Mastering French Techniques

Cook, Learn, Regional Spotlight, Tips & Techniques

Classic French cooking is built on a set of fundamental techniques — and mastering those opens the door to a world of variations.

 

Here are a few basics to start with. With the method for choux pastry in your back pocket, you are moments away from an impressive hors d’oeuvre or dessert. Confited meats can be stored in the refrigerator for a month, ready to create an elegant main course any time. And creamy, white béchamel sauce is your gateway to everything from lasagna to a traditional Croque Monsieur.

 

Read on for our essential recipes and step-by-step guides, helpful for novices and seasoned home cooks alike.

 

Choux Pastry

 

 

Choux (pronounced “shoo”) pastry is the basis for a number of classic French patisseries, from savory gougères to creamy chocolate éclairs. The batter is cooked on the stove top and fashioned into a variety of shapes using a pastry bag, then baked and transformed into delicate shells.

 

Choux Pastry 

 

1/2 cup whole milk

1 cup water

6 Tbs. unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1/4 tsp. salt

1 cup all-purpose flour

4 large eggs

 

Position 2 racks evenly in the oven, and preheat to 425 degrees F. Line 2 half-sheet pans with parchment paper or aluminum foil. In a saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the milk, water, butter and salt and bring to a full boil.

 

When the butter melts, remove the pan from the heat and add the flour all at once. Stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until blended.

 

Return the pan to medium heat and continue stirring until the mixture leaves the sides of the pan and forms a ball. Remove from the heat and let cool for 3 to 4 minutes, or until about 140 degrees F when tested with an instant-read thermometer.

 

Crack the eggs into a small bowl and check for shells. Add about 1 egg and beat with a wooden spoon until incorporated. Stir in the remaining 3 eggs, about one at a time, beating vigorously after each addition so that the batter returns to a smooth paste. Let the paste cool for about 10 minutes.

 

To shape puffs: Fit a pastry bag with a 5/8-inch plain tip and fill the bag with the paste. For each puff, pipe about 1 tablespoon of the paste onto the prepared pan, forming a mound about 2 inches in diameter. Space the mounds at least 2 inches apart to allow for expansion.

 

To shape logs: Fit a pastry bag with a 3/4-inch plain tip and pipe out logs 4 inches long and 1 inch wide. Space the logs at least 2 inches apart to allow for expansion.

 

Bake the puffs or logs for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375 degrees F and continue baking until golden brown, 5 to 10 minutes longer. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and immediately prick the side of each puff or log with the tip of a paring knife. Return the pastries to the turned-off oven, leave the door open and let them dry out in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes. Let the pastries cool completely on the pans on wire racks before filling.

 

 

 

Confit

 

 

A slow cooker makes easy work of this classic dish, which involves cooking meat in its own fat at a very low temperature. When finished, the tender meat falls easily off the bone, creating an elegant main course. The fat may be removed from the meat after cooking and reserved for another use.

 

Duck Confit with Braised Lentils

 

8 duck legs with thighs attached

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

2 jars (each 11.2 oz.) Rougié duck fat

4 garlic cloves, halved

4 large fresh thyme sprigs

2 bay leaves

1 Tbs. peppercorns

Canola oil as needed

Braised lentils for serving

 

Pat the duck legs dry and place on a rack-lined baking sheet. Season the duck legs generously with salt and pepper. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 24 hours.
Place the duck legs in the insert of a slow cooker. Add the duck fat, garlic, thyme sprigs, bay leaves and peppercorns. Add enough oil so the legs are completely submerged. Cover and cook on low according to the manufacturer’s instructions until the meat is very tender and pulls away from the bone, 6 to 8 hours.
Remove the slow-cooker insert and let the duck legs and the cooking oil cool to room temperature, about 2 hours. Transfer the duck legs to an airtight container and add enough cooking oil to cover them completely. Cover and refrigerate for up to 1 week. Just before serving, remove the duck legs from the oil and reserve the oil. Set a wire rack on a baking sheet.
In a large nonstick fry pan over medium-high heat, warm 1 cup of the reserved oil. When the oil is hot, add the duck legs, skin side down, and cook until the skin is browned and crispy, 3 to 5 minutes. Turn the duck legs over and cook until browned on the other side, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to the rack-lined baking sheet to drain. Serve the duck legs warm with braised lentils. Serves 8.

