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Appetite for Knowledge

Get Sauced: Five Mothers and Others

Sauces are an essential element in cuisines all over the world. French cookbooks literally list hundreds of sauces. The extensive list was consolidated to just five, which forms the foundation for many other sauces in French cuisine and hence the term “mother” sauce. A sauce made by adding flavoring to a basic mother sauce is a “sister” sauce.

French Mother Sauce

Whether you realize it or not, you have probably eaten at least three of the five “Mother Sauces.” Moreover, if you cook, you’ve probably even made at least two of them. Every soup, gravy, and just about every hot sauce you eat is made from a French mother sauce.

A sauce is flavored liquid plus a thickening agent. By varying the combination of liquid, flavoring and thickening agent, the possibilities are endless. Sauces are not consumed by themselves; they add flavor, moisture, and visual appeal to another dish.

Are You a Saucier?

A person who specializes in making sauces is often referred to as a “saucier”, a French term borrowed for its situational usefulness. Some famous sauciers include Julia Child, and Bobby Flay.

The Roux

Master the making of roux (“roo”) and you will have a variety of French sauces at your fingertips. Roux is basically cooking fat and flour together before adding in the liquid you want thickened. The fat used is generally butter, but oil or other fats can also be used. The fat and flour cook together to cook out some of the floury, pasty flavor in the flour. Cook the mixture 5 minutes for white, 20 minutes for blond, or 35 minutes for brown roux. The darker the roux, the nuttier the flavor. When the liquid is added to roux and everything comes to a boil, the flour thickens the liquid and you end up with sauce. Four out of the five mother sauces are thickened by roux.

The 5 French “Mother Sauces”

1. Béchamel (“bay-sha-mel”)

Also known as a white sauce, this is white roux whisked with milk or other dairy to make a white sauce. White and just a tad bit thicker than heavy cream. The flavoring is up to you, although the French like to do a little salt and pepper while the Italians like to throw on a pinch of nutmeg. Another traditional flavoring option is to steep the milk with a whole onion that has been studded with a couple cloves, and a bay leaf before combined with the roux.

By itself, béchamel is quite bland, which is why it is usually cooked with other ingredients and not used as a finishing sauce. Béchamel is classically served with eggs, fish, steamed poultry, steamed vegetables, pastas, and veal.

The sister sauces include:

  • Mornay = béchamel + Gruyère + Parmesan + butter
  • Cheese = béchamel + cheddar + Worcestershire sauce + dry mustard
  • Soubise = béchamel + onions + butter

2. Velouté (“vuh-loo-tay”)

It’s made similar to a béchamel, except in this case, stock replaces the milk. A velouté is a blond 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 suitably describes this smooth but light and delicate sauce. Commonly the sauce produced will be referred to by the type of stock used, for example, chicken velouté.

Velouté is classically served with eggs, fish, steamed poultry, steamed vegetables, and pastas.

The sister sauces include:

  • Bercy = velouté +shallots + white wine + fish stock + butter + parsley
  • Normandy = fish velouté + fish stock + mushrooms + liaison
  • Allemande = veal/chicken velouté + liaison
  • Suprême = chicken velouté + cream

3. Espagnole (“es-puhn-yohl”)

Commonly known as brown sauce, this rich sauce is made using beef or veal stock, tomato puree, and mirepoix (meer-pwah), which is a combination of diced carrots, celery, and onions, all thickened with a very dark brown roux. If you’ve heard of demi-glace (deh-mee-glass), it’s nothing more than equal parts of espagnole sauce and brown stock that has been reduced by half for an even more flavorful sauce.

Espagnole is rarely served on its own due to the strong flavors. Espagnole is classically served with roasted meats like beef, veal, lamb, and duck.

The sister sauces include:

  • Bordelaise = demi-glace + red wine + shallots + bay leaf + thyme + black pepper
  • Châteaubriand = demi-glace + mushrooms + shallots + lemon juice + cayenne pepper + tarragon + butter
  • Madeira = demi-glace + madeira wine
  • Mushroom = demi-glace + mushroom caps

4. Hollandaise (“hol-uhn-dehz”)

This is the one mother sauce not thickened by a roux. Hollandaise sauce is an emulsion of butter and lemon juice or vinegar using egg yolks as the emulsifying agent (to bind the sauce), usually seasoned with salt and a little black pepper or cayenne pepper. Heat control is essential here to prevent curdling of the sauce and therefore usually done in a double boiler.

Hollandaise sauce is classically served with eggs (Eggs Benedict), vegetables (especially asparagus), light poultry dishes, and fish.

The sister sauces include:

  • Béarnaise = hollandaise + shallots + tarragon + chervil + peppercorns + white wine vinegar
  • Chantilly = hollandaise + whipped heavy cream Tomate sauce is classically served with pasta, fish, vegetables, polenta, veal, poultry, breads and dumplings such as gnocchi.

5. Tomate (“toe-maht”)

Sauce tomate, better known as tomato sauce, is based on tomatoes. A roux is traditionally used in making a tomate sauce but many chefs skip it because the tomatoes themselves are enough to thicken the sauce. The classic sauce tomate is made with salted pork belly, onions, bay leaves, thyme, pureed or fresh tomatoes, roux, garlic, salt, sugar, and pepper. If you don’t want to get that fancy, you can leave out the pork belly and roux to make a standard tomato sauce.

The sister sauces include:

  • Creole = tomate sauce + onion + celery + garlic + bay leaf + thyme + green pepper + hot sauce
  • Spanish = creole sauce + mushrooms + olives
  • Milanaise = tomate sauce + mushrooms + butter + cooked ham

I hope you’re excited to build your sauce repertoire! As Julia Child eloquently summed up: “Sauces are the glory and splendor of French cooking.”


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7 different sauces in small containers

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Issued in furtherance of extension work, acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Kelly Crane, Director, University of Wyoming Extension, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Wyoming Extension, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming 82071.

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