A Beginner's Guide to the French Mother Sauces

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Ashlee Redger
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A Beginner's Guide to the French Mother Sauces

Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Auguste Escoffier. Now keep it raised if you know why this French culinary legend is so dang famous. Those with your hands still raised might answer, “the brigade de cuisine”—you know, the system that formalized the staff structure in restaurant kitchens? Okay, maybe not. Perhaps you’ll answer with his lasting reputation as the author of the influential cookbook that’s still widely used as a reference text to this day, Le Guide Culinaire. No, we’re not going to be going through the history of Escoffier’s work—I want to talk about mother sauces: what in the world they are and how they’ve directed many of the dishes we eat every day.

As you might know, we’re having a Saucy Summer here at Savory. To discover what that means for us, we had to go back to some of the most important sauces in Western history. Escoffier didn’t invent the mother sauces, but he did write about them. His reputation allowed him to refine and officialize which of the many sauces in French cuisine got to be at the top of the food chain, so to speak. If you can’t name them all (or any of them), I don’t blame you. Here are the five mother sauces: bechamel, veloute, hollandaise, tomato, and espagnole. But first, let’s go over a few vocab terms.

What do these French words even mean?

You can totally learn the basics of the mother sauces without knowing a lick of French, but then how would you impress your friends at dinner parties? I’ve included a few of the classic words and phrases that you might see scattered throughout French cooking.

  • Roux - Pronounced like “roo.” This is a cooked mixture of fat (traditionally butter—clarified or whole—but could also be meat drippings or oil) and flour used to thicken sauces and soups. It’s usually a 1:1 ratio by weight of the two, cooked to varying degrees: white, blond, and brown. Cooking removes the raw starchy flavor of the flour and adds an underlying toastiness to the resulting sauce or dish.
  • Onion pique - A wedge of onion that has had a bay leaf adhered to it using 2 or 3 whole cloves. Without the bay leaf, the onion-and-clove combo is called an onion cloute. Most often used in bechamel, the onion pique (or cloute) can be used as an easy flavor infuser and plucked out of the dish before serving.
  • Mirepoix - Pronounced like “meer-pwah.” A combination of onions, carrots, and celery used to build a base of flavor in all kinds of dishes—from stocks to soups and sauces to roasted meats. Can sometimes include leeks.
  • Bouquet garni - A bundle of aromatic herbs tied together. Often includes bay leaves, thyme, and parsley stems, along with rosemary, basil, tarragon, chervil, etc. depending on desired flavor notes. Sometimes made of dried herbs (we’ve got you covered) and peppercorns contained within cheesecloth or a Muslin Bag to create an easily-removable sachet d’epices (“bag of spices”).
  • Secondary sauces - Also called derivatives, these are sauces that are created by adding additional components to a mother sauce. Personally, I prefer the term “baby sauces.” 

Got all of that? Great! Now on to the sauces themselves.


The Mother Sauces

Veloute Sauce

Veloute

Let’s start out simple. You’ve probably already made veloute! It’s basically what you’d think of as gravy, and you’ve probably used turkey drippings to make something similar on Thanksgiving. Veloute specifically refers to a sauce made with white stock—like veal, seafood, or chicken. It starts with a blond roux, one that’s cooked until lightly toasted and aromatic. It then gets the stock addition. A simmer helps thicken the sauce and reduce flavors, then it’s ready to serve! See? Easy.

Examples of Secondary Sauces

  • Allemande = veloute + cream + egg yolks + lemon juice
  • Vin Blanc = veloute +  dry white wine
  • Supreme = chicken veloute + cream
  • Estragon = chicken veloute + cream + tarragon
  • Normandy/Normande = fish veloute + mushrooms + cream + egg yolks

Uses:

An all-purpose sauce for serving with chicken, veal, fish/shellfish, or straight-up slurping with a spoon (kidding about the last one, kind of). Can also be used as a sauce for chicken pot pie or as the base for a thick soup.


Bechamel Sauce

Bechamel

Bechamel is my favorite of the mother sauces. It’s similar to veloute but uses a white roux  (cooked just long enough to cook out the raw flour flavor) and onion pique-infused scalded milk as the liquid. “Wait,” you might be thinking, “doesn’t scalding mean burning?” Nope! To scald milk means that you bring it almost to a boil, just until there are tiny bubbles building up on the side of the pot and a film forms on top of the milk. This helps infuse the milk with the onion/bay/cloves pique that you added, plus it helps make the milk sweeter. I don’t know how it does it, but I’d swear that scalding the milk helps convert the milk sugars into a more detectable compound. For me, it’s an absolutely necessary step for a perfectly balanced final sauce.

Examples of Secondary Sauces

  • Soubise = bechamel + onions
  • Mornay = bechamel + Parmesan + Gruyere 
  • Cream/Creme = bechamel + cream
  • Raifort = bechamel + horseradish + white wine + cream
  • Cheddar = bechamel + Cheddar cheese + Worcestershire sauce

Uses

Ever had biscuits and gravy? You’ve had bechamel. My Midwestern roots are showing here, but bechamel is basically white/milk gravy. Derivative mornay or Cheddar sauces are the same or very similar to most mac & cheese recipes. Otherwise, bechamel is often served with veggies, chicken or veal, and as a white sauce for pizza and pasta.


