What are French Mother Sauces?

Food, How-To
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Photo: Le Creuset

A few days ago, a chef asked me if I knew about the French Mother Sauces and I nodded along as though I knew exactly what I was talking about, but officially I neither confirmed nor denied. I know that the Mother Sauces are seen as the foundations for many dishes and other sauces, particularly relating to French cuisine, but I was quite certain that I couldn’t name all five of them. 

Before we talk about the French Mother Sauces, we should talk about roux. Roux is the process of cooking fat (usually butter) with flour to create a thickening agent for the liquid that you want to turn into a sauce.  It looks like a pasty white glob, but it’s pretty important in French cooking. It helps thicken the liquid so that sauce will coat the food properly, and even helps thicken items like tomato sauce, where you wouldn’t necessarily find flour. While a lot of French dishes rely on roux as a base, so do many Southern favorites (think: gooey macaroni and cheese) so it’s really a good thing to know how to roux.

I mean know how to do.

See what I did there?

The CIA (Culinary Institute of America) has a really good video that shows you how it’s done.

Photo: Le Creuset

Photo: Le Creuset

The five French Mother Sauces are Béchamel, Velouté, Espagnole, Sauce Tomat and Hollandaise,  the latter being the only one not thickened by a roux. Let’s review them.

Béchamel

Best known for its applications in macaroni and cheese, chicken pot pie, stews and gumbos, béchamel  is a roux, butter and flour, whisked with milk to make a simple white sauce. By itself, béchamel is bland and flavorless, so you’ll rarely see it stand alone, but combined with other sauces (Giada has a to-die-for lasagna recipe that uses béchamel with homemade tomato sauce). You can also add ingredients to flavor it, like cheese and salt and herbs and spices and more cheese.

Rustic Creamy Mushroom Pasta from HappyKitchen.Rocks

Lasagna from Serena Bakes Simply from Scratch

Cauliflower Gratin from The Foodolic

Savory Butternut Squash Soufflé from My Domaine

Velouté

Derived from the French word for velvet, velouté is a light roux whisked with chicken, turkey or fish stock. The sauce typically takes on the flavor of the stock,  resulting in smooth, light and delicate sauce. It’s a pretty traditional sauce, and does well with seafood and poultry. It’s one of those ‘why don’t I make this more often’ sauces because it’s definitely a classic that you can have fun with and add different herbs or flavors to make it your own.

Chicken Kabobs with Mushroom Velouté Sauce from Olga’s Flavor Factory

Grilled Chicken with Roasted Garlic Velouté Sauce from Dr. Nina Cherie Franklin

Lemon Dill Velouté Sauce from CD Kitchen

Spaghetti with Seafood Velouté from BBC good food

Espagnole

Sauce espagnole is a classic brown sauce, generally made with brown beef stock, tomatoes, and browned mirepoix vegetables, thickened with roux. This sauce, generally a dark brown color, can be used as the foundation for boeuf bourguinon and demi-glace.

The sauce is French in origin, but in The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson wrote,”The name has nothing to do with Spain, any more than the counterpart term allemande has anything to do with Germany. It is generally believed that the terms were chosen because in French eyes Germans are blond and Spaniards are brown.”

Regardless of origin, this seems like it would be a fun one to play with in different fusions of cuisine, Italian, French, Spanish — even heartier German, English or Irish stews.

Beef Tenderloin with Mushrooms and Espagnole Sauce from Epicurious

Chicken Skewers with Espagnole Sauce from Food Network

Beef Tenderloin Steak with Espagnole Sauce from Half Hour Meals

Sliced Beef with Espagnole Sauce from Food to Love

Sauce Tomate

One might be surprised to see tomato sauce as a staple in French cooking, but the French version is slightly different than the tomato sauces you and I are probably used to. Unlike more modern-day tomato sauces, sauce tomate is made with onions, garlic, carrots, celery, pork, crushed tomatoes, and chicken stock. You start it on the stovetop and then finish it in the oven, so it’s one of the easier mother sauces to make at home. Auguste Escoffier’s own version is here, and you don’t get more authentic than that, but you can be creative and use the sauce for your favorite red-saucy recipes.

Spaghetti and Sauce Tomate from Girl Gone Gourmet

Chicken Cacciatore from Cafe Delites

Pasta Sauce with Pork Chops from The Italian Dish

Mediterranean Potatoes in Tomato Sauce from Kitchen Nostalgia

Hollandaise

The only French Mother Sauce that doesn’t rely on a roux for thickening, Hollandaise is made by an emulsion of egg yolk and melted butter. Because these two ingredients don’t easily meld together, it’s a delicate sauce, and is often seasoned with lemon juice, salt, and a little white pepper or cayenne pepper. Best known for its presence on eggs Benedict or as a finishing sauce for grilled vegetables or meat, Hollandaise is smooth, creamy and relatively ubiquitous in American cooking.

Savory Herb Crepes with Hollandaise from Cooking and Beer

Savory Parmesan French Toast with Hollandaise fromThe Food Charlatan

Roasted Salmon and Asparagus with Hollandaise from Real Simple Good

Ham and Eggs Benedict Dutch Baby from Seasons and Suppers

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6 Comments

  • Reply
    Maryanne | the little epicurean
    October 27, 2016 at 11:57 am

    Such a great post! So much useful information!

  • Reply
    Cathy Trochelman
    October 26, 2016 at 12:03 am

    What a great post! So much great info!

  • Reply
    Michelle
    October 25, 2016 at 9:19 pm

    Clearly I needed some schooling! This is great info, thank you!

  • Reply
    Dorothy at Shockingly Delicious
    October 25, 2016 at 8:38 pm

    GREAT info. Very useful and practical.

  • Reply
    Heather | All Roads Lead to the Kitchen
    October 25, 2016 at 6:56 pm

    I think it’s so important to have a solid knowledge base in the kitchen – this is a great post!

  • Reply
    Melanie | Melanie Makes
    October 25, 2016 at 2:43 pm

    Such a wealth of knowledge in a single post!

  • Leave a Reply