Category Archives: Back to Basics

Back to Basics: Sauce Hollandaise – The Mother Sauces

Finicky and tempermental, the Hollandaise is the most catastrophe-prone and unstable of all sauces. A degree too warm or too cold and you have a mealy butter/egg yolk monstrosity. A draft and the emulsion breaks. A chef, cook, or epicurean can spend tearful hours in the kitchen asking “why me” when brunch guests are expected and dozens of sauceless eggs benedicts sit drying out and getting cold while Hollandaise after Hollandaise breaks (not that I’m speaking from any personal experience or anything). For all the trouble one silky smooth taste of a good Hollandaise makes all the anxiety and effort seem nothing at all. Hollandaise is, quite simply, delicious. It is also not that difficult to prepare when you know what to do and where things can go wrong. Think about preparing Hollandaise like white water rafting, it’s treacherous and scary but when you know where the rocks are you know what to do to stay in the boat.

Ingredients for 1/2 cup of Hollandaise

1 tablespoon of white wine

1 tablespoon of water

1 tablespoon of white wine vinegar

1 1/2 sticks of butter

2 egg yolks

kosher salt

freshly cracked black pepper

one lemon cut into wedges

Preparation:

1. Clarify the butter

Place the butter in your smallest saucepan and melt very slowly over the very lowest possible heat. If the heat is too high you will color the butter (this is called brown butter) and you do not want the butter to have any color at all for this preparation.

When the butter is completely melted take a spoon and carefully skim the white sum off the top taking care not to remove too much of the lemon-yellow butter oil in the process. The pure butter oil is what we're after when we clarify butter.

When you have removed all of the white scum you will be left with lemon-yellow butter oil.

Carefully pour the lemon-yellow butter oil into a small cup or glass measuring cup, be careful that none of the denser white milk solids at the bottom of the pan come up and end up with your butter oil. Clarified butter is the pure butter oil with all of the milk solids and impurities taken out of it.

These white milk solids are what you don't want ending up in your clarified butter.

Skim the clarified butter one last time.

These white milk solids are what you will have removed. They're the crap militant vegans are always telling us is in dairy. It's nasty, nasty stuff when you think about it...so don't think about it too much...just remove and discard it. Return the clarified butter to a small, clean saucepan and keep warm but not hot over very low heat while you prepare the rest of the sauce.

2. Prepare the Sauce

Begin by combining the water, vinegar, and wine in a small saucepan. Heat over high heat and...

...reduce au sec, au sec meaning until the pan is almost dry. The liquid will reduce rapidly so keep the pan swirling in a clockwise motion and make sure not to burn the liquid.

transfer the reduced liquid to a large stainless steel bowl, allow to cool for just a moment.

whisk in the egg yolks, the mixture should be well whipped and frothy before continuing.

place the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, this is a double boiler, whisk vigorously and constantly so that 1.) the yolks don't turn into scrambled eggs and 2.) you are now going to begin emulsifying the warm clarified butter into the warm yolk-and-liquid mixture, it is imperative that the two are of roughly equal warmness....the emulsification will be held together by heat, the protein in the egg yolk, and the constant motion of your whisk. Begin by just flicking a few droplets of clarified butter in at a time, whisking constantly to start the emulsion

slowly, and I mean slowly, add more and more droplets of the clarified butter to the mixture being constantly and vigorously whisked in the bowl

once half of the butter is emulsified you can go from whisking in droplets to whisking in a very slow, steady stream of the remaining butter...like whisking the oil into a vinaigrette.

You should end up with a tightly bound, silky Hollandaise. Keep the sauce warm in the double boiler, whisking constantly until you pour it over your dish. The sauce will break if it cools down or gets too hot so work quickly. You want a pretty, tightly bound Hollandaise when you set the plate in front of whoever else will be eating it...there is nothing less appealing to the eye than a broken Hollandaise on a plate.

Today I made eggs benedict with sweet potato hash, the Hollandaise was made for this dish. Bon Appétit!

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Back to Basics: Blonde and Brown Roux

A roux is a mixture of equal parts butter and flour which is cooked together and is the perfect agent for thickening sauces, soups, and other liquid foods. There is a sad trend in modern cooking towards thickening sauces with a slurry of water and cornstarch or water and raw flour…or worse yet simply sprinkling raw cornstarch or water directly into sauces. I can think of no greater cooking crime than sprinkling some raw cornstarch into an otherwise beautiful and flavorful Béchamel or Bernaise. 

My next series of Monday posts will be on the 5 mother sauces, which are Béchamel, Velouté, Espagnol, Hollandaise, and Tomato. From these 5 mother sauces come a literally infinite number of variations. However until you know how to make a proper roux you are not ready to prepare any sauce. Roux acts as the perfect thickening agent because it is cooked, which does away with the raw flavor of the flour and renders a highly effective thickening agent which has a buttery, slightly nutty flavor and aroma.

