Sauces: Classical and Contemporary Sauce Making

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Winner of the 1991 James Beard Cookbook of the Year Award. "James Peterson has done for sauces that which Escoffier did for the cuisine of La Belle Epoque...Sauces is a manual for the professional cook and, as such, it will rapidly become a classic and indispensable reference."—Richard Olney, from the Foreword. "...another cookbook that can stand among the best reference works."—Gourmet Magazine. "This is a book I wish I had written myself...Every few decades a book is written that says all there is say on a subject, or has all the information and passion that sets the standard for professional and amateurs alike. Sauces is one of the best culinary books of this century in English."—Jeremiah Tower, Stars Restaurant. The ultimate reference for sauce making is now better than ever. This updated and expanded edition includes more than 500 recipes, including traditional and contemporary versions of almost every sauce imaginable. You'll find classic white and brown sauces, both starch-thickened and flourless; popular meat and fish sauces made with drippings and juices; sauces based on egg yolks, including bearnaise, hollandaise, mayonnaise, and their variations; sauces made with butter, including the beurre blanc-based sauces that revolutionized modern cookingl vegetable purees, dessert sauces, and many more. The new edition features all-new chapters on Asian sauces and pasta sauces, plus nearly 50 new recipes, many that cater to lighter, contemporary fare. And a new 32-page color insert clearly and brilliantly illustrate the fundamentals of good sauce making. More than just a compendium of recipes, Sauces explains how and why the ingredients of a sauce are combined. James Peterson is a chef and cooking instructor. He is also the author of Fish and Shellfish and Splendid Soup, which was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award.


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When I get a new cookbook my habit is to read it like a novel. I curl up in an easy chair or in bed, and read it through and through. Usually I keep some post-it flags and a highlighter handy, in case a particular recipe or comment really jumps out at me. Later I go back and read the recipes more thoroughly, flagging those that appeal.

If you read culinary books at all the way I do, be cautioned: That won't work with the monumental third edition of James Peterson's Sauces: Classical and Contemporary Sauce Making. It's far too encyclopedic to read that way. And there's just too much to absorb in one sitting---or even in half a dozen. Not since Escoffier codified the art of sauce making, more than a century ago, has there been a sauce-making book as comprehensive as this one.

But, unlike Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire, which is often ponderous and sometimes incomprehensible, Sauces is, as Mark Bittman put it, "both comprehensive and comprehensible." You may have to read it in pieces, or even use it merely as a reference work. But you won't misunderstand it. Every word is clear, cleanly written, and to the point; something that can be said for all his books. 

Unless you've been living under a rock the past decade or so, Peterson should need no introduction. After dropping out of college in the 1970s he went on a tour of Europe, where he came face to face, essentially for the first time, with the art of great cookery, concurrently discovering his life's passion . Apprenticeships  and cooking jobs followed, until he opened his own restaurant. Teaching culinary arts has since been part of his life as well. Meanwhile, he translated a series of French pastry books into English.

Then came his own first book, the original edition of Sauces, which won the James Beard Best Cookbook of the Year Award, in 1991. A dozen other books followed, several of which won prestigious awards, and all of which were critically acclaimed.

But let's get one thing straight right up front: Sauce 3 is not a recipe book. Sure, there are many recipes scattered through the book. But they're there for illustrative reasons. As Peterson says in his preface, "fine sauce making does not happen in a vacuum, but depends on the proper and careful cooking of products following, for the most part, time-honored methods. These jus, essences, gravies, and braising liquids released during patient and careful cooking have come to be our favorites. It is for these reasons that this new edition contains additional material on the art of cookery, not just the preparation of a sauce outside of its context."

So, why a third edition? In the close to two decades since Sauces was first published, there's been a major revolution in the saucier's art. The roux- and laison-based sauces that Escoffier codified were still dominant in the late 1980s and even early ‘90s, and the first edition reflected that. These have slowly been replaced with lighter sauces. Reductions and butter sauces all but replaced laison-thickened sauces. And nowadays, even the cream and butter of the 90s is being displaced by even lighter, thinner sauces that more resemble broths.

Indeed, when Sauces was first published, hardly a professional would consider a sauce than didn't adhere to the main dish. To be sure, Peterson did offer many versions of unbound sauces. But most cookbooks which have followed seem to be unaware of these modern developments. Now, if not disappearing, bound sauces are becoming less common in professional kitchens (and many home kitchens as well), and it's past time, in my opinion, that a cookbook spent more time examining these new trends.

