The foundation sauces you need to know

So far, I’ve put together 4 simple sauces to knock up for your favourite steak dinner.

Now, I want to move to the 5 basic French sauces that are the foundation to a multitude of other delicious sauces you can unlock.

Once you’ve nailed these five, then it’s just a matter of building on top of them.

Hence, why they are called the “mother sauces”

What’s in a sauce?

It’s important to understand how to make a sauce thick and ‘stable’ i.e. it won’t split.

So, there are a few techniques to know about to make your 5 Mother Sauces. They are:

  • Roux: a fancy word for flour mixed with butter (or oil or meat dripping).
    • You mix equal parts over a medium heat then add a liquid like milk for a Béchamel sauce.
    • TIP: don’t brown the butter too much for white sauces or it will darken them.
  • Reduction: a liquid that’s slowly cooked down until it reduces to become thicker.
  • Emulsifier: I’m going to leave a lot of the ‘science-y’ bit out in this post but emulsifiers are particles that work with both oil and water. In order to create a successful emulsion, you need two things:
    1. an emulsifier. Such as egg yolk or mustard (think Hollandaise, aioli, vinaigrette’s) and…
    2. force. Such as whisking or blending and breaks apart the oil, dispersing it through the surrounding liquid;

Where did the 5 Mother sauces come from?

French chef Marie Antoine-Carême was the first to sort all the French sauces into 4 foundation groups.

Then, the famous French chef, Auguste Escoffier, regrouped them and added one to make the 5 Mother Sauces and the foundation for many other sauces.

Julia Child’s take

Julia Child became a household name with her cooking programme and her book ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’

She was passionate about French cooking and said, “Sauces are the splendour and glory of French cooking”

And continued “…there is nothing secret or mysterious about making them”

Julia breakdowns the idea that there are a multitude of mind-boggling sauces and techniques to learn.

When in actual fact, it’s from these 5 mother sauces that the rest are then built on.

Master these and you’re on your way!

5 mother sauce’s basic formula’s

  1. Sauce Béchamel: Roux + Dairy (traditionally milk or cream)
  2. Sauce Velouté: Roux + White Stock (traditionally chicken, but also vegetable or fish)
  3. Sauce Espagnole: Roux + Brown Stock (traditionally veal or beef)
  4. Sauce Tomat: Roux + Tomatoes (or, go the Italian route by skipping the roux and simply reducing tomatoes over medium-low heat until thick)
  5. Hollandaise: Egg Yolks + Clarified Melted Butter + Acid (like lemon juice or white wine)

The 3 main groups

  1. White sauces
  2. Brown sauces
  3. Tomato sauces

From these groups they go onto the five sauces.

1. White Sauces

Come from two cousins; Bechamel and velouté.

Both use a roux (flour and butter) as a thickening agent but bechamel is milk based and velouté has a fish, poultry or meat base.

Sauce Béchamel

  • Made by combining a white roux of butter and flour with heated milk.
  • This base sauce is an essential foundation for classic sauces such as crème sauce, mustard sauce and many cheese sauces.
  • Béchamel is quite bland, so is usually cooked with other ingredients and not used as a finishing sauce e.g. macaroni and cheese, lasagne, chicken pot pie

Derivatives of Sauce Béchamel

  • Aurora sauce: Béchamel with tomato sauce.
  • Mornay sauce: Béchamel with egg yolk and grated cheese. 
  • Nantua sauce: Béchamel with cream and crab meat.  
  • Soubisse sauce: Béchamel with poached onion.   
  • English sauce: Béchamel with lemon juice, parsley and boiled egg.

2. Sauce Velouté

  • A velouté is a light roux whisked with fish, poultry or any meat stock and takes on the flavour of the stock.
  • Velouté is the French word for velvet.
  • It’s a delicate sauce and usually served over fish or poultry that has been cooked by poaching or steaming

Derivatives of Sauce Velouté

  • Allemande sauce (veal)
  • Supreme sauce (chicken)
  • Vin blanc sauce (fish) 

Brown Sauces

Brown sauces are more complicated than white as they need more time to extract flavours such as in stews, pot roasts, ragouts.

During the cooking process, the connective tissues in the bones and meat are slowly dissolved to form a natural gelatinous thickening agent.

3. Sauce Espagnole

  • The most basic of brown sauces and the heaviest of the mother sauces.
  • Made by reducing from veal or beef stock, browned bones, pieces of red meat and vegetables and thickened by a dark brown roux.
  • Sauce Espagnole can then be used to create other rich, savoury sauces and sauce components – such as demi-glace, bordelaise, boeuf bourguinon

Derivative of Espagnole Sauce

  • Demi-Glace: 1:1 ratio i.e. one part Espagnole sauce with one part stock, and is finished with sherry wine to make a rich brown sauce.
  • Madeira Sauce: Demi-glace that’s enriched with Madeira wine.
  • Port Wine Sauce: Port wine added to a demi-glace.
  • Sauce Bourguignonne: Espagnole sauce with red wine, shallots, and bouquet garni.
  • Marchand de Vin Sauce (Red Wine Reduction): Classic French steak sauce with reduced red wine, chopped shallots simmered in demi-glace.
  • Mushroom Sauce: A classic sauce made with sautéed mushrooms, shallots, and a splash of sherry, simmered in demi-glace.
Side note: What’s the Difference Between Sauce Espagnole and a Demi-Glace?

It can be confusing as they are both rich brown sauces.

Simply put, a demi-glace is a derivative of Sauce Espognole is becomes even more intensely flavoured.

4. Sauce Tomat

Sauce tomat is very basic and made by cooking tomatoes down into a thick sauce. Then other flavours added such as onions and garlic.

Traditionally, adding a roux to thicken it but most just reduce it down to thicken.  

A common derivative sauce based on tomato sauce is marinara sauce.

5. Hollandaise Sauce

We all know Eggs Benedict with Hollandaise sauce and is made from clarified butter and egg yolk.

This is the only mother sauce NOT thickened by a roux.

Instead it uses the method of emulsification i.e. using a binding agent (in this case, an egg yolk) to force two ingredients that don’t mix well together (butter and lemon juice) to bind.

It can be a tricky one to master as it can split but if you use a blender it should make life a bit easier.

Derivatives of Hollandaise Sauce

  • Bearnaise Sauce: Reduced Hollandaise Sauce + white wine, tarragon, vinegar, and peppercorns.
  • Maltaise: Hollandaise made with a reduction orange juice and zest (typically blood oranges)
  • Moutarde: Hollandaise flavoured with mustard to taste
  • Noisette: Hollandaise flavoured with noisette butter at the end (to taste)
The classics are worth a read

I hope this is a helpful introduction to French sauces and gaining a bit of knowledge on the 5 Mother sauces.

If you have any tips on making sauces, drop me a line or leave a comment.