A Guide to French Sauces

Learn about the five mother sauces, which are the foundation of all French cooking.

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If you’ve ever made a ‘white’ sauce for lasagna or a cheese sauce for pasta, you’ve made a variation of one of the five French mother sauces. Developed in the eighteenth century, these five sauce recipes are used to complement countless vegetarian, fish and meat dishes, as well as several pastas. 

BACKGROUND

An important person by the name of Marie-Antoine Carême was the first chef to organize all of the French sauces into groups that were based on four foundational sauces. Later in the eighteenth century, another French chef by the name of Auguste Escoffier added one more sauce, so today there are five “mother sauces.” They are very important to master, since they are the starting point for hundreds of sauces. 

WHAT IS A ROUX?

A roux is simply equal parts flour and fat cooked together to form a paste and is used to thicken sauces. The type of fat used in a roux depends on the dish it is being used for as well as culture. In French cuisine, butter is the fat that is used to make a roux.

There are four kinds of roux: white, blond, brown, and dark brown or red. The variety is a result of how long the roux is cooked; white is cooked for the shortest time, while dark brown is cooked the longest. White and blond roux are the most common, used to thicken sauces, soups, and chowders. A roux is used as the base for many classic French sauces, including velouté and béchamel, two of the five mother sauces.

In French cuisine, butter is the fat that is used to make a roux.

BECHAMEL AND ESPAGNOLE

Béchamel, sometimes called white sauce, is a milk-based sauce, thickened with flour. This warm, rich sauce is flavored with nutmeg and white pepper, then simmered until velvety smooth. Béchamel is a common ingredient in sausage gravy and baked pasta recipes like lasagna, but it's also the base for some of the most popular cream and cheese-based sauces, including mornay. Mornay sauce is béchamel sauce with the addition of cheese, usually Gruyere or Parmesan. 

Espagnole, or brown sauce, is a veal-based sauce, thickened with a roux. Espagnole is made by thickening brown stock with a roux. Espagnole is made with tomato purée and mirepoix (carrots, celery, and onions) which gives it a deep color and rich flavor. The stock itself is traditionally made from roasted bones. 

Mornay sauce is béchamel sauce with the addition of cheese, usually Gruyere or Parmesan.

Often, Espagnole is further refined to produce an intensely flavored sauce called a demi-glace, which consists of half Espagnole and half brown stock, reduced by half. You can use demi-glace, as is, in soups, stews, and risottos but it is more often used as a starting point to make various other sauces, including Marchand de Vin (red wine reduction). 

VELOUTE AND HOLLANDAISE

Like béchamel, velouté starts with a roux. The difference between the two sauces is that velouté requires white or clear stock, whereas béchamel uses milk. The stock is traditionally veal, but chicken, fish or vegetable stock can also be used. This simple mother sauce forms the basis for many incredible sauces, such as Supreme Sauce, which is made by adding cream.

Hollandaise is an emulsion of egg yolk, butter, and lemon juice. Cayenne and white pepper are sometimes added to this delicate sauce, which is pale yellow and creamy in appearance. Hollandaise is commonly served as a finishing sauce for eggs Benedict, poached fish, and asparagus.

A very similar sauce to hollandaise is béarnaise sauce. This derivative of hollandaise was introduced much later and gets its acidity from white wine vinegar, rather than lemon juice. It also calls for fresh tarragon. A decadent sauce, it pairs extremely well with grilled meat and seafood. 

Hollandaise is commonly served as a finishing sauce for eggs Benedict, poached fish, and asparagus.

SAUCE TOMATE

A tomato-based sauce is similar to the traditional tomato sauce that we might find on pasta and pizza, but it's got more flavor and requires more effort to make. Pork is  rendered, then sautéed with vegetables. After that, fresh tomatoes, stock, and a ham bone are added and the mixture is simmered in the oven for a couple of hours. Cooking the sauce in the oven ensures that it is heated evenly, without scorching.

Traditionally, sauce tomate was thickened with roux, but this isn’t always the case anymore, since the tomatoes, themselves, are enough to thicken the sauce. This sauce makes a wonderful accompaniment to pasta and pizza but it can also be used as a topping for cooked vegetables or as a dip for fresh bread.