Ingredients:

Equal parts butter and flour.

Preparation:

Place the butter in a saute pan over medium heat and melt completely.

When the butter is completely melted, keeping the heat at medium, sprinkle the flour over the butter and...

...stir completely to combine.

I'm using whole grain flour because I like it's flavor better than white flour, however white flour is the more classical ingredient. After about 45 seconds of cooking your butter will be cooked into the flour and you should have a blonde-colored roux. This is blonde roux and is best for lightly colored sauces.

Brown roux has a more complex and nutty flavor and is well-suited for darker sauces and gravies. Make a brown roux by cooking the roux for about another 1-2 minutes past the blonde roux stage over medium heat taking care not to burn the butter. YOur brown roux will smell like buttered popcorn when it is ready.

Roux is an extremely effective thickening agent and you’ll only need one or two teaspoons to thicken a sauce. In order to use your roux get the sauce you want to thicken up to a simmer, stir in the roux about a teaspoon at a time and simmer for a minute or two. If after a minute or two the sauce hasn’t yet reached the desired viscosity add another teaspoon of roux. Repeat the process until your sauce looks right! Enjoy!

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Back to Basics: The Batonnet

Today I’ve decided to explore, in depth, the classical cutting technique known as the “batonnet.” The batonnet is used almost exclusively as the “French fry” cut and can be used to prepare any number of vegetables for the purpose of seasoning, deep frying, and indulging in.

Begin by peeling your potatoes. I like to set down a brown paper bag so that the dirty peels can be quickly discarded when done.Tonight I'm going to be frying batonnets of Russet potato, however the batonnet is ideal for any type of starchy vegetable including Yukon Gold potatoes and sweet potatoes.

Once all of your potatoes are peeled begin squaring them lengthwise. Set the broad side down, secure safely by pressing down with your knuckles taking care to tuck away fingertips and thumb. Slice just enough off to get one generally flat surface lengthwise on one side.

Turn the potato onto the now flat surface of the one face and square the next side in the same fashion. Tight 90-degree angles are key here.

Turn the potato again and cut a third flat face keeping a tight 90-degree angle on each corner as you cut.

Turn the potato one final time and make the fourth face of the potato flat. You will end up with a perfect rectangular potato with rounded ends.

Begin carefully slicing 1/4-inch slices of potato lengthwise taking care to turn each slice into it's own 1/4-inch thick rectangular potato piece with tight 80-degree angles at each corner.

Continue slicing off 1/4-inch thick potato rectangles keeping tight 90-degree angles on each piece. Discard any trim (I trimmed the final piece to the left of my knife)

The batonnet is 1/4-inch by 1/4-inch by approximately 3-3 1/2-inch. To the upper right of this picture are some finished examples. Take each of the 1/4-inch thick potato rectangles, place fat face down on thecutting board and slice off 1/4-inch lengthwise batonnets.

Cut all the potatoes in this fashion. Your batonnets should be uniform, 1/4-inch by 1/4-inch strips featuring tight 90-degree angles at each corner.

Between he time of slicing and the time of frying completely submerge the batonnets of potato in cool water. This process will extract and remove excess starch from the potato thereby making betters French fries and will also prevent the potato from coloring as it sits. Batonnets of potato can be kept in the water anywhere from 20 minutes up to 2 days until you are ready to use them.

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Back to Basics: How to Properly Cut an Onion

One of the easiest vegetables to cut is the onion. The cellular structure seems designed for dicing and lends itself to fast and relatively easy dicing when you know what you’re doing. This classical technique not only makes quick work of cutting the onion but is designed to drastically reduce the exposure of the tear-inducing oils to the air thus making the process far more painless for those prone to onion tears.

Begin by cutting a shallow slit through the peel along the length of the onion

Remove the peel

Check the onion for signs of spoilage, if there is spoilage completely remove the layers of onion containing the spoilage until you have a clean, pristine onion...it will look like this all the way around

Cut the onion in half lengthwise (lengthwise means the root will be split in half by halfing the onion.

Cut the tip off so that you only have fleshy, non-peel onion to work with

Controlling the spacing of your knife by guiding it with the sides of your knuckles, your fingertips and thumb safely tucked in behind, cut a series of slits lengthwise about 1/8 inch from one and other cutting all the way through to the board but keeping the onion mass in total still connected to the root end, like so.

Cut the 1/8 inch wide slices lengthwise across the entire half of the onion.

Secure the onion by firmly pressing it down into the board with your fingertips turned in for safety. Carefully cut one slice at a right angle to the direction you made your 1/8 inch slices so that the face of your knife is parallel to the board, like so. Your cut should be made deep to the root of the onion as your 1/8 inch slices were while retaining the integrity of the entire onion half.

