Secrets to Improve Cooking Skills: No Fluff! Drew's Catering & Events

Well we sure hope you’ve had enough time to bust out at least one of the cooking fundamentals we covered in Part 1 of our “No Fluff” guide to improving your cooking skills.

We hope you pleasantly surprised your butcher by asking him for short ribs, brisket, cheeks, shanks or chuck to braise instead of steaks or chicken breasts. We hope your vegetables found their way onto dinner plates perfectly cooked and brightly coloured by way of blanching. We hope you sauteed standing as proudly as 6ft tall Julia Child did in the video we posted, to the roar of thunderous praise and second helpings. But most of all, we hope you had some fun doing it.

For part 2, we’re covering another very important fundamental skill with specific recipes and techniques. Brass tacks, baby!

#1 – Learn Versatile Base Sauces

This is one of my favorite skills. Learn a few simple preparations and you can literally turn it into dozens of different sauces to suit any dish by adding 1 or 2 more ingredients to the base sauce. Classic French cooking teaches 5 “mother” sauces. Between you and me, you really only need to know 3.

Béchamel Sauce

Don’t be weirded out by the name. It’s a basic white (cream) sauce that once made properly, can be made into a great number of other tasty sauces for different styles of cuisine. There are basically two important steps in making the béchamel – properly making a roux (combination of equal parts flour and butter) and heating up the milk prior to incorporating it into the roux. Here’s the recipe:

Ingredients:

– 2 cups milk (use at least 2%, or higher)
– 1/4 cup butter unsalted
– 1/4 cup all purpose flour
– pinch salt
– 1 bay leaf
– 1/2 tsp nutmeg
– half a small onion, diced

In a sauce pan, heat up the milk until “scalded”, which means just under the boiling point. In a separate sauce pan, heat up the butter until melted, and whisk in the flour, cooking for 2-3 minutes until incorporate and smooth. Whisk in the scaled milk and add in the onion, bay leaf, pinch of salt and nutmeg. Heat until the sauce thickens and simmer for 10/15 minutes. Strain the sauce to remove the onion and you’re left with 2 cups of smooth, creamy béchamel base.

Now, feel free to use this tasty sauce just as is. Use it in lasagna or other pasta dishes or bake it with sliced zucchini and tomato for a delicious rich casserole.

OR! You could go crazy with it. Think of every cream sauce you’ve ever had. They’ve almost all started with a béchamel base just like this.

For starters:

– Add some diced garlic and parmesan and you’ve got an alfredo sauce.
– Add grated cheese, some dijon and fresh cracked pepper and you’ve got a great mac ‘n cheese in the works.
– Add some tomato sauce and you’ve got a rosé.
– Add white wine and lemon and you’ve got a delicious sauce for fish or shellfish.
– Add lemon and dill and you’ve got…well, you get the idea.

The important part is to perfect the rich béchamel base, and then the rest is up to you. Stick with the classics or go nuts with it. This is what I love about cooking.

Tomato Sauce

Making tomato sauce is kind of like going to a bar that’s having a karaoke night, everyone seems to think they’re the best at it but the really good ones are few and far between. The trick is, as with the béchamel sauce, to make a larger batch of tasty, classic base sauce and then having the option of creating variations of the sauce depending on what you’re making. Some people may think a spicy tomato sauce is best, but being stuck with a big batch of something that would completely overpower more delicate flavours is just plain silly. Here’s my recipe for tomato sauce (again, don’t feel you need to follow this exactly, but use it as a guide) and some examples of variations:

Ingredients:

– 4 strips bacon, diced
– 1 tbsp olive oil
– 1 cup red wine
– 1 medium onion, diced
– 4 cloves garlic, diced
– 3 cans (28 oz) whole peeled plum tomatoes, high quality such as San Marzano
– 2 tbsp tomato paste
– 1 carrot, diced
– 1 tbsp dried oregano
– 1 tbsp dried thyme
– 1 tbsp dried basil
– 1 bay leaf
– 1 tbsp sugar
– salt and pepper to taste

In a very large sauce pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat and add in the chopped bacon, sautée for 8-10 minutes until bacon has rendered and is crispy. Remove bacon from pot and drain half the fat. Add in the garlic, onion, carrot and bay leaf and saute 5-6 minutes until softened but not browned. Add in the red wine and use a wooden spoon to scrape the bottom of the pan and deglaze.

