A Roux Awakening

One summer in the early 1970s when I was restarting my college career, I worked as a dishwasher on the weekends at a local roadhouse. One Sunday morning, one of the cooks made a creamy chicken soup that tasted better than the usual fare the restaurant had to offer. Later that day, when the Sunday after-church lunch crowd began to thin, I was chatting with the chef and I happened to ask him how the soup was made. He replied that the recipe was very simple, just thicken some canned chicken stock with a roux. Easy for him—I had no idea what a roux was.

Luckily, the chef was in a talkative mood and he patiently described the whole process. He said to measure out two tablespoons butter and two tablespoons flour for each cup of stock I was planning to use. First, I should melt the butter over medium heat in a saucepan. When the butter was fully melted, I should stir in the flour with a wooden spoon. In the meantime, I should heat the stock. When the flour was evenly mixed into the melted butter and the stock hot, I should slowly add the stock to the butter-flour combination, all the while stirring to remove any lumps that formed. When all the stock was added, the soup was ready. If I wanted, I could add some cooked diced chicken or peas and diced carrots—in those days purchased frozen—to add some color to the finished soup. He never mentioned adding salt because the canned stock was already salted. He never warned me about the flour and butter seizing when the first bit of liquid was added, and he never mentioned that this was the same way a lot of people made chicken gravy.

Flash forward thirty-five years: I’m looking through the sauce section of a nineteenth-century cookbook one evening, and I notice how many sauces seem to use “béchamel” as a base. (By now I was well aware that béchamel was made similar to that chef’s chicken soup but with milk instead of stock.) This is one of those factoids that I was aware of but had never really thought much about. So I started looking though all of my French sources and began to notice a theme developing. In cookbooks designed to be compendiums, especially those by “master” chefs, there was always a chapter, usually one of the first, devoted just to sauce preparations. The chapter usually started off explaining basic sauces, and then followed with descriptions of compound sauces, often built upon one of the basic sauces. Many of the books parsed the compound sauces into many smaller groupings, but there was less consistency here. All the same, because my interest here was with béchamel-based sauces, I didn’t explore the hundred-plus sauce recipes that each of these books seemed to contain. I did notice that béchamel had a close relative called “velouté,” a basic sauce where stock was substituted for the milk. (There are other “basic” white sauces, such as beurre blanc, but because these do not involve a roux, they will not be discussed at this time.)

Upon further reading, I found that there are a number of different veloutés depending on the type of stock being used for the preparation: chicken, fish, veal, etc. I also found that modern béchamels were prepared quickly with just flour, butter, milk, and seasoning, whereas old-fashioned ones were prepared over a number of hours using meat and vegetables in addition to the milk. The solids were strained out of this béchamel prior to serving. In other words, like most things in cooking, I found that there were many methods to accomplish similar tasks and many opinions as to which method was best.

To prepare a roux thickened sauce, I start by melting the butter over medium heat without letting it brown. I then add the flour all at once and stir with a wooden spatula—that’s what I have handy—until it is smooth. If I’m not in a hurry, I’ll let the flour cook for 5 to 10 minutes. I’m careful to not let the flour take on any color because I’m preparing a white sauce. It is possible to use any fat instead of butter, and at times I have used goose fat, duck fat, and pork fat instead of butter. I heard of some people using olive oil. I’ve never tried margarine, which is just hydrogenated oil, but I suspect that that would work, too. You could even ignore this step and just dilute the flour with cold milk or stock, but then you would not be using a roux (and it wouldn’t fit how I defined the subject of this article).

The fat serves a number of purposes. One is to help cook the flour to eliminate its raw taste. Another is to keep the flour granules, which are principally starch, separate from each other. If the granules are allowed to be in contact with each other, the liquid at the surface will gelatinize the surface. This, in turn, will seal it so the inner granules stay undiluted. The result is lumps of raw flour in the sauce. There is a thickener used in cooking called beurre manié which consists of equal amounts of flour and butter kneaded together. The butter, once again, is being used to keep the flour granules separated. When a hot cooking liquid needs to be thickened, a lump of this material is whisked into the hot liquid until the butter melts and the liquid is thick.

Once the roux is complete, it’s time to add the liquid, be it milk or stock. I add the liquid unheated because I’m lazy. Some chefs say that it must always be added hot. In either case, only a little liquid is added at first. This causes the flour to seize into a thick paste. Next a little more liquid is added and the paste is gradually diluted. The roux is constantly stirred, or whisked, as the liquid is being added. As the roux becomes further diluted and more liquid is absorbed, it is possible to speed up the rate at which the liquid is added. When the liquid is added unheated, the temperature of the roux will drop and it will appear to not be working as a thickener, but as the mixture heats up and approaches a boil, it will thicken. When the liquid is added hot, the thickening will be more rapid.

Once all the liquid is incorporated, the sauce should cook for a while—at least 5 to 10 minutes—to cook the flour. It is the nature of a roux thickened sauce that if you continue to cook it for a long time, the thickening power of the flour will weaken and the sauce will start to thin.

A century ago, cooked veal, onions, and a sprig of thyme were added to a béchamel sauce after the roux was incorporated. The mixture was then simmered for two hours and strained before use. In earlier times, veloutés were flavored with various vegetables in a similar manner, but this was recognized by this time as superfluous because the stock was already prepared with vegetables. Also it was common for these recipes to instruct the cook to strain the finished sauce, even if no solids had been added. This may have been necessary because they were preparing their sauces in quantity, and lumps were more likely. I have found that with careful addition of the liquid to the sauce, straining is unnecessary.

