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5 Mother Sauces: How Well Do You Know Them?

If you’ve ever had French cuisine made authentically, then you know a little something about the sauce. You might call it “gravy” or you might just throw in a jar of spaghetti sauce to heat up at home, but sauce and food are just as good of friends as Snoopy and Charlie Brown. When it comes to what the world eats day in and day out, everything comes back around in some way to the five sauces.

With Easter being celebrated the world over and many sauces being made for brunch, dinner, or the local potluck, let’s take a look at the 5 French mother sauces of French cooking to see how they influence what you’re eating… and potentially how you define yourself, foodie or otherwise.

What is a Mother Sauce?

In French cuisine, a mother sauce is a highly seasoned stock-based sauce used as the base note of many different sauces. A precise recipe may not exist and there are regional variations.

Every country has its version of french mother sauces, but in general, being “mother” implies that they form the basis for many variations which can be made by adding different ingredients.

There are five French mother sauces: béchamel, velouté, espagnole, tomato, and hollandaise. Let’s take a closer look at each of them.

History of Mother Sauces

The history of mother sauces is a long and winding one, with each sauce having its own unique story. However, some commonalities can be found among all of them.

One of the earliest references to a mother sauce comes from the 18th-century French chef, Antonin Carême. He referred to a basic béchamel sauce as the “mother of all sauces.”

From there, the idea of mother sauces spread and took on different forms in different countries. In Italy, for example, there is the ragù alla bolognese, which is a meat-based sauce that serves as the base for other dishes.

In America, there is brown gravy, which is beef or pork-based sauce that is often served with mashed potatoes or other roasted meats.

While each country has its version of a mother sauce, they all share some commonalities. They are all based on a stock-based sauce that is highly seasoned. They are also all used as the base for many different variations.

Hollandaise Sauce

One of the 5 mother sauces, the Hollandaise Sauce on Egg Benedict

Made classically with clarified butter and egg yolks, you could go down to the local store and pick up a package of sauce to make for a dollar or two. Or, if you prefer, you could just make your own – but be careful, the sauce separates easily! This is especially good if you’re planning on Eggs Benedict for breakfast on Easter morning, but a little of Hollandaise Sauce on some asparagus at dinner is fantastic as well.

You’re also going to need to know how to make this french sauce to work on some of the secondary sauces, like maltaise, bearnaise, foyot, or mousseline. Even the mayo that you put on your sandwich is based on this Hollandaise Sauce! Add some lemon, champagne, or pink peppercorns to your sauce for a unique twist. 

Hollandaise sauce can also be used as a topping for steamed vegetables or as a dip for fries or onion rings.

Hollandaise Sauce Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Instructions:

  • In a small saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Do not allow it to brown.
  • In a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks, lemon juice, salt, and cayenne pepper until the mixture is thickened and light yellow.
  • Slowly pour the melted butter into the egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly.
  • Pour the sauce through a fine-mesh strainer into a warmed serving bowl.
  • Serve immediately.

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Brown Sauce – Espagnole 

1024px Sauce Spagnole 09
Image by Tamorlan used under CC 3.0 License

That gravy that goes so well on meatloaf or mashed potatoes? That’s brown sauce in French cooking! It’s traditionally made from brown roux, veal stock that’s been roasted, but beef stock or even chicken stock can work in a pinch. You’ll also see turkey stock used a lot during the Thanksgiving season!

Thyme and parsley are the typical ways to flavor this sauce, but go out on a limb sometimes and use a little tomato puree [but not the canned stuff] for a little extra texture and flavor. To get a good Demi-Glace or Bordelaise, you’ll need to know how to make this wonderful sauce.

Espagnole sauce is a brown sauce that is commonly used in French dishes. It is made from a roux, roasted veal stock, and beef stock. This sauce is typically flavored with thyme and parsley, but can also be flavored with tomato puree. Espagnole sauce is used in dishes such as beef bourguignon and coq au vin.

Espagnole Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 4 cups beef stock
  • 1 (14.5-ounce) can of diced tomatoes, undrained
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Instructions:

In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Stir in the flour and cook for 1 minute. Gradually whisk in the stock. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, sugar, thyme, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Stir in the parsley and serve.

Tomato Sauce

1024px Fresh Tomato Sauce %28Unsplash%29

How popular is tomato sauce in the modern diet? From pasta dishes to gnocchi to vegetables, just about everything goes well with this sauce! Veal stock or salt pork is a classical flavoring method, but tomato sauce is receptive to several different spices and stocks to create some intense, magical flavors.

Reducing a tomato sauce in garlic, basil, and oregano with some mushrooms is a great twist on a classic pasta sauce, while grilled vegetables may go well with a sauce flavored with just salt and pepper. Whatever way you go, you just can’t go wrong with a classic tomato sauce!

One of the most popular dishes is a simple tomato sauce that can be used with pasta, gnocchi, or vegetables. This sauce is incredibly versatile and can be adapted to fit a variety of different flavors.

