The Five French Mother Sauces

Recognizing and Knowing Sauces is Like Knowing the Chords in Music

 As I delve deeper and deeper into cooking, I have wondered how to be more creative and ween myself from cookbooks. Like a musician who wants to improvise a melody or write a song, there are keys (sorry) to making the process easier and to give you a place to start. For musicians, chords are the structure that enables the artist to build a melody and composition. Similarly, sauces often underpin a recipe and provide the harmonic thread throughout the dish. By better understanding the sauces, you can see when a recipe you are using is incorporating a certain sauce and that opens up possibilities for you to be more creative in making changes to the sauce. At the very least, it makes the song sheet, that is the recipe, mean much more than just a jumble of notes (ingredients).

5 French Mother Sauce Basics

 French chef Marie Antoine-Carême was the first to organize all the French sauces into groups that were based on four foundational sauces. Later, French chef Auguste Escoffier added one more sauce (Sauce Tomat) so that there were now five "mother sauces," which he codified in recipe form in Le Guide Culinaire in 1903.

Some Sauce Facts

In essence, a sauce is a liquid that is thickened. There are a variety of ways in which this can be done, but with regards to the mother sauces, thickening is usually achieved with a roux, emulsion, or reduction.
A roux is a combination of equal parts fat and flour that is cooked together until the flour flavor has disappeared and the desired color is achieved. The fat used is generally butter, but other fats, such as lard or vegetable oil, can be substituted. Roux is a versatile thickening agent and used in three of the five mother sauces.
An emulsion is a mixture of two liquids that are usually unmixable, such as oil and vinegar.
A reduction is the process of thickening a sauce by simmering or boiling to remove moisture.


1. Béchamel

This is roux whisked with milk or other dairy to make a white sauce. Ever made macaroni and cheese or chicken pot pie? The base of both these dishes is béchamel. By itself, béchamel is quite bland, which is why it is usually cooked with other ingredients and not used as a finishing sauce.

2. Velouté

A velouté is a light roux whisked with chicken, turkey, fish or any other clear stock. The resulting sauce takes on the flavor of the stock, and the name is derived from the French word for velvet, which aptly describes this smooth but light and delicate sauce. It is usually served over fish or poultry that has been delicately cooked, like by poaching or steaming.

3. Espagnole

Sauce espagnole is a basic brown sauce. It's made of brown beef or veal stock, tomato puree, and browned mirepoix, all thickened with a very dark brown roux. This sauce is sometimes used at the foundation for boeuf bourguinon and demi-glace.

4. Sauce Tomat

This is made by cooking tomatoes down into a thick sauce but used to also be thickened with roux. Unlike more modern-day tomato sauces, the classic French tomato sauce is flavored with pork and aromatic vegetables.

5. Hollandaise

This is the one mother sauce not thickened by a roux. Instead, it's thickened by an emulsion of egg yolk and melted butter, which means it's a stable mixture of two things that usually normally can't blend together. This is a very delicate sauce because the emulsion can easily break, and rich hollandaise is usually used as a dipping sauce for asparagus or a finishing sauce for dishes like eggs Benedict. Sauce Bearnaise is Hollandaise with Tarragon, Chevril and shallots (sometime using white wine vinegar in lieu of lemon)


The Emulsion Sauces

The main mother sauce from which bearnaise, aoli, mayonnaise, are born or derived, Hollandaise sauce combines two liquids that would not otherwise combine and thicken by using eggs. Let Jamie Oliver show you how easy, despite all the hype, that it is. 

If you are worried that the whisking is too much, you can make hollandaise, aoli and the other derivatives using a blender. See Bill St. John putting the suace together in the following video.




The Roux Sauces


Lets start with a basic video on Roux. Skip if you got it down already.



 Take the roux and essentially add milk and you have Béchamel. Here is a video.


So what is the big deal? A bland white sauce?

Think of flavors now. Cheese - of course.

Herbs? What do you like best in flavors with fish or fettuccine?

Here are some of the derivatives of Béchamel:

Alfredo Sauce, Mornay Sauce (cheese), Curry Sauce, Dill Sauce, Cream sauce, Mustard Sauce, Herb Sauce, Aurora Sauce (with Tomato Puree), Avignon Sauce (garlic, parmesan cheese, egg yolk and parsley, Brantome (or Nantua) Sauce, bread Sauce, Cardinal Sauce (fish stock and truffle), Soubise Sauce (for vegetables), and Country Gravy



 Variations for the veloute sauce include:

Bercy Sauce (with Wine for Fish), Cardinal Sauce (use Bechamel or Veloute), Normandy Sauce (with mushrooms and shellfish sauce for fish), Allemande Sauce (thickened with egg yolks and cream rather than a roux), Hungarian Sauce (onions, wine and paprika), Mushroom Sauce, Supreme Sauce, Venetian Sauce, Wine Sauce, Sauce Vin Blanc, Albufera Sauce, Horseradish sauce, poulette sauce.


 Also Know as Brown Sauce.

The best known derivative is Demi-glace made by adding white or brown stock and Madeira or Sherry. Others Include:

Jus lie, Bigarade Sauce, Bordelaise Sauce(demi-glace with re wine and shallot), Breton Sauce (onion, white wine, butter garlic and parsley), Chasseur Sauce (for Game), Duxelles Sauce, Lyonnaise Sauce (onions vinegar and white white), Perigourdine Sauce (foie gras and truffles), Venison Sauce (re wine, vinegar, sugar lemon and red current jelly), Bourguignonne sauce (red wine, shallots, and bouquet garni) and mushroom sauce.

 Sauce Tomat

Suace tomat, in the original french recipes, is thickened with a roux. I have given the recipe for this in the video as is is a rendition using pork and wine that is quite good. It can also be made as a reduction without the use of a roux.

Derivations of the sauce include:

Puttaneasca Sauce (olives, anchovies, capers and red pepper), Roasted Red Pepper Sauce (red peppers and parsley), Bolognese Sause (add meat and mire poix), Marinara Sauce (Parsley, garlic and oregano), Tikka Masala (ginger,cayenne, cinnamon and paprika), many other pasta sauces, moles,arrabbiata sauces, and Neapolitan Sauces.


Maybe now the creative juices are flowing and you can hum a tune of your own?


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