Again controlling the spacing of your cuts by guiding your knife with the face of your knuckles, fingertips and thumb tucked in for safety like so, cut a series of crosswise slices a a right angle to the 1/8 inch slices you made lengthwise. Space these slices at 1/8 inch so that you end up with 1/8 inch by 1/8 inch cubes of onion

Repeat the slices crosswise through the entire onion half. Your diced onion will look uniform and professionally done like this. Repeat for the halves of as many onions as you may need.

And this is how the professionals cut onions! It is fast and highly effective. I have been cutting onions for so many years that my tear ducts just don’t care anymore. When I was very new to cooking, and if I get an especially potent one even today, I was prone to crying while cutting. A helpful remedy to this it to light a wooden matchstick, the sulfurous odor will fill the room which helps to counter the onion, I then hold the matchstick with the burnt end out just under my nose while I cut the onions. No tears! Onions are delicious.

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Back to Basics: Two classical cutting techniques – The Julienne and the Brunoise

On Mondays I like to return to the basics. I begin my series on basic skills with knife skills because a good chef is only a good chef if he or she has mastered and unfailingly practices the fundamental cuts. Mastery of the fundamentals takes time and dedication, but when commitment to them becomes habit they prove highly efficient and liberate the cook from dependence upon gadgets and food processors. I can remember with a clarity that still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up the overwhelming air of anxiety and focus paid by myself and my classmates in the first days at Le Cordon Bleu as we were charged to produce the classic cuts. We were graded strictly on a pass/fail basis and could not progress to sauces until we had passed this practical exam. A nick on the surface of a cut vegetable or a fraction of an inch short of specification and your entire board would be dumped into the bin relegated to the stock pot and you would have to start all of your cuts again. This degree of accuracy and precision serves as the foundation on which a good chef builds a repertoire of techniques, but without the solid foundation of the knife skills a chef will remain forever an amateur. I will make posts breaking down the process for all of these cuts over the course of the next several Mondays but for today we will start with two of the easiest: the Julienne and the Brunoise.

Getting Started

All that is needed is a standard 10 to 12-inch French knife, a cutting board stabilized on your counter by placing a damp washcloth under it, and a steel to true your blade.

Begin by truing the blade of your knife. When you use a knife steel you are NOT sharpening the blade, you are truing it by removing the small imperfections along the edge...its more of a cleaning. Sharpening is only done when you use a stone and for the good health of your knives sharpening is done on about a monthly or an as-needed basis. Truing should be done before working by running the blade along the steel slowly, precisely at a 10-12 degree angle. Like so.

Go back and forth, turning the knife over so each side of the blade is trued. At maximum you should run the steel over the edge of your knife about 5 times per side or 10 times total.

Cutting a Julienne

A Julienne is a cut used primarily for vegetables in which the product being cut is fabricated into pieces 1/8 inch by 1/8 inch by 2 to 21/2 inches…perfectly bite sized. The Julienne is called for in a variety of dishes, especially salads and stir-frys.

Prepare the pepper for julienning by cutting off the stem and tip so that the length of the remaining product is between 2 and 2 1/2 inches.

Completely remove the pithy interior and seeds. Discard the pithy interior and seeds but reserve the trimmed edible parts of the pepper. The edible trim is the perfect base for vegetable stock, which I will demonstrate in a later post.

Turn the pepper flesh skin side down and trim any remaining pith so that the depth of the material is 1/8 inch thick.

Turn the 2 1/2-inch long by 1/8-inch deep pieces of pepper over so that the skin is up and trim so all corners are 90-degrees, like so.

Secure the edge of the blade so that the knife cuts 1/8-inch strips out of the 2 1/2-inch long by 1/8-inch deep pepper pieces. This is achieved by folding fingertips away from the blade and carefully cutting with the knife face resting against the space on your fingers between the knuckle and the first bend in the fingers. Cut all of the 2 1/2-inch long by 1/8-inch pieces into 2 1/2-inch by 1/8 inch by 1/8 inch Juliennes.

A perfect Julienne will look like this.

Voila! You have prepared a perfect pile of Julienned pepper.

Cutting a Brunoise

A Brunoise is a cut that is a cube 1/8-inch by 1/8-inch by 1/8-inch. It is called for in many recipes and works well in salads, omelets, etcetera. When you have additional Juliennes they can easily be turned into a Brunoise by cutting the 2 1/2-inch by 1/8-inch by 1/8-inch strips down into 1/8-inch by 1/8-inch by 1/8-inch cubes. When you just need a brunoise fabricate the vegetable flesh into 90-degree corner by 90-degree corner rectangles of any size, trim them to 1/8-inch in depth as done for the Julienne, cut them into 1/8-inch by 1/8-inch strips as with the Julienne, then proceed with producing your Brunoise. Since we have Juliennes I’ll be cutting them into Brunoise. 

Line your Juliennes up neatly, rest your knife face carefully against the face of your fingers as described above, and cut precise 1/8-inch by 1/8-inch by 1/8-inch cubes.

Voila! You have a neat pile of Brunoised peppers and a tidy stack of Julienned peppers ready to go.

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