Tomato Sauce Ingredients

To make the tomato sauce, you will need:

  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 can (14.5 ounces) of diced tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Instructions:

In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, oregano, basil, salt, and pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook until the sauce thickens about 10 minutes.

Velouté Sauce

1024px Broad bean velout%C3%A9
Image by Ross Bruniges used under CC 2.0 License

If you need a good sauce for seafood or poultry, then this mother sauce should be at the top of your list. It’s typically made with fish or chicken stock where the bones haven’t already been roasted, making the stock light, yet still flavorful. You’ll then add a roux or a fattening agent to the sauce, usually butter, and a little salt and pepper for flavoring.

White wine sauces come from this mother sauce, which also works incredibly well with eggs, steamed vegetables, and even veal. For an interesting twist, you could thicken this sauce with a liaison, or a mixture of egg yolk and cream, for added depth to your final dish.

Where it’s used

Velouté sauce is used in a variety of different dishes, typically seafood or poultry. It’s made with a light fish or chicken stock and then thickened with a roux or fattening agent, such as butter. The sauce is typically seasoned with salt and pepper. White wine sauces are derived from veloute sauce, and they can also be used with eggs, vegetables, and veal. For a richer sauce, a liaison of egg yolk and cream can be used.

Velouté Sauce Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • salt and pepper to taste

Instructions:

  1. In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Stir in flour until well combined.
  2. Gradually whisk in chicken broth until smooth. Bring to a simmer and cook until thickened, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Serve over cooked chicken, beef, or pasta.

White Sauce – Bechamel

Fish with white sauce 01
Image by thienzieyung used under CC 2.0

Although other mother sauces may appear white because of the lightness of the stock or the flavoring ingredients that have been used, Béchamel sauce is the only true white sauce in French cuisine. Any sauce variation made with cream, cheese, or similar dairy products works best when this is the mother sauce that is used as a base.

Nutmeg, cloves, and onions make for classic flavors, but don’t be afraid to use a little white pepper, bay leaves, or even some garlic as you create this sauce. In return, you’ll have a flavorful sauce, typically thickened with butter and maybe a little flour or starch if needed, that is perfect for poultry and pasta.

Bechamel sauce is used in a variety of different dishes. It can be used as a white sauce for dishes such as chicken pot pie, macaroni, and cheese, cauliflower cheese, or fish pie. It can also be used as a sauce for lasagna, cannelloni, and other pasta dishes. Bechamel sauce can also be used as a base for cheese sauces, such as Mornay sauce.

Bechamel Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp pepper
  • 3 cups milk

Instructions:

  1. In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Stir in flour and salt, and cook for 1 minute.
  2. Gradually whisk in milk, and bring to a boil. Cook for 1 minute, or until thickened.
  3. Serve over cooked pasta, vegetables, or poultry.

Where to find the best sauce

There are quite a few restaurants that serve up some of the best French Mother sauces around. Some of my favorites include L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, The American Express Experience at Per Se, and Eleven Madison Park. Each of these restaurants serves up a unique version of a Mother sauce, and I would highly recommend trying out each of them at least once.

If you’re looking to add some French flair to your cooking, be sure to try out one of the five french sauces. These sauces are easy to make and can be used in a variety of different dishes. You’ll find that each sauce has its unique flavor, making them perfect for any occasion.

FAQs

Why are they called five mother sauces?

The sauces are named so because they are the base sauces from which all other sauces in French cuisine are made. Each sauce has a unique flavor and texture that can be manipulated to create endless variations.

Are there Daughter sauces?

Yes, there are daughter sauces, which are created by modifying one of the mother sauces. For example, a béchamel sauce can be turned into a cheese sauce by adding shredded cheese. Similarly, a hollandaise sauce can be turned into an egg sauce by adding eggs. There are endless possibilities for creating new sauces by tweaking the flavors and techniques of the mother sauces.

What are father sauces?

Father sauces are variations on the classic five mother sauces. These variations have developed out of the need to accommodate changing tastes and lifestyles. Sauce palettes gain richness and complexity with flavors like tomato, cream, roasted peppers, or sun-dried tomatoes added to a basic stock/roux base. The father sauces cover a wider range of flavors and applications than the classic five mother sauces.

Which sauce is the most popular?

There is no one “most popular” sauce – each sauce has its own unique set of fans. However, hollandaise sauce is often cited as a favorite due to its luxurious richness and versatility. Béchamel sauce is another popular option, as it is a versatile foundation for many other sauces.

What is the importance of roux?

Roux is a mixture of butter and flour that is used to thicken sauces and soups. The butter provides richness and flavor, while the flour helps to bind the sauce or soup and gives it a smooth texture. Roux can be made with different types of fat (butter, oil, lard) and different types of flour (all-purpose, whole wheat, gluten-free), so it can be tailored to fit the needs of any recipe.

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