Special Feature

All About Gratins

By Prof. Steve Holzinger

"The word roux has been eliminated from our dictionary," Jean continued. "That eternal and inevitable butter-flour mixture used for thickening everything in sight, which never provided any flavor of its own, has been thrown out of the kitchen window. Now, we thicken our sauces by reduction--a simple process which not only provides a better body to the sauce, but also concentrates and sharpens the flavor--an essence, a magnification of the basic character of the dish. Finally, at the very last moment before serving, we melt in a small quantity of butter or cream, with no cooking at all, to complete the sauce with a sense of light and simple softness."
—     Chef Jean Troisgros in Revolutionizing French Cooking by Roy Andries de Groot, 1975, McGraw Hill, New York. (note 1)

From today's perspective of twenty years later, the revolutionary young Turks of the seventies were more Protestants than revolutionaries, nailing their "nouvelle" recipes to the door of the ancien re'gime cathedral of Escoffier's Grande Cuisine. It seemed revolutionary at the time, but as Jean Troisgros replied to de Groot, "some of what we do comes straight from Grandmother." It was a revolt, in his words "against excess." In the past twenty years, we have seen some throwing of the baby out of the window along with the bath water, and some "artsy-tartsy" arts and crafts work that would make Picasso's eyes cross. There is no question that some people did not understand the core meaning of "nothing in excess, less is more." Even granting that, there is also no question that in the main, the revolution has succeeded splendidly, and that today's mainstream cooking and eating have been enormously improved by those young Turks who are today's kitchen gods, much as Escoffier was revered in his era. Cooking is healthier and more digestible, but most importantly, natural flavors are emphasized and concentrated. As de Groot put it, "Our new-new cooking is ....the concentration to an essence of French bourgeois country cooking." and I might add, with a more global palette. So the new-new cuisine was called the new-new, low-high, and even the old-old, and as I prefer it, the new-old cuisine. It is more conservative than revolutionary, as I see it. The new-old cuisine seeks to keep what is best of the old, and modifies the old to keep it in tune with the times. What does not change, dies.

Unless you understand the basic techniques of cooking, you cannot modernize, you cannot refine, you can only experiment randomly, or copy what others have done. Often this copying with out understanding and random experiment with no understanding of basics led to excesses and silliness as great (or more correctly not great) as the past. Surely Escoffier foretold the future of today's new-old cuisine in his discussion of glazes at the ending of his first chapter. Read it and see why I say that today's culinary giants are walking in the footsteps of the old master! Conservatives, not revolutionaries!

So what is this roux that was thrown out of the window, and why was this such a revolutionary act? Why do we need to know about it if it is "out the window?"

Roux is the thickening agent of the leading sauces, and Escoffier tells us that he was dabbling with the use of cornstarch instead of flour to make roux, which would have been anathema to the purists of the old regime, who resisted every change. I remember how violent battles were fought over whose methods and preparations were classically correct, and how we would settle these battles, in my day at least, by reference to Escoffier, Saulnier (note 2) or Larousse Gastronomique.

Basically, roux is a mixture of equal parts of fat (butter) and flour, and is classified by color. Brown roux is cooked the longest, to dextrinize (toast) the starch, rendering it sweeter and nutty brown in aroma. Pale roux is cooked until the color changes, and white roux is cooked only briefly. The old standard, 2 tbl of butter and 2 tbl of flour (white roux) per cup of liquid gave what was called then, a medium consistency, one that would coat the spoon. Today, I think that most people would agree that half that amount would be enough thickening, if they would agree that any at all is needed.

Escoffier, in proposing the use of cornstarch noted that only half as much cornstarch as flour would be needed, and cooking times would be shorter. This is true without changing anything, because cornstarch is a purer starch, having less or no protein to throw as an insoluble coagulate. Using cornstarch, you can also separate the starch granules to keep them from clumping (which is what butter does in a roux) with wine or stock or water with out the addition of fat to the sauce. As a matter of fact, brown roux has only half the thickening power of white roux, yet in making brown sauces, we use the same amount of roux. Then we finish the sauce to the desired thickness with a slurry of cornstarch and water or wine so as to bind any grease. It is a fatal flaw when a sauce leaks fat onto the plate.

Escoffier even made Bechamel Sauce in a "new way" The seasoned milk and herbs were brought to the simmer to infuse the flavor of the desired herbs, and then the boiling milk was to be poured over the already prepared roux, and simmered a quarter hour only, which is the way it is done today. When you are working this way, a practical rule to follow is that the roux and the liquid should be of different temperatures. Hot roux, cold milk, Cold milk, then hot roux. Using a hot milk with a hot roux swells the starch too rapidly, and if you do not stir like crazy you will get lumps....cooked starch granules surrounding a mass of uncooked starch granules. The same is true if you do not separate the starch granules with fat or liquid. You will get lumpy sauce... The starch, when you use it, must be allowed to cook slowly enough for all the granules to swell fully, or the sauce will taste "starchy."