This doesn't mean that the old type sauces are ignored. Far from it. Peterson covers them in great depth. But, in almost each case, he also provides a more modern adaptation of that sauce---either immediately afterwards, or in his chapters on such things as integral sauces.

Readers of the original Sauces will find nothing missing. Unlike subsequent editions of many works, which are completely revised, Sauces 3 contains everything that appeared in the original---including the incredibly useful sauce charts which had been inexplicitly dropped in the second edition . What's different is the additions. More than 60 new recipes have been included, for instance, along with expanded sections on more modern approaches.

"Professional sauce making is no longer bound by the tenets of French classic cooking in either it's traditional form or in the guise of la nouvelle cuisine," he stresses  "it now rests on culinary traditions from around the world." This third edition is, however, still dominated by classic French approaches, despite the many pages devoted to the globalization that has affected our industry. Peterson makes no apology for this, nor should he. His training and background is in French and Italian cookery, and the book merely reflects that.

Sauces is, at base, not a cookbook. It is, rather, an instructional manual on how sauces are made, their historical precedents, and, more importantly, how they work with the dishes they're designed for.

The book starts with an historical overview of sauces and sauce making, starting with Greek approaches, and proceeding through Roman, the Middle Ages, the 16th century Renaissance, and the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

One reviewer pooh-poohed this chapter, dismissing it with a short-sighted, "one of these days I might read it" throw-away line. I couldn't disagree more. The information is interesting in its own right, and can provide plenty of grist for your next cocktail party. But it serves a purpose as well. "A rule of cooking," Peterson says, "and of other creative arts, is that must take place in the context of a tradition and set of aesthetic values." Nothing, in other words, springs forth out of whole cloth. Everything we do is built on what others have done before us. So it behooves us to understand those precedents.

The history is followed by a discussion of equipment. Peterson covers the types of equipment needed. But, equally important, he discusses the pros and cons of various materials, when appropriate. If I were first stocking a kitchen I'd find this chapter invaluable. But the fact is, we use what's available, most times. What this chapter does is tell us whether or not what we have is right for the job. For instance, as a practical matter (and putting aside possible health questions), most professional kitchens are loaded with aluminum saucepans. His cautionary note on that is simply that aluminum can cause white sauces to turn gray, and therefore should not be used for that purpose.

His next chapter really shines. It's the one on ingredients. No mere page or three, as is often the case. This one---in 53 pages---is a comprehensive discussion of virtually every flavoring agent used in sauce making.

After that, he walks us through stocks, glaces, and essences; laisons; and stock-based white, brown, and fish sauces. Then he takes us into the integral sauces, with separate chapters on meat, fish & shellfish, and crustacean integral sauces (how many other sauce instruction manuals have you seen that separate crustaceans from shellfish and tell you why it's important?). There are chapters on jellies and chauds-froids, on hot emulsified egg yolk sauces, on mayonnaise-based sauces, on butter sauces, on salad sauces (including vinaigrettes, salsas, and relishes), on purees and puree-thickened sauces, pasta sauces, Asian sauces, and, as with any good meal, finishing up with a chapter on dessert sauces.

Just a glimpse at the chapter headings gives you a feel for how in-depth Sauces really is, even without the five appendices.

 Even if you don't read the whole thing, it should be on your bookshelf to serve as a reference work. Don't remember how a particular sauce is made? Look it up. Wondering what ingredients substitute, one of the other, in a certain sauce? It's in there. Virtually any aspect of the saucier's art and science can be found in Sauces.

In his own Cooking (see review elsewhere on this site), Peterson teaches home cooks everything they have to know to become great cooks. Although it's more than 530 pages long, the message is contained in one paragraph: "They (his months spent apprenticing at Vivarois) taught me that there are no secrets. I learned that good cooking is based on doing lots of little things correctly, without taking shortcuts and by a profound reverence for ingredients---for letting them express their own character."

In many respects, Sauces follows the same philosophy for professionals. It isn't so much about precise recipes, but about understanding the fundamental ways that sauces are made, and why the methods used produce the final product.

What it's not, however, is a book for the typical home-cook, particularly one who isn't prepared to spend the many hours and the attention to detail good sauce making entails. At fifty bucks there is no way such a cook can justify the expense. The professional, on the other hand, and the serious home cook, will never need another book about sauce making, because whatever you need to know, it's in there.


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