Say Hi to Your Mother Sauces for Me
by Nathen Dubé
A well-crafted sauce can elevate a dish, tying all the elements together, adding richness, texture, and colour to almost any recipe.
French cuisine in particular is renowned for its liberal use of flavorful sauces. Developed in the 19th century by French chef Auguste Escoffier, the five mother sauces are basic recipes that serve as the foundation for any number of secondary sauce variations. Each mother sauce is categorized primarily according to its unique base and thickener.
The five French mother sauces are: béchamel, velouté, espagnole, hollandaise, and tomato. Historically, Chef Escoffier originally designated only four mother sauces, and mayonnaise as a cold mother sauce, with Hollandaise below that.
Interestingly, when his book was translated to English, mayonnaise was forgotten or omitted; Hollandaise was listed as the fifth mother sauce.
Beginning culinary students and experienced cooks alike commit these five sauces to memory. They learn that by tweaking their basic formulas, all manner of great sauces can be crafted.
Please meet the five mother sauces below. I explain: how each is made; their basic uses; and some secondary sauces you can make from them.
Béchamel, or white sauce, is a simple milk-based sauce made from butter, flour, and milk.
You know béchamel as the white sauce that gives chicken pot pie its texture, or as the vehicle of cheesy goodness and binding agent in delicious mac ‘n’ cheese creations. The sauce can be found in everything from scalloped potatoes and lasagne to gravy iterations.
In classical cuisine, béchamel was poured over fish, eggs, or steamed chicken. While béchamel has a generally neutral taste on its own, the classic mother sauce adds a unique creamy texture that is both hearty and comforting.
My personal favorite base recipe is Joel Robuchon’s equation of one liter of milk, 60 grams of butter, and 60 grams of flour. It works perfectly every time.
To make béchamel, start by cooking butter and flour in a saucepan until it forms a substance called a roux. The roux is responsible for thickening the sauce. To remove the floury taste, cook the roux over medium heat for a few minutes.
When the roux is ready, slowly whisk in warm milk and simmer until it forms a creamy sauce. Strain the liquid after it thickens to get rid of any sediment, then add salt and pepper. (You can add other ingredients as well, such as bay leaves, nutmeg, onion, clove, or even cheese.)
With the addition of a few extra seasonings like salt, pepper, and cloves, béchamel is complete — though it may be used as a base for many other sauces.
Béchamel sauces include:
- Mornay: onion, cloves, Gruyère, and Parmesan cheese
- Alfredo: garlic with heavy cream
- Soubise: butter and caramelized onions
- Cheddar sauce (used for mac ‘n’ cheese or nacho-style sauces): whole milk and cheddar cheese
Velouté means “velvet” in French, and that is the texture you get with this original sauce.
A velouté is a simple sauce made from butter, flour, and clear stock. Chicken, turkey, and fish stock are most commonly used, but these days, although it’s not traditional, you can also find vegetarian velouté using vegetable stock.
This mother sauce is similar to béchamel in that it’s a white sauce thickened with roux. However, it uses stock for the base in place of milk. As a reminder, stock is a savory, flavorful cooking liquid created by simmering bones, herbs, and aromatic vegetables for several hours. Chicken stock is most common, but you can also use other white stocks, such as those made from veal or fish.
To make velouté, start by making a white roux with butter and flour. Next, slowly stir in warm stock and let it simmer until a creamy, light sauce forms.
When finished, velouté has a delicate, light flavor and a smooth texture. The sauce is usually served over poached or steamed fish or chicken; the light flavors of the sauce compliment the light, delicate meat. By adding wine, lemon, or other flavorings such as herbs, cooks can adjust the flavour of this mother sauce.
Some popular sauces derived from velouté include:
- Supreme: chicken velouté with heavy cream and mushrooms
- Venetian: chicken or fish velouté with tarragon, shallots, and parsley
- Hungarian: chicken or veal velouté with onion, paprika, and white wine
Espagnole, otherwise known as brown sauce, is a rich, dark sauce made from roux-thickened stock, puréed tomatoes, and mirepoix (carrots, onions, and celery that’s used as a base). Brown stock, which is made from beef or veal bones that have been roasted and simmered, gives espagnole a particularly rich, complex flavor.
