Ultimate guide to classic French sauces
French cuisine! A waltz of flavors, a ballet of techniques, and of course, a grand opera of sauces. To the uninitiated, French sauces might seem like an intricate maze, but in reality, they all boil down (pun intended) to just five foundational wonders. These are the celebrated “mother sauces,” the matriarchs of countless dishes, from the heart of Paris to the smallest patisserie in Nice. The term “Mother Sauce” in French cuisine refers to one of five foundational sauces that serve as a base from which a myriad of other sauces can be created. This concept was popularized by the ‘King of Chefs’ Auguste Escoffier in the 19th century.
To the passionate cook, mastering these five sauces is akin to a painter knowing their primary colors. With them, the culinary world becomes an oyster (which, by the way, goes wonderfully with a velouté).
The five Mother Sauces are:
- Béchamel – Whisper this name to any pasta or lasagna lover and watch their eyes light up. Béchamel is the creamy, dreamy white sauce made by whisking milk into a butter-flour roux. Nutmeg adds a hint of magic, but the real beauty of béchamel lies in its versatility. Add cheese and—voilà!—you’ve got Mornay. Lobster or fish stock? Hello, Nantua!
- Velouté – As the name suggests, this sauce is all about velvety elegance. Start with a roux, then blend in a light stock, be it chicken, fish, or veal. It’s the stepping stone to the allemande, normande, and suprême sauces. Think of velouté as the sophisticated cousin of béchamel, a bit subtler, but oh-so-refined.
- Espagnole – Here’s where things get robust and hearty! Espagnole, or brown sauce, is a rich concoction of brown stock, brown roux, tomatoes, and browned vegetables. Let it simmer, skim, and strain, and you’ve got the base for a bordelaise, Chasseur, or demi-glace. Espagnole is like the bass note in a sauce symphony, grounding and deeply flavorful.
- Sauce Tomat – While Italy might argue over the tomato’s crown, France has undoubtedly created masterpieces with it. The French tomato sauce is a sumptuous mix of tomatoes, vegetables, and sometimes stock. It can play the lead in dishes or remain a supporting character by giving birth to marinara, Bolognese, and countless other variations.
- Hollandaise – A sauce that makes breakfasts luxurious and evenings sublime. This delicate emulsion of butter, egg yolks, and lemon juice (or vinegar) is the queen of Eggs Benedict and asparagus dishes. With a few tweaks, it morphs into Béarnaise, mousseline, or mouquette. It’s a test of patience and whisking stamina, but the reward? Oh, so worth it.
The sauce is the unsung hero of any meal. It’s the flavorful underpinning that adds depth, moisture, and complexity to otherwise simple dishes. The perfect sauce can take a dish from ordinary to extraordinary. In this guide, we delve into the world of classic sauce recipes that stand as cornerstones in global cuisine.
Each of these sauces serves as a starting point for many derivative sauces, known as ‘daughter sauces’, expanding the variety of flavors and textures in the world of sauces.
Making a good sauce is an essential skill for any home cook. Find recipes in links below.