What Is a Haute Cuisine?
Haute cuisine, pronounced /OAT kwih ZEEN/, is a French term that translates as "high cuisine," or perhaps more accurately, “high cooking.” It's a style of cooking and food preparation that is usually superbly prepared by high caliber chefs and often comes in small portion sizes. The term is most correctly used to refer to classic French cuisine dating back to the period between 1750 to 1975. It was during this time that the so-called nouvelle cuisine, meaning “the new cuisine,” was developed. Some, however, now use the “haute cuisine” phrase to distinguish any fine cuisine, no matter its origin. The style has gained some fluidity in modern times, and chefs often take some liberties with the type of food they prepare. As such, the term is commonly used in reference to food that is prepared with particular attention to appearance, used in large celebrations and especially for high-ranking members of society, and requires extremely complex cooking methods. Most often it’s the core methods that make the meal elite, though there are a few signature dishes and particularly sauces associated with this type of cooking that can help set it apart.
The earliest characterization of this sort of cuisine is taken from the 14th century manuscript Le Viandier, which translates into English as "the preparer of meats." The book was written by Taillevent, a master cook to Charles V, King of France. In this book, three key elements of what would come to be called "haute cuisine" were identified: attention to seasoning and the plentiful use of spices; separate preparation of protein of the dish from the sauces with which they were served; and notably complex preparation instructions.
A mid-17th century book, Le Cuisinier Français — which translates into English as "The French Cook" — provides recipes for some of the elements now viewed as most representative of this sort of cuisine. Roux, which is basically a base for various sauces, is one example. It is generally prepared by slowly cooking flour, most often pure wheat flour, together with a fat like butter or lard. The resulting product is used as a base for sauces such as béchamel, which is a white sauce.
Farces, which is a sort of stuffing made of things as ground chicken, mushrooms and onions, is another example; so is liaisons, which is a thickening agent made of egg yolks and heavy cream. Most cooking experts also consider bouillon, a strained broth often made from a mirepoix or a combination or onions, carrots, and celery, to be a fixture of this sort of cooking as well, though traditional bullion is often really different from the flavored cubes and commercial bases people can buy in many of the world’s supermarkets today. Additionally, the cuisine is also usually associated with an array of stocks and sauces, particularly béarnaise, coulis, and remoulades.
Also key to this type of cooking is its complexity of methods, detailed knifework, and the characteristic use of pastry in main dishes. In many instances, the complexity arises from cooking parts of a dish separately and bringing them together in the final presentation, but it also refers to the layers of flavor and numerous ingredients in each part of the dish, such as the sauce.
Some preparations in particular are closely connected with the concept of classic haute cuisine. Béchamel sauce, made by adding milk to a roux, and hollandaise sauce, a combination of butter, egg yolks, and lemon juice, are two examples. Aspic, a savory jelly which is used in molded dishes or as a glaze, is another. Consommé, a clarified broth, and forcemeat, which is a dish of raw or cooked meats or vegetables that are finely ground, seasoned and combined with breadcrumbs, are also closely associated. Entrées in this class include Fillets of Sole Veronique and Poached Eggs au Gratin.
Learning and Perfecting the Art
Most culinary institutes and professional cooking schools teach students the foundations of haute cuisine, but formal education isn’t usually required. Anyone who is serious about learning and perfecting their skills can often do so by closely studying cooking guides or by watching tutorials on television or online. It’s often the case that cooks need a number of somewhat nuanced tools and pans to get accurate results, and most of the dishes take quite awhile to prepare, making patience all but essential. With time and persistence most anyone can master the basic core of the art, though most find that it isn’t practical for everyday home use.
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