At pretty much any cooking school, one of the first (if not the first) things that students are taught is how to make the five French mother sauces. For some, learning the sauces is akin to studying trigonometry in high school: in the same way that sines and cosines seem to have little relevance when you don’t aspire to be a professional mathematician, the sauces come off as a bit tedious if your sights aren’t set on working in a Parisian luxury hotel.
But whether you’re a roguish first semester culinary student or just a home cook who wants to get a better handle on their game, the mother sauces are something worth familiarizing yourself with because, well, they’re everywhere. If you’ve ever made mac ‘n cheese, you’ve already encountered bechamel. Thanksgiving gravy? That starts off with velouté. In fact, they’re called the mother sauces precisely because they give way to dozens of other preparations that can be found in everyday recipes.
Auguste Escoffier, building upon on the work of influential chef Marie-Antoine Carême, is credited with codifying the mother sauces as we know them today—that’s bechamel, velouté, espagnole, tomato, hollandaise. Here’s a rundown of the building blocks of each:
Béchamel starts off with a roux, a mixture of roughly equal weights of butter and flour (some recipes call for slightly more flour than butter). The two are cooked together in the pan until the flour just loses its raw taste—this is called a white roux. Milk is then gradually added in to create a creamy sauce. The milk can be steeped with bay leaves, onion, nutmeg, or even some veal or ham for extra flavor. Get our Basic Béchamel recipe.
At its most basic, velouté consists of just three ingredients: butter, flour, and chicken or veal stock. Yet when done right, it packs that intensely savory flavor that you just want to pour all over your mashed potatoes, turkey, and pretty much everything else on your dinner plate. It starts off once again with a roux, except this time the mixture is cooked just a little longer until it takes on a beige-ish color (what’s known as a blonde or pale roux). This extra time in the pan allows it to take on a slightly nutty flavor. The stock is then stirred in and the whole thing is allowed to simmer gently.
Carême’s original espagnole sauce called for throwing ham, a round of veal, and two partridges into a tall saucepan. Today, however, the process has been simplified significantly, calling for beef stock, some mirepoix (that’s a mix of onion, carrot, and celery, and tomato puree or paste. It all starts off though with a brown roux—one that’s been darkened to to a chocolatey hue, bringing out some seriously deep, toasted flavors. Espagnole can be pretty heavy and intense on its own, but it does provide the basis for a number of “daughter” sauces. It can be combined with veal stock and reduced to create demi-glace (and that can be mixed with red wine to create bordelaise sauce).
Making espagnole and demi glace is one of those ambitious weekend projects—you can read about what it takes here. And once you’ve got some on your hands, there’s nothing better than using it to top off a nicely seared steak.
Even if you haven’t heard of any of the other sauces on this list, you definitely know tomato sauce (though we’re not talking about the stuff from a jar). While pretty much everyone and their nonna has their own version of it, Escoffier did set forth his own official recipe. It calls for rendering bacon fat with butter, then throwing in carrot, onion, and bay leaf, and adding in some flour until it browns before finally putting some fresh tomatoes until they get nice, soft, and thick.
Hollandaise is the only mother sauce that doesn’t call for a roux: it gets its thick consistency solely from gently heated egg yolks. Into those yolks go lots of butter, which is added slowly to help the mixture emulsify. Basically, it’s a creamy, eggy, and impossibly rich sauce that tastes like silk on the tongue.
Making hollandaise the traditional way can be intimidating because it involves a careful eye, and enough whisking to qualify as a workout. Our Easy Blender Hollandaise takes advantage of modern technology, however, and cuts out most of the legwork. Eat it with Eggs Benedict or drizzle it onto some simple Roasted Asparagus.
Miki Kawasaki is a New York City–based food writer and graduate of Boston University's program in Gastronomy. Few things excite her more than a well-crafted sandwich or expertly spiced curry. If you ever run into her at a dinner party, make sure to hit her up for a few pieces of oddball culinary trivia.