5 Mother Sauces to Perfect French Cooking
The mother sauces are:
- Béchamel Sauce – Made from a light roux (equal parts flour and butter) and milk, béchamel sauce is the base for most traditional cheese sauces.
- Espagnole Sauce – This sauce starts with a flavorful brown stock and is thickened with a dark roux.
- Hollandaise Sauce – One of the only mother sauces that is packed with flavor on its own, it’s made from combining egg yolks, melted butter, and lemon juice.
- Tomato Sauce – This is much more complex than your average jar of marinara. It combines pork, spices, light roux, and, of course, tomatoes.
- Velouté Sauce – This is a clear sauce—made from unroasted bones and vegetables—that’s thickened with a white roux.
Learn more about the sauces, as well as dishes they’re traditionally used in, and you’ll be well on your way to mastering the art of French cooking.
The 5 Mother Sauces Every Chef Must Master
While not necessarily delicious on their own, the five mother sauces allow you to create deeply flavorful sauces that will make an ordinary dish extraordinary. If you can master these, the culinary clouds will part and you’ll be able to whip up amazing dishes.
If you enjoy a decadent cheese sauce, you have Béchamel to thank. It’s smooth and versatile, but fairly bland on its own. The only real flavor comes from milk and nutmeg, so you’ll almost never see it served solo.
Traditionally, Béchamel is made by combining milk with a light roux. The sauce shouldn’t pick up any color, so only slightly cooking the roux is key. After it can coat the back of a spoon, powerful flavors like sharp cheese can be added.
Base: Milk, light roux, nutmeg.
Typically used in: Cheese-based sauces, lasagna.
The key to a good Espagnole sauce is starting with a great stock. The sauce is an incredibly simple mix of a brown stock and a dark roux (equal parts butter and flour, cooked until caramel color develops).
Its rich flavor comes from the roasted bones used in the stock that impart a noticeable depth. Once thickened, use the glossy sauce to make gravy, demi-glace, or red wine sauces.
Espagnole can be thickened with tomato paste to add even more color and flavor.
Base: Brown stock made from roasted bones, aromatics, brown roux.
Typically used in: Arguably the most versatile mother sauce, it’s used as a base for gravies, demi-glace, heavy wine-based sauces, and stews.
Traditionally, a French chef’s ability is tested by preparing a Hollandaise from scratch. Because it’s an emulsion, the sauce can break (the butter and egg separate) very easily. So making this sauce requires precision and skill.
Hollandaise is rich, buttery and, because it’s seasoned with a little bit of lemon juice, tangy. It’s made by whisking melted butter with egg yolks and seasoning with lemon and sometimes cayenne pepper.
Base: Egg yolks, butter.
Typically used in: It’s popular on eggs benedict and—with the addition of tarragon to make bearnaise sauce—delicious on top of steaks.
French tomato sauce, or “Sauce Tomate” as it’s formally known, is similar to, but more complicated than traditional Italian tomato sauce. The key difference that separates the two is the addition of pork.
French tomato sauce starts by sautéing the pork until all the fat renders out, then using that to cook the vegetables, brown stock, and tomatoes. There’s no need to thicken the sauce with a roux as the tomatoes will do that step.
Base: Tomatoes, pork fat, aromatics.
Typically used in: Spanish cuisine, creole sauce.
Velouté and Bechamel are very similar in preparation with the main difference being that Velouté is made with stock, not milk. It literally translates to “velvety” and for good reason.
The stock used in making a Velouté should be made with bones that have not been roasted. You can use chicken, veal, vegetable, or fish stock to make a Velouté. Combining the light stock with a light roux will result in a fairly clear, slightly thick sauce.
Base: Light roux, light stock.
Typically used in: White wine sauce, mushroom sauces.
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