right. It doesn't require roux or skimming or the temperatures to be exact. So of course, that's the sauce I messed up.
In these industrial kitchens, we use large pots that are made either of aluminum or stainless steel. Aluminum heats quicker and more consistently than stainless steel so it makes sense to have lots of aluminum pans in the kitchen. But we also have lots of stainless steel because aluminum is much more reactive to certain foods, especially acids. I started to cook the very acidic tomatoes in an aluminum pot. I added my spices, brought the tomato sauce to a boil, then a simmer and had it looking very nice. I got a tasting spoon to try it and almost spit it out. It tasted like somebody had poured battery fluid into the tomato sauce. The aluminum had corroded into my sauce. I had ruined it.
Through the professor's guidance I was able to salvage a little bit of the tomato sauce but the lesson was learned. Even with the easiest, simplest sauce, there's always some way it can go wrong.