Have you ever stopped to consider what makes a dish great? Whether you’re enjoying a tender piece of meat or a bowl of perfectly boiled noodles, it’s the sauce that makes the meal unique and delicious. Based on the work of Marie-Antoine Carême, chefs use five mother sauces as foundations to prepare mouth-watering dishes with flavorful secondary sauces.
Cooking 101: The Mother Sauces
Over the last century, culinary experts have determined that there are five distinct groups of sauces that make up the foundation of all other sauces. These mother sauces are based on French cuisine but carry over to other nationalities and cooking styles.
So what is a mother sauce comprised of? Any sauce can be broken down into three basic components, which are the thickening agent, a liquid and flavoring. The majority of the mother sauces use roux as the thickener. Roux is what you get when you combine flour and some type of fat, such as oil or butter. To create a successful dish, you must have a sauce that’s thick enough to adhere to the foods rather than simply running off the sides. Roux is a great method for achieving this goal and ensures a sauce that is thick enough to enhance the dish.
Once you have a proper thickening agent, you can choose a liquid based on the type of sauce you want to make. Adding different flavors using herbs, spices and vegetables further distinguishes your sauce to create unique and tasty dishes. For a full rundown on cooking with herbs and spices, check out our guide here. Or for the ultimate guide to vegetables and other produce, check out our guide here. And for more on the basic elements of cooking, from flavor profiling to adding salt, fat, acid, and heat, check out our guide here.
Now on to the sauces! let’s start with one of our favorites – creamy Béchamel!
What is Béchamel Sauce?
One of the most basic of the mother sauces is Béchamel, a creamy white sauce made from roux and dairy. This building block is prepared by whipping together roux and milk or cream. In America, a common example of Béchamel is found in homemade macaroni and cheese dishes. Because of its dairy base, this mother sauce pairs well with Italian dishes that contain a lot of cheese, such as lasagna. You’ll also find it in other baked pasta dishes or casseroles. Béchamel by itself is rather bland, so chefs make their own unique sauces by adding other flavors. As opposed to cheese, other varieties of this mother sauce contain mustard, onions, nutmeg or cloves.
What is Velouté Sauce?
Similar to Béchamel, Velouté is a creamy sauce made from white roux. The liquid you add will be a light stock, such as chicken, fish or turkey. The final flavor of this mother sauce comes from the type of stock you use, so it pairs well with the same or similar meats. For instance, if you use fish stock to make Velouté, it will go well over a seafood dish. The name of this foundation sauce comes from the French term meaning velvet, named so after the smooth texture you end up with. Common dishes that contain Velouté include sausage gravy and biscuits, Swedish meatballs, chicken pot pie and shrimp bisque. Generally, if you’re making any type of gravy, you’ll start with Velouté.
What is Espagnole Sauce?
Commonly referred to as brown sauce, Espagnole is a complex base that uses brown stock and a darker roux than the previously mentioned mother sauces. Another essential component of this sauce is mirepoix, a combination of celery, onions and carrots. To get the right consistency and texture, you will need a sharp chef’s knife to chop the different vegetables. The final ingredient of Espagnole is fond, which is beef bits that are deglazed and browned. This is also the base sauce used when making demi glace, which is a rich beef sauce that is often drizzled over meats. Mixing your demi glace with red wine creates Bordelaise, which goes well with filet mignon (you can learn more about cooking with wine here). Chefs also commonly add mushrooms and herbs to Espagnole to create unique flavors. Other variations include tomato paste and complementary spices. If you’ve ever had beef bourguignon, then you’ve tasted the richness of Espagnole.
What is Hollandaise Sauce?
Rather than relying on roux as a thickener, Hollandaise is the only mother sauce that uses emulsification to stabilize the texture. This sauce is famous for topping the breakfast favorite, eggs Benedict. To make Hollandaise, you start by combining warm egg yolk with melted butter. You then add an acidic ingredient, such as lemon juice or white wine. This sauce can be tricky to prepare because you have to make sure you don’t break the emulsion. When done well, Hollandaise can replace mayonnaise or aioli and makes a great dipping sauce for asparagus.
What is Sauce Tomat?
Traditionally, sauce tomat was made by combining roux with tomatoes and adding pork with various vegetables. Over the years, this mother sauce evolved and now chefs commonly prepare it with just tomatoes as the thickening agent. The most familiar flavors found in sauce tomat are garlic and onions, but you can also include mushrooms, bell peppers and different spices. This sauce is a favorite among children, as you will find it in pizza, spaghetti, chicken parmesan and other Italian cuisine or pasta dishes.
With knowledge of the five mother sauces, you can now create rich and flavorful dips, drizzles and sauces for all of your favorite meals. Once you perfect the base thickener and liquid, you can move on to experiment with different vegetables, herbs and flavors to create new and exciting sauces that are sure to please!