Working with the descriptions of sauces provided by Escoffier, we could say there are four roux-based, white sauces: sauce béchamel, velouté, velouté de volaille, and velouté de poisson. From these we can build a number of other, so-called compound, sauces. Note: click on the icon () following a sauce description to see the recipe.

Sauce béchamel: roux thickened milk; seasoned with salt; flavored with pepper, and sometimes nutmeg

Sauce aurore: sauce béchamel cooked with a bouquet garni; seasoned with salt; flavored with pepper and nutmeg; finished with tomato paste

Sauce béchamel aux champignons: sauce béchamel garnished with cooked mushrooms; flavored with nutmeg and lemon juice; finished with butter

Sauce cardinal: sauce béchamel finished with truffle essence, lobster butter, and cayenne pepper

Sauce crème: sauce béchamel finished with cream

Sauce huîtres: sauce béchamel finished with oyster juice; garnished with chopped, poached oysters

Sauce Mornay: sauce béchamel finished with cheese, usually a combination of Gruyere and Parmesan

Sauce œufs à l’anglaise: sauce béchamel garnished with diced hard-cooked egg and nutmeg

Sauce soubise: sauce béchamel combined with cooked, pureed onions; finished with butter

Sauce villageoise: sauce soubise thinned with velouté, veal stock, and mushroom cooking liquid; finished with egg yolks, cream, and butter

Velouté: roux-thickened veal stock; seasoned with salt and pepper

Sauce albuféra: velouté finished with glace and pimento butter

Sauce allemande: velouté cooked with additional stock, mushroom cooking liquid, and egg yolks; flavored with nutmeg, lemon juice, and pepper; finished with butter

Sauce Villeroy: sauce allemande flavored with ham stock and truffle essence

Sauce Bonnefoy: velouté flavored with a reduction of shallots, pepper, thyme, bay leaves, and white wine; garnished with chopped tarragon and slices of bone marrow

Sauce piquante: velouté flavored with a reduction of shallots, sugar, and vinegar; seasoned with salt; garnished with sliced gherkins

Velouté de volaille: roux-thickened chicken stock; seasoned with salt and pepper

Sauce Chivry: velouté de volaille flavored with an infusion of chervil, parsley, tarragon, chives, and white wine; finished with butter flavored in a similar manner

Sauce hongroise: velouté de volaille flavored with a reduction of onions and vinegar; seasoned with salt; seasoned with salt; flavored with paprika; finished with butter

Sauce indienne au kari: velouté de volaille seasoned with salt; flavored with curry powder and nutmeg; finished with butter

Sauce ravigote: velouté de volaille flavored with a reduction of white wine and vinegar; finished with shallot butter; garnished with chervil, chives, and tarragon

Sauce suprême: velouté de volaille finished with egg yolk and cream; seasoned with salt

Sauce ivoire: sauce suprême colored with a little glace

Velouté de poisson: roux-thickened fish stock; seasoned with salt and pepper

Sauce Bercy: velouté de poisson flavored with a reduction of shallots, fish stock, and wine; seasoned with salt; finished with butter and parsley

Sauce marinière: sauce Bercy flavored with mussel-cooking liquid; garnished with mussels

Sauce bretonne: velouté de poisson flavored with a reduction of onion, leek, celery, mushrooms, and wine; seasoned with salt; flavored with pepper; finished with cream and butter

Sauce livonienne: velouté de poisson garnished with truffles, carrots, and parsley

Sauce normande: velouté de poisson prepared with mushroom essence and oyster juice; finished with egg yolk, cream, and butter

Sauce persil: velouté de poisson flavored with an infusion of parsley; garnished with parsley

Sauce suprême: velouté de poisson finished with egg yolk and cream; seasoned with salt

Sauce aux crevettes: sauce suprême finished with shrimp butter; garnished with cooked shrimp

In checking with various recipe sources, it’s possible to find many conflicting ideas as to how a particular sauce should be prepared. For example, the sauce aurore presented above is prepared with béchamel sauce, but Saulnier lists two versions of this sauce, one for fish prepared with a fish velouté and another prepared from sauce suprême. In another instance, Saulnier presents two versions of sauce Bercy, one similar to the recipe above and the other based on meat glace instead of velouté.

One chef I’ve worked with recently now eschews roux and uses rice flour to thicken sauces. He uses about 60 grams of rice flour to thicken 1 liter of liquid. The rice flour is just finely ground white rice sold in 500-gram bags. Since learning the method, I have used brown rice flour to successfully thicken sauces. The problem with ground rice is that as the sauce continues to cook, the sauce becomes thicker. Also, it is imperative to stir the sauce almost continuously until the granules of rice swell and soften. If you don’t, they will settle and stick to the bottom of your saucepan.

The rice-flour technique still produces a starch thickened sauce. The creators of the nouvelle cuisine of the mid-twentieth century often avoided starch altogether in their sauces which were often based totally on reductions. The article Matrice des sauces au moment that appeared earlier on the site demonstrates sauces prepared by means of reduction.

Although the use of roux-base sauces is not as popular as it once was, it is still an important component of French cooking. When used with discretion, a roux-based sauce can provide a nice accent to the dish it is accompanying.

© 2007 Peter Hertzmann, Inc. All rights reserved.