Ok, right now I bet your answer to my title question is: "How do I know if I can make them? I don't even know what the &?@#$!*^ they are!"? Fair enough. The five "mother sauces" are the fundamental sauces that form the foundation for all the sauces in classic French cooking. And no you don't have to be cooking French dishes to use and appreciate them. They come from the French tradition but are used in dishes of all types.
So, What Are The "Mother Sauces"...and Why Should I Care?
Leave it to the French to create and pass down another wonderful culinary tradition! One of the reasons the French have been so wonderful in cooking is that they’re great at focusing on technique (not just recipes). And, of course, sauces have always been a prominent part of the French culinary arts.
Just a bit of history. About 200 years ago a famous French chef, Marie-Antoine Carême, made a list of hundreds of sauces - many his own recipes. Fast forward about a hundred years (the early 20th century) and that great chef August Escoffier refined Carême's list and defined the five fundamental "mother sauces" still used today.
These were the basic sauces that were the foundation of great "families" of sauces. From these "mother sauces" (which, of course, are wonderful on their own) many derivative (also known as "secondary" or "daughter" sauces) could be made by adding other ingredients. So the key to cooking great sauces was to begin by become expert at making these ”mother sauces”.
So what are these five mother sauces, you ask? Glad you asked. Here they are:
1. Espagnole. A fortified brown veal stock sauce, thickened with a brown roux.
2. Hollandaise. An emulsified sauce of egg yolk, butter and lemon or vinegar.
3. Velouté. Translates into "velvety". It's a light stock-based sauce, thickened with a roux and a mixture of egg yolks and cream.
4. Bechamel – A milk-based white sauce thickened with a white roux. It's also known as a Lenten sauce that you can make when you shouldn’t eat meat (because it’s made from milk).
5. Tomate. A tomato-based sauce.
So, now that you know what the five mother sauces are, let's explore each one in a little depth.
The Espagnole Sauce (also sometimes called "Brown Sauce") is one of the more complex mother sauces. It's is made with brown stock, mirepoix, and tomato puree and then thickened with roux. You'll notice its similarity with velouté (see below). The difference is that espagnole is made with tomato purée and mirepoix for a deeper color and flavor. The brown stock is made from bones that have first been roasted to add color and flavor.
This sauce typically includes one additional step - to use it to make a demi-glace (a really rich and flavorful sauce) which is the starting point for most of the "secondary" sauces in the espagnole family. A demi-glace consists of a mixture of half espagnole, half brown stock, which is then reduced by half. A few of espagnole's secondary sauces you might be familiar with include:
- Charcutière Sauce
- Lyonnaise Sauce
- Mushroom Sauce
- Madeira Sauce
- Port Wine Sauce
Hollandaise is an "emulsified" sauce (a mixture of two liquids that would ordinarily not mix together). Emulsification is the only method that enables the combination of fat and liquid. It is a tangy, buttery sauce made by slowly whisking clarified butter into warm egg yolks. Clarified butter is used to make a hollandaise because whole butter contains water and milk solids which can break the emulsion. Clarified butter is just pure butterfat, so it helps the emulsion remain stable. So the liquid here is the clarified butter and the thickening agent is the egg yolks (or actually the lecithin in the egg yolks which is a natural emulsifier).
Hollandaise sauce can be used on its own, and it's particularly delicious on seafood, vegetables and eggs. Some of the secondary hollandaise sauces you are probably familiar with include:
- Béarnaise Sauce
- Dijon Sauce
Velouté is a relatively simple mother sauce. It is made by thickening white stock with roux and then simmering it for a while. While the chicken velouté made with chicken stock (the most common type), a veal velouté, or a fish velouté.
Because it's made from a stock (chicken, veal, fish), if you make the stock yourself it can take a long time to prepare. (Yes, it's okay to shave a bunch of time by using a really good pre-made stock.) This sauce has a neutral (a kind word for bland) flavor and color, so it is very versatile and has a bunch of "secondary" sauces in it's family. (It's really the base and it's velvety texture that we're after with this sauce.) I'll bet you're familiar with some of these secondary sauces:
- Normandy Sauce
- Hungarian Sauce
- Mushroom Sauce
- Aurora Sauce
- Shrimp Sauce
- Herb Seafood Sauce
This one is probably the simplest of the mother sauces. So béchamel sauce tends to be a common and easy sauce for most beginners to get started with. It's basically made from milk, flour and butter. You essentially maker a white roux from a mixture of flour and butter - and then whisk in milk to thicken the milk into a sauce. The sauce is then flavored with onion, cloves and nutmeg and simmered until it is creamy and velvety smooth.
The béchamel is a very versatile sauce. And one that you've probably seen many times before. It's used in baked pasta recipes (like macaroni and cheese, lasagna, etc.). It's the base for a bunch of white, cream, and cheese sauces also. Some of the secondary sauces made from béchamel include:
- Mornay Sauce
- Soubise Sauce
- Cheddar Cheese Sauce
- Mustard Sauce
The fifth mother sauce is the classic Tomate Sauce. This sauce resembles the traditional tomato sauce that we might use on pasta and pizza, but it's got much more flavor and requires a few more steps to make.
Traditionally, the sauce tomate is made with salt belly of pork, onions, bay leaves, thyme, pureed or fresh tomatoes, roux, garlic, salt, sugar and pepper. But you can (and most people do nowadays) leave out the pork belly and roux to make a more standard tomato sauce. The tomatoes are usually enough to thicken the sauce adequately.
As you can imagine, many secondary sauces can be derived from the tomate mother sauce. Here are but a few you are probably most familiar with:
- Spanish Sauce
- Creole Sauce
- Portuguese Sauce
- Provencale Sauce
Soooooo, have I convinced you that learning these five mother sauces is an important part of your cooking journey? They lead to so many other great sauces - and in some wonderful way they connect us with the history of that great tradition of French cooking. let's go master them!