The 5 Mother Sauces of French Cuisine
Would you believe me if I told you that nearly every sauce you’ve ever eaten is developed from the base of one of five others? Well, I’m telling you the truth! As a chef, we use the term ‘mother sauce’ to describe one of five delicious and staple sauces which are the starting points for most others.
They’re called mother sauces because each one is like the head of its own fascinating family. You could think of them as many people think of Shakespeare’s plays, which are the basis for most of the stories and films we read and watch today.
So, while it may seem obvious to some – sauces really are wonderful. They add flavour, moisture, and something to great to look at to any food dish and we have a man called Auguste Escoffier to thank for them. Auguste was a 19h century French chef, restaurateur and culinary writer who is known for updating traditional French cooking methods. His biggest achievement includes popularising the five mother sauces which have inspired French and global cuisine ever since!
The rest of my blog will teach you all the details you need to know about the 5 French mother sauces, and how they serve as a fabulous foundation for any number of other sauce variations. Here we go…
This is a silky white sauce created primarily from milk but thickened with butter and flour. It’s simple to make, you start by melting a bit of butter in a saucepan, you then stir in an equal amount of flour and cook for about a minute – you will then have a base known as a roux. Go on to stir in milk a bit at a time and stir constantly so that it’s smooth. Bring it to a boil and there you have it, a creamy and delicious béchamel.
This beautiful silky base sauce goes well in lots of European dishes such as lasagne and croque monsieur.
As interesting as béchamel is by itself, you can make it more so with a little experimentation. The sauce is the base for many other great recipes; add grated cheese and egg yolk to béchamel to get a sauce called mornay. Mix béchamel with tomato sauce to get a creamy fruity sauce called aurora or get mixing sautéed onions with béchamel to get a moreish savoury sauce called soubisse.
This is a savoury sauce base that you start cooking just like you would béchamel, you make velouté by starting with a roux which is equal parts butter and flour. The difference between them is that you use a stock for velouté instead of milk but otherwise, the cooking method for this is exactly the same as béchamel.
Ideally you’d use a veal stock but I know that’s not easy to come by so you can replace it with vegetable, chicken or any stock light in colour.
This salty and savoury sauce is a great addition to a vegetable and meat dish as a replacement for something like gravy, but you can make it more interesting so it accompanies a whole host of dishes. Want to recreate the white wine sauce you get in restaurants? Then create velouté with fish sauce and add white wine, double cream and lemon juice to the mix. To create the famous poulette, start with any variation of velouté but add mushrooms (blended or not), parsley, and lemon juice.
Espagnole (brown sauce)
Espagnole is a great word but it is most commonly known as ‘brown sauce’. Trust me, make it yourself and it’ll be much tastier than the one you get in the bottle. Chefs and home cooks alike still use Auguste Escoffier’s recipe to create homemade brown sauce.
To get started, mix a brown stock (such as beef) with a brown roux – fat or butter and equal parts dark flour, but this time you must add in tomato puree and the essence of onions, celery, and carrots. Although delicious by itself, the most popular variant of brown sauce is a demi-glace, to create this you reduce the sauce but half in a pan and mix with sherry wine.
Although popular, demi-sauce is not the only option you have. Sauce africaine is brown sauce flavoured with tomatoes, onions and herbs or you could create a bigarade, where you mix brown source with duck drippings, flavour with orange juice and lemon juice (or a bit of a zest) – this last one is rich and delicious.
This is a sauce you’ve probably heard of because it features on so many restaurant dishes. It’s silky and delicious and an emulsion of egg yolk, melted butter, and lemon juice. There will be a few things going on at the same time while you’re making it but don’t be daunted, it’s great once it’s done.
To start making a hollandaise, whisk egg yolks, water and lemon juice in small saucepan until blended. Simmer this over a low heat while stirring constantly, until the sauce bubbles very slightly. Add butter a little bit at a time, until butter is melted, and sauce is thickened. And…you’re done!
You’ll never need to eat out again once you make this – add it over salmon and toast for a delicious restaurant quality meal. This sauce is often spiced up by flavours of cook’s choosing including pepper, paprika or lemon and as with all of the sauces in this blog – it can be made into secondary sauces such as maltaise or bearnaise. The maltaise sauce is a classic sauce made by adding orange juice (preferably blood orange) to the base sauce and this will create something tangy and fun.
If you didn’t know hollandaise, you will definitely have heard of the tomato sauce and I’m sure you’ll love it too. Tomato sauce is the fantastic foundation for so many staple dishes, specifically pizza and pasta. Start creating this by putting tomatoes into boiling water for a minute or two to loosen them. Pulp them all then add salt, olive oil with a bit of garlic and basil – with all the tomatoes on a high heat, reduce the quantity by half and then you’re done.
Once you have the basic tomato sauce, the possibilities are truly endless. I’d suggest experimenting with your own flavours but here’s a couple of great tips; add a tablespoon of butter to make the sauce silky, add Vodka for a spicy kick. Want a stronger kick to your tomato sauce? The combination of anchovies, olives and capers creates a puttanesca sauce, which is rich and full of unique taste.
Now you know the secret to all sauces, there is no excuse to ever have a dry or tasteless dinner again. We can thank Auguste Escoffier for leaving us a lifelong culinary legacy with the five mother sauces he created and popularised.
Whether you’re cooking for pleasure, for family or in a restaurant – these mother sauces open up a world of possibilities for you.