Once ingredients and equipment are taken care of, the single set of skills that can do most to improve your cooking out of all recognition is to master three of what are called the French mother sauces. If you can make hollandaise, bearnaise and mayonnaise, then the way is clear for you to embark on a lifetime’s journey of delicious, complex flavour that will be forever lost to your lazier colleagues and friends.
Mastering these does take practice, and it’s best treated as an adventure, as fun, at first, attempted when you aren’t overly committed to the outcome (i.e. don’t do this for the first time just before entertaining friends!)
1. Hollandaise sauce
In his 2001 book Appetite, Nigel Slater describes hollandaise as a “luxurious sauce for anything” and as “a bowl of creamy-yellow bliss in which to dunk your asparagus, your potatoes, your sole”. Nigel is very much an honorary Garreteer, so we’ll let him have the last word.
Get 3 egg yolks in a heatproof bowl. Get a whisk, and a pan large enough to sit the bowl on. (When the bowl’s on the pan and the pan’s about half full of water, the bowl should not be touching the water.)
Fill the pan halfway with water, and put it on a moderate heat. Put the bowl on top, and toss a little water in with the eggs and stir them for five seconds.
Chop a stick of butter into 10-12 cubes. Add four of these cubes to the egg, and slowly whisk the mixture until the yolks have taken the butter. Then keep adding the cubes one by one and whisking them in. You’ll probably be left with a cube or two at the end.
Now squeeze in a little lemon juice, still stirring. Season. Serve. If the sauce splits at any stage, try adding an ice cube or some water from the fridge: this frequently fixes the problem. And don’t worry if it splits.. just treat it as something that happens to everyone from time to time, and part of the job of producing a truly classic sauce.
2. Bearnaise Sauce
Like Hollandaise, Bearnaise sauce starts with egg yolks and butter, but also calls for a shallot, white wine vinegar, whole black peppercorns and fresh tarragon.
First, chop the shallot and boil it in a small pan with 3 tablespoons of white wine vinegar, the peppercorns and the tarragon. Reduce it down by two thirds. In the meantime, put the egg yolks into the same heatproof bowl/saucepan situation as described for hollandaise. Whisk the vinegar mixture into the egg yolks, then add butter cube by cube until you’ve added about 150g – about 100 g less than you used for the hollandaise. Whisk until your sauce is soft and delicious, then serve.
Neither of these sauces take any time at all – 5 to 10 minutes max, with practice.
Like Hollandaise and Bearnaise sauces, making your own mayonnaise is above all quick. The recipe makes the whole exercise seem a great deal more complicated and lengthy than it actually is, and gives little clue as to the huge satisfaction to be had in mastering the technique.
Get 4 egg yolks, some white wine vinegar, and some English mustard.
Place the 4 egg yolks in a clean bowl, add a tablespoon of white wine vinegar and two teaspoons of mustard. Whisk them together. You’ll need about a pint of vegetable oil, which you now add drop by drop, carefully whisking each drop in as you go. The mayonnaise will thicken, then emulsify. Keep adding oil until it’s at the consistency you want, then season to taste with salt and white pepper. The mayonnaise will last in the fridge for a day if required.
These three basic sauces, once mastered, open up a simply staggering world that perhaps only a copy of Larousse Gastronomique can do justice too. Sauces for every kind of meat, sauces for every vegetable dish, of a quality and deliciousness that most home cooks never venture towards. A two-ring Baby Belling and minimal equipment can cope, so it’s open to almost everyone.