Diagrammatically: butter + flour = roux + milk = Sauce Bechamel (seasonings are always assumed in these diagrams, which are meant to be simple. Bechamel is one of the five Grande Sauces. I will discuss the others at another time. These are also called mother sauces, because of the great number of variations of each. Derivative sauces are made by using the Grande sauce plus something to create a new flavor of its kind. These "something's" can be a visible garniture, like mushrooms or an invisible one, like Sherry, or you can use both visible and invisible. Mostly, this happens when you make a "reduction", for example, chopped shallots are gently cooked in butter, and white wine is added to cover the two ingredients, and reduced (evaporated) to marry the flavors and then perhaps a chopped herb such as parsley is added for eye appeal. This reduction is called Bercy. Thus, when such a reduction is added to a foundation sauce, the derivative sauce takes its name from the reduction.

So when oyster liquor and poached oysters are added to Sauce Bechamel , the derivative sauce is called, reasonably enough Sauce Oyster. Derivative sauces can be named after ingredients, places (as in the style of Normandy) or even famous persons. One of the most famous derivatives of Bechamel is Mornay, that is Bechamel with grated Swiss Cheese and Parmesan. So, now that you understand what roux is, and how it is used in the basic scheme of sauce making, you may throw it out the window, if you like, or you may try it and see if there are still places where it applies.


Finally, I come to the subject of this essay, Gratins! What got me started on this subject is when I was Christmas shopping this year, I saw the most beautiful gratin pans of my entire life at Lamalle, in NYC. Lamalle has been making fine tinned copperware in France since 1927 and these are not just pots, they are objects d'art, and heirlooms. Gratins are usually oval with handles, but of course they can be of many shapes and compositions like oven proof china, but the one pictured is the classic. When I saw this classic pan, I thought it would be a good way to begin discussing sauces. In a gratin, fully cooked foods are heated in a sauce. The cooking of the gratin must be coincident with the reduction or evaporation of the sauce at the surface and the formation of a crisp, well colored crust on the surface. It takes a pan that holds and spreads the heat evenly, from the bottom up and around, so that the crust forms at the top instead of the bottom and sides (note 3). The menu term, au gratin, means with cheese, that is to say that the gratination takes place by the evaporation, concentration, and browning of a cheese sauce. Macaroni au gratin, is a perfect example of full gratin. Fully cooked (well almost fully cooked) macaroni is combined with a Mornay sauce or a Cheddar Cheese Sauce, put into a buttered and crumbed gratin, and baked slowly until completely heated and a crisp colorful crust (the best part) is formed. Critical to the perfection of this simple dish is the gratin pan or dish itself, because if the contents boil, as there is every likelihood of happening, the cheese may break, weep grease and get stringy. The starch binding of the roux helps to keep the cheese from breaking.

A Mornay sauce may also be used to give a dish a quick glaze, in this case, the foods are already hot, and the sauce is napped (coated) over them, and the gratin rapide is made under the broiler. Poached Eggs Florentine was a dish I always set as an exam for the first day of my Advanced Cooking Course. Every element was basic and easy to prepare, putting it all together was not. Everything had to be piping hot, but the poached egg yolk had to be liquid. You can glassage (glaze) this with whipped cream or a light gratin rich in grated cheese, but the glaze effect is not so rich looking. A little Feta Cheese mixed in cream gives a fair glaze, but gives a different (but good) taste. You must try the alternatives yourself to decide.

A light gratin is composed of grated bread crumbs (I use stale semolina bread by choice), butter, grated cheese, herbs and seasonings. The crumbs are moistened by the butter, and the other ingredients are added to make a light fluffy mixture. Light Gratins are usually used for baked vegetables like Herb Baked Tomatoes or Broccoli Polonaise. It is also one of my favorite ways to make Baked Fish Gratinee. Here, depending on the size and doneness of the item, the heat of the oven determines the cooking time needed to finish the food to be cooked. Raw tomato halves take a hot oven to cook the tomato and set the gratin. Broccoli Polonaise may go in the hottest of ovens, or even under the broiler, as the broccoli is steamed crisp, before this special gratin is added. The fish to be baked is set raw in a buttered and crumbed gratin pan, and is liberally covered by a light gratin very rich in butter, and almost entirely lacking in cheese, so that it does not get prematurely brown while baking for twenty minutes in a 350 degree F oven.

If you want to give up butter and cream and eggs entirely, you have come to the wrong place. My concerns, like Roy Andries de Groot are with the pleasures of the table, but I will accept the dictum of "Nothing in Excess." You may, and should, make up your own mind. My idea of change is to cook as well as I can, but eat much smaller portions, and very much larger beautiful fresh salads, in the American Style, as a first course. If anything, pleasure is increased by this healthy gourmandise.


1. This is a book that I think is still worth reading and having, twenty years later.

2. Le Re'pertoire, de la Cuisine L. Saulnier, English edition translated by E. Brunet, and dedicated to Escoffier, this handy chef's reference cataloged over 7000 of Escoffier's recipes, of which only 2,600 are found in the English edition. It gives only the briefest descriptions, assuming that the chef will be fully schooled in the method. It was an agreed method of solving disagreements.

3. Buttering and crumbing the pan first makes removing all the food and washing the pan much easier.


eGGsalad #12: Gratins


©1996, Steve K. Holzinger. All rights reserved.


This page modified February 2007