Five Famed French Sauces Every Home Cook Should Learn How to Make
Known as the mother sauces, hollandaise, espagnole, velouté, bechamel, and tomato are essential to French cuisine. Here's what you need to know about each.
They're in every classic French cookbook from Larousse to Julia Child and are often mentioned on the menus of high end restaurants, but how much do you really know about the five mother sauces? What are these essentials of French cuisine, and how did they come to be so important? "The five mother sauces are the foundation sauces from which other sauces are derived. They are the starting-point for many classic sauces," says Jerrod Zifchak, executive chef of Café Boulud in New York City. They were named by Auguste Escoffier, the famed chef who modernized classic French techniques and recipes in the early 1900s. They include velouté (blonde sauce), bechamel (white sauce), tomato (red sauce), hollandaise (butter sauce), and espagnole (brown sauce). We turned to Zifchak to learn how each of the five mother sauces are made and how we can use them when cooking at home.
Velouté may sound like an intimidating sauce, but, surprisingly, it's the simplest of the five mother sauces to make (it's also considered to be the first mother sauce). In French cuisine, velouté is a key component in Coq au Vin Blanc. According to Zifchak, only three ingredients are needed for this light, delicate white sauce-white stock (veal, chicken, or fish), butter, and flour. "Melt the butter and flour to form a roux. Slowly pour the hot stock into the roux and whisk until smooth." Voila! From here, it can be used as the base for gravy, soup such as our Test Kitchen's Favorite Chicken and Dumplings, or as a simple sauce atop poultry and white fish.
"Bechamel was originally known as Salsa Cola or Colleta, meaning "glue sauce," due to its thick and sticky consistency," says Zifchak. The creamy sauce is made with butter, flour, hot milk, white pepper, and salt and is the base for comfort food dishes like Macaroni and Cheese and classic potato gratin. In addition to riffs on gratin, like our asparagus and potato version, bechamel is also a key ingredient in another French classic-a croque madame sandwich (which we Americans know as a ham and cheese sandwich). Make your own bechamel, then try it in this Turkey-Pastrami Croque-Madame Casserole.
Classic tomato sauce is probably the most well-known of the five mother sauces. Traditional French tomato sauce is made with canned whole peeled tomatoes, onion, garlic, olive oil, salt, and a bay leaf. Italian marinara may sub out the bay leaf for basil, though every Italian grandmother has her own version of a proper marinara sauce to serve with Grilled-Eggplant Parmesan or Creamy Baked Ziti. From pasta to North African shakshuka, tomato sauce is an everyday culinary staple. It's even a standard side served with kid-friendly Mozzarella Sticks.
It may be best known as part of the brunch classic eggs benedict, but hollandaise-a traditional butter sauce made with egg yolks, clarified butter, lemon juice, water, salt, and white pepper-shines when paired with more than just eggs. "This sauce adds richness and acidity to elevate simple ingredients such as asparagus and eggs," says Zifchak. You can serve it as a delicious, rich side sauce for a simple dish like Easy Skillet Poached Salmon. What's more, hollandaise is also the basis of Bearnaise sauce, a classic steakhouse sauce that also includes tarragon, shallots and vinegar; mousseline (whipped cream); Maltaise, which is a blood orange-infused hollandaise.
"Although this translates into the French word for 'Spanish,' it is uncertain as to why this name was chosen. Many people believe that the Spanish cooks at Louis XIII's wedding improved the original French brown sauce with Spanish tomatoes," says Zifchak. Espagnole is a brown sauce that is traditionally made with veal stock, mirepoix, garlic, butter, flour, tomato paste, and herbs. The key to this sauce is simmering it for about two hours to develop flavor and achieve the desired consistency. It's the base of two classic sauces that are often paired with red meat-demi-glace, a brown sauce made with espagnole and veal stock, and bordelaise, which has a base of demi-glace and red-wine. These traditional French sauces are popular in bistros and steakhouses and are served with dishes such as Beef Bourguignon and Cassoulet.