This dark brown sauce—one of the original mother sauces—and its derivative sauces tend to be heavy and thick. They lend a signature richness to such dishes as bœuf bourguignon, lamb, duck, and veal.
Like velouté, espagnole uses roux and stock as the main ingredients. However, instead of white roux and stock, it calls for brown stock and brown roux. In this case, the flour paste (butter, flour) is cooked until the flour browns.
It’s important that cooks stir the roux while it browns so the paste does not stick and burn or scorch. You can imagine how this would ruin the finished product, of course. When the roux has finished cooking, browned mirepoix, pureed tomato, and beef or veal stock are added.
Espagnole is the base for:
- Demi-glace: additional beef or veal stock, herbs, and spices that’s reduced to a thick, gravy-like consistency
- Sauce Robert (or Robert Sauce): espagnole with lemon juice, dry mustard, white wine, and onions.
- Mushroom sauce: mushrooms, shallots, sherry, and lemon juice
- Burgundy sauce: espagnole with red wine and shallots
4. Sauce Tomate
Sauce tomate, also known as sauce tomat, or tomato sauce, bears slight resemblance to the Italian-style tomato sauce served with pasta.
Tomato sauce is arguably the most popular of the French mother sauces. It is often served on top of pastas (gnocchi, in particular) or polenta, or with grilled meats or vegetables.
Trigger warning for Italians: The original mother sauce tomate was thickened with a roux, but thankfully this is no longer the case.
The classical French tomato sauce can be (but usually is not) thickened with roux and seasoned with pork, herbs, and aromatic vegetables. However, most modern tomato sauces consist primarily of puréed tomatoes seasoned with herbs and reduced into a rich, flavorful sauce.
Marie-Antoine Carême classified sauce tomate as a mother sauce in the early 20th century. They are remarkably versatile and can be served with stewed or roasted meats, fish, vegetables, eggs, and of course, pasta dishes. You’ll even find it used as pizza sauce.
The best tomato sauces are made with fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes. If you can make big batches when they’re in peak season, you’ll be able to enjoy flavorful sauce year-round.
Probably the most well-known sauces, you can make the following with sauce tomate:
- Marinara: tomato sauce with garlic, onions, and herbs)
- Sauce Portugaise or Portuguese sauce: tomato sauce with garlic, onions, sugar, salt, parsley, and peeled tomatoes
- Creole sauce: tomato sauce with white wine, garlic, onion, cayenne pepper, and red bell peppers
Like sauce tomate, this sauce was a later addition to Carême’s list. Brunch-goers will recognize hollandaise from Eggs Benedict variations. People will also know it from topping steamed asparagus or smothering a steak or lobster tail.
Both the original recipe and its derivative sauces are commonly served over eggs, vegetables, fish, or chicken. It’s worth mentioning that hollandaise is derived from mayonnaise and hasn’t always been classified as a mother sauce.
Hollandaise stands out from the other French mother sauces because it relies on the emulsification—or mixing—of egg yolks and butter in place of roux. The tangy, creamy sauce is made from butter, raw egg yolks, lemon juice, and optional flavorings like cayenne pepper or white wine vinegar.
Rookies often struggle with Hollandaise, and jokes will be made that the ingredients can sense fear and intimidation. The tendency for butter and egg yolks to resist combining—much like water and oil—coupled with the gentle heat of a bain-maire (steam bath) can cause the sauce to split or a pile of scrambled eggs to appear.
The key to making a proper hollandaise is slightly warm egg yolks, room temperature butter, and steady, constant whisking. It’s essential to add the butter to the yolks slowly and incrementally so that the ingredients remain stable and don’t separate.
Hollandaise and its derivative sauces are often served over eggs, vegetables, or lighter meats like poultry and fish. Speaking of derivatives, even though hollandaise is delicious on its own:
- Béarnaise (beef’s perfect match): hollandaise with white wine, tarragon, and peppercorn
- Choron: hollandaise with tarragon and tomato
- Sauce Maltaise: hollandaise with blood orange juice
- Sauce Mousseline: hollandaise with whipped heavy cream
There you have it—the five mother sauces. Master these and an entire world of sauce and dip creation opens up to you.
Image: Vitor Monthay on Unsplash