Next, open the cans of whole tomatoes and crush them by hand as you add them to the pot. This step is very important! Once the tomatoes are in, add in the thyme, oregano, basil, and sugar and tomato paste and simmer for 45-60 minutes over low heat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. This sauce will keep for up to a week in the fridge or until to 6 months frozen.

Now my recipe I posted above is technically more of a marinara sauce due to the herbs, but it’s still very classic and very tasty. It’s great on everything but can also be riffed on to no end to bring a multitude of dishes to the next level:

– Add equal parts tomato sauce and béchamel to make a rosé.
– Add olives, capers, lemon zest and fresh parsley to two cups tomato sauce to make a Mediterranean style Putanesca sauce for pasta or vegetables.
– Add white wine, lemon zest and red chile flakes along with a cup of the tomato sauce to make a spicy white wine tomato broth for mussels or clams
– Add diced bell peppers and cilantro along with a a cup of tomato sauce and reduce it over low heat to make a tomato sofrito, an uber flavourful condiment for burgers, chicken or halibut.

I could go for days, man! Store-bought tomato sauce right out of the jar is a go-to for many, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but next time add a little extra jazz, I don’t think the execs at Ragu will mind at all!

Hollandaise

Yup, we all know hollandaise and often consume it during hangover-induced brunching (yes, I did in fact use brunch as a verb). It’s delicious, rich, and actually has many “spin-off” sauces, as has been the case with everything in this post. While most of them are considered “old school” in the world of cooking today, the process of making an egg-yolk emulsion sauce such as holladaise is a valuable skill to learn. Think of it this way; now you can brunch in your underwear without getting hassled by that pesky manager at IHOP – “Poach this!”

Ingredients:

– 4 large egg yolks
– 3/4 cup butter
– 1 tbsp lemon juice
– pinch cayenne pepper
– pinch salt
– pinch white pepper
– 2 tbsp hot water

Set up a baine marie by heating up a sauce pan with boiling water, and placing a metal mixing bowl over it. Melt the butter in a microwave and skim off the top layer of milk solids (this is a quick and dirty way to make clarified butter). Add in the eggs yolks and lemon juice and whisk constantly until the yolks have warmed and thickened slightly, about 3-4 minutes, do not overheat the yolks or they will begin to cook your sauce will have chunks of yolk in it. Gradually pour in the melted butter, whisking constantly until fully incorporated. Add in the cayenne, salt, and white pepper and continue whisking until the sauce has thickened and forms ribbons when the whisk is pulled through it. Whisk in the 2 tbsp of hot water and remove from heat. Serve immediately.

Here’s a great video for you visual learners from epicurious on the techniques.

Making hollandaise isn’t hard as long as you understand the key points of why we make it this way:

– You need to heat the yolks before adding the hot butter to prevent them from shocking, resulting in a chunky, broken sauce that won’t hold the emulsion.
– You need to constantly whisk to evenly incorporate the ingredients, not whisking enough will break the sauce.

Hollandaise has plenty of derivatives as well, many restaurants these days have deemed them as passé, but don’t listen to them, how can you go wrong with anything starting with a hollandaise base?

– Remember that classic Bernaise sauce for steak? Yup, hollandaise with shallots, tarragon and crushed peppercorns.
– Impress your guests by making a Sauce au Vin Blanc, combining hollandaise with reduced white wine and chicken or fish stock. Delicious on any white meats or seafood.
– Kick up the standard eggs benny by adding minced roasted peppers, or even pesto, sundried tomatoes.
– Make an incredible steak or roast beef sandwich by adding hollandaise kicked up with horseradish and rosemary. Good Lord I think I am making this for lunch tomorrow!

To sum it all up, even though we’ve posted specific recipes on this blog, I hope the point came across that you don’t really NEED to follow a recipe other than very basic ratios and preparations. Master something simple, then make it your own!

I’d love to hear some of your creations from these mother sauces, leave a comment and let me know! Happy cooking.