Espagnole Sauce

Espagnole

While it might sound like a Spanish term, this sauce doesn’t have anything to do with the cuisine of Spain. It’s also known as Brown Sauce (creative, right?). It’s more complex than the sauces we’ve covered thus far—it’s like Veloute 2.0. It uses a brown roux, one that’s cooked till quite toasted and distinctively nutty in aroma, along with a brown stock made with beef (or sometimes poultry) bones that have been roasted. The sauce starts with mirepoix to fortify the flavor of the stock, then is simmered with a sachet d’epices and tomato puree (our recipe uses tomato powder) for some acidity and umami notes. It tastes much like a long-simmered stew and even has some flavors that you might associate with a red wine-braised beef roast. Demi-glace, one of its derivative sauces, rivals espagnole in popularity (and derivatives of its own) and you have probably spotted it on menus today.

Examples of Secondary Sauces

  • Demi-glace = 50% espagnole + 50% brown stock and reduced by half
  • Bordelaise = demi-glace + red wine + bone marrow + fines herbs
  • Chasseur = espagnole + shallots + mushrooms + tomato + white wine
  • Robert = demi-glace + mustard + onion + white wine + sugar

Uses

Serve alongside meats (especially roasted) like lamb, beef, or duck. For a (French?) Canadian treat, spoon it over French fries and top with cheese curds. Oh hey, poutine!


Sauce tomat

Tomato Sauce

You might be thinking right about now: “Like… marinara?” Sort of! If you want to distinguish this from its Italian cousin, you can refer to it as sauce tomat. What sets it apart is a decreased emphasis on garlic and the omission of basil and oregano, all of which are essential for an Italian pasta sauce. You’ll also notice the addition of pork—traditionally salt pork which is very similar to bacon, minus the smoking process. For simplicity and ease, I did use bacon in our recipe (which added a hint of smoke) but if you have some salt pork laying around—use that instead! 

Examples of Secondary Sauces

  • Creole = tomato sauce + green bell pepper + celery + hot sauce or cayenne
  • Milanaise = tomato sauce + mushrooms + ham
  • Provençale = tomato sauce +  olives + capers + Herbes de Provence
  • Portuguese = tomato sauce + parsley + onions

Uses

Much like the Italian versions of tomato sauce, this is often served with pasta, chicken or veal, and bread.


Hollandaise

We’re going to take a sharp turn now. Where the rest of the sauces have been roux-thickened, hollandaise is composed of an emulsion of egg yolk and butter (traditionally: clarified). It’s flavored with salt, cayenne or hot sauce, and lemon juice to help add tang and complexity to the richness. Done well, hollandaise is thick, luscious, and well-balanced (not just buttery). You could say it’s a bit of a diva though because, without careful monitoring of temperature and whisking, it can break into a grainy-looking oil + solids mess. If that happens to you, don’t worry! Try adding a few teaspoons of boiling water while whisking furiously. It should come back together, restoring all of your eggs Benedict brunch dreams. 

Examples of Secondary Sauces

  • Bearnaise = hollandaise made with a white wine vinegar, tarragon, and shallot reduction 
  • Mousseline = hollandaise + whipped cream
  • Maltaise = hollandaise + blood orange juice & zest

Uses

Eggs benny (duh). Also wonderful served with cooked veggies (especially asparagus and broccoli), seafood, and poultry. Bearnaise is a traditional partner to steak or roast beef.

 

Are you a master of hollandaise or do you put your own spin on espagnole? Do you think the classic list misses your favorite sauce? Let us know or show off by tagging @savoryspiceshop on Instagram; we’ll feature our faves!


Comments on this Article


(guest), on July 09, 2019

Amazing! Love the detailed explanation and uses of all of the sauces! Thank you Ashley!

(guest), on July 09, 2019

Excellent summary and clear explanation! All these years, I've prepared many of them in recipes (or enjoyed them in restaurants), never realizing what was being created or how they are all related!

(guest), on July 09, 2019

Thanks but you made me hungry????. Wonderful explanations and much needed.

(guest), on July 09, 2019

Wonderful explanations! I’m printing this and putting it Inn my go to recipe file. Thank you!!

(guest), on July 09, 2019

Great summary! Looking forward to trying a few out this summer!

(guest), on July 09, 2019

Great refresher, I did go to LeCordon Blue years ago and was wondering if I should dig out my old textbooks because I have forgot a few things. Look forward to your next lesson.

(guest), on July 09, 2019

Yep. This is going in the digital cookbook that lives on my desktop.

(guest), on July 09, 2019

Great reference material! I’ve saved it to my Pinterest account and emailed it to some people. Thanks!

(guest), on July 09, 2019

Great refresher, Cordon Bleu graduate, Seattle, Wa.
Thanks!

(guest), on July 09, 2019

This is a terrific article — interesting, helpful and a fun read! I’m looking forward to trying out some of the derivatives.

(guest), on July 09, 2019

Great article. Will use as a reference.

(guest), on July 09, 2019

The sauces may seem simple, but require practice, patience and experience. As a home chef, these sauces are required basic knowledge. It's been many years that Ive been in a professional kitchen, but the lessons taught to me by more experienced, and undeniably patient, chefs are the fond memories I still look back on today.

Virginia (registered user) on July 13, 2019

Just caught up on some saved cooking shows and I really enjoyed seeing your store on Trisha's Southern Kitchen show from July 9, episode "Musical Brunch". I was so excited to see "my" spice shop! I guess I am in very good company!

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