What is a Sauce?
Everyone knows the answer, right? It’s that fluid substance we pour over our food to make it taste better.
Naturally, the answer is a bit more complicated (or this book could be reduced to just those last fourteen words) and poses some interesting questions. For example, some of those “fluid substances” are by-products of the cooking process that serve to reinforce the flavor of the main ingredient (jus and pan gravy are familiar examples) while others are made separately and provide a culinary counterpoint to the primary ingredient. The latter include, among others, the marinara that coats a pizza, the hollandaise atop eggs benedict, and a vast array of condiments freshly prepared or commercially-made — from mustard, ketchup, and mayonnaise, to Worcestershire, and sriracha.
Then there is the question of viscosity. How much viscosity is too much? When does a sauce cease to be a sauce and become better described as a paste? And, what if an ingredient, like Chinese sesame paste — which is more solid than Middle Eastern tahini — is thinned with other, more liquid ingredients to make something that is clearly sauce-like? Does that make it a kind of proto sauce?
Still more issues add complexity to the discussion.
How does the intended usage of one of these flavorful liquids affect its position in a hierarchy of sauces? Where do we even place the sauce relative to other foodstuffs? Do we pool it under, pour it over, mix it thoroughly throughout, serve it on the side (in condiment bottles or little bowls of dipping liquid), or even encapsulate it inside (like the agar-covered pearls of molecular gastronomy or Shanghai-style soup dumplings)?
So, we’ve already begun to probe the variables that delineate possible categories for sauces, the rude beginnings of a kind of taxonomy. Many of our decisions will place individual sauces somewhere on a continuous spectrum of sauces, rarely all one form or another.
Attempting to force an ingredient into one of two categories (sauce or nonsauce) is almost as useless as separating the entire animal kingdom into male and female. While that does provide one kind of distinction, it tells us very little about individual species and how they relate to one another. Nature, including the nature of sauces, is not so easily crammed into one cubbyhole or another.
Needless to say, we are not the first to have tried to make sense of the world of sauces — some have had more success than others. There is nothing completely new under the sun (a maxim that is, itself, an example). This book attempts to build on previous efforts, and possibly to create a more universal taxonomy of sauces. If, like Isaac Newton, we are to see farther by standing on the shoulders of giants — a notion that he borrowed from a series of giants that goes all the way back to the Roman poet Lucan — then we must begin with the sauces and the sauce classifications of the past. It remains to be seen if — after visiting Westminster Abbey and literally standing upon the shoulders (and the rest of what remains) of Isaac Newton — our view has been much enhanced by the experience.
Chapter 8: Time for a Change
For a century, Escoffier’s system of Mother and daughter sauces has been the standard for understanding the otherwise chaotic nature of, and connections between, sauces.
However, when we look at the hierarchy of sauces created by Escoffier (and Carême before him), a few drawbacks present themselves. First, we notice that almost all of the mother sauces share a common feature — they are thickened with flour. Hollandaise is the only exception. A larger issue is that very few people today use sauces like those (even French chefs employ a range of sauces that Escoffier could never have imagined). Today’s kitchens are much more cosmopolitan than those of a century ago.
It is true that French chefs have always explored the cuisines of other cultures, but they generally adopted one ingredient or another, which were then employed in a classically French manner. Something labeled “Florentine” would not be recognizable to a citizen of Firenze; it would merely be a French dish that contains spinach. Dishes served à la Japonaise would seem even more bizarre in Tokyo (they might be a salad containing artichokes, mussels, potatoes, and/or truffles). The descriptor, à la Japonaise, is also applied to a bombe of peach ice cream. The only remotely Japanese thing about the latter was that the dessert had a tea-scented filling.
Today’s chefs — and many home cooks — think nothing of creating entirely new sauces that could include chile pastes, like Korean gochujiang or Peruvian ají amarillo; or fish sauces, like Vietnamese pla ra or British anchovy essence. They thicken their sauces not just with reduced cream or starchy roux, but with ground nuts and seeds, or they purée exotic fruits and vegetables. We routinely incorporate ingredients and techniques — from every far-flung corner of the world, and every culture and every time period — never imagined by classically-trained French chefs.
Our palates are not only more eclectic, we have a desire for authenticity in our food (even if we’re not sure what “authentic” really means). We don’t want a French dish that merely nods at another culture’s culinary traditions; we want the real thing.
But there is another reason his list of mother sauces seems inadequate. We live in a more technological world, one in which we expect at least the trappings of a scientific approach. Escoffier’s system reflects the thinking of a different century, a different millennium. We may not always be logical in our thinking about food, but we expect an approach that is more substantial than four starches and that lonely hollandaise.
How, for example, would Escoffier’s taxonomy categorize the creations of molecular gastronomy? While he created a number of bottled sauces, for use in the home, Escoffier’s system isn’t flexible enough to address our broadened tastes. Escoffier, like Carême before him, had an architect’s desire to control the experience of his clients. That kind of ego seems out of place when we think nothing of having BBQ sauce, honey-mustard, ketchup, piri piri, a couple of soy sauces, sriracha, Tabasco, or Worcestershire on our tables — maybe at the same time.
Clearly, a completely different approach is required. It must be flexible enough to incorporate any sauce, from any part of the world that exists now, has ever existed, or ever will exist. It must be able to address any sauce, regardless of the unusualness of its ingredients. It needs to be logical, and it needs to be able to function without having to build on historical sauce precedents — yet be able to seamlessly accommodate any of those pre-existing sauces.
There may be other ways to accomplish that goal, but the simplest that comes to mind is one based on the physical structures of the sauces. To that end, let us consider five new mother sauce categories (plus a hybrid category, Composites, for sauces that merge two or more of the original five).
Appropriately enough, the first of the solutions to our self-imposed task is, in fact… solutions.
[excerpts from Sauces Reconsidered: Aprés Escoffier, Rowan & Littlefield, February 2019]
Featured Image: Hollandaise sauce over asparagas: image by Betty Crocker Kitchens
Gary Allen’s most recent book is Sauces Reconsidered: Aprés Escoffier, a volume in Rowman & Littlefield Studies in Food and Gastronomy. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website: onthetable.us