 

 

 

Béchamel Sauce

 

 

Béchamel is the most basic white sauce in French cooking. Classically trained cooks are taught to make béchamel in three thicknesses; the medium-thick version shown here is the most versatile.

 

Béchamel Sauce

 

2 cups whole milk

One 1/4-inch slice yellow onion

1/2 bay leaf

3 to 4 Tbs. cold unsalted butter

3 Tbs. all-purpose flour

1/4 tsp. salt

1/8 tsp. freshly ground pepper, preferably white pepper

 

In a small saucepan, combine the milk, onion slice and bay leaf. Place over medium heat and heat just until tiny bubbles appear around the edges of the pan, about 5 minutes. Do not boil. Remove the saucepan from the heat, cover and let stand for 10 minutes. Remove and discard the onion and bay leaf. Re-cover to keep warm.
In a 2 1/2- to 3-qt. heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter over medium-low heat. When the butter has melted and the foam subsides, stir in the flour. Reduce the heat to low. Let the mixture bubble for 2 minutes, then remove from the heat and let cool for 1 minute.
Slowly and evenly whisk the warm milk into the roux. Return the pan to medium heat and bring the mixture to a boil, whisking often and making sure you reach the bottom and sides of the pan. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer gently, whisking often, until the sauce thickens, about 5 minutes.
Dip a wooden spoon into the sauce to coat it. Draw your finger through the sauce on the back of the spoon: it should leave a clean track. If you are using the sauce in a recipe such as lasagna, stir in the salt and pepper. If you are making a cheese sauce, do not add the seasonings until after you add the cheese and taste the sauce, as the cheese itself will be salty.
Taste the sauce; it should taste creamy with no trace of raw flour flavor. If lumps are still visible, pour the sauce through a fine-mesh sieve into a heatproof bowl.
If you are not using the sauce right away, cut up the remaining 1 tablespoon butter into cubes and dot the sauce with the butter. Cover it with a piece of plastic wrap, pressing the wrap directly onto the surface of the sauce to prevent a skin from forming. Let the sauce cool, then store it in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. Reheat it in a saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or whisk, adding a little hot water or milk to thin it, if necessary.

 

The addition of different types of cheese will add new dimensions of flavor to this basic sauce. Try these ideas:

  • Mornay Sauce: Strain the unseasoned sauce into a clean saucepan. Whisk in 1/2 cup shredded Gruyère cheese and 3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Cook over low heat, whisking constantly, until the cheese has melted and the sauce is smooth. Adjust the seasonings. Use to top cooked broccoli, cauliflower or other vegetables.
  • Cheddar Sauce: Strain the unseasoned sauce into a clean saucepan. Whisk in 2 cups shredded extra-sharp Cheddar cheese. Cook over low heat, whisking constantly, until the cheese has melted and the sauce is smooth. Adjust the seasonings. Use a sauce for steamed vegetables, baked potatoes or to make macaroni and cheese.
  • Gorgonzola Sauce: Strain the unseasoned sauce into a clean saucepan. Whisk in 2/3 cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese. Cook over low heat, whisking constantly, until the cheese has melted and the sauce is smooth. Adjust the seasonings. This sauce goes will with grill steaks and roasted beef tenderloin.

3 comments about “Mastering French Techniques

  1. Ann

    What a great way to engage in jamming in the kitchen with such a beautiful pan, the best part will be giving the preserves away as gifts! Thanks WS!

    Reply
  2. Mastering French Techniques « Who's Zileel

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