Cooking with the Five French “Mother” Sauces
There are five basic sauces from which hundreds of other derivative sauces can be developed. Sauces are liquids that are usually thickened in some way, and are used to 1) add moistness, 2) provide a finishing flavor, 3) add richness, or, 4) enhance the attractiveness of the dish. At the foundation of every sauce is usually a flavored or seasoned liquid with a thickening agent added in.
In the early 20th century, the chef Auguste Escoffier created the sauce schema that is still taught to chefs today:
• Béchamel, the basic white sauce
• Espagnole, brown stock
• Hollandaise, butter sauce
• Tomato sauce, sometimes called “creamy tomato” sauce
• Velouté, based on light broth
With the exception of the Hollandaise butter sauce, most Mother sauces are rarely used on their own, but rather, almost always used as bases for other presentation sauces.
The liquids needed to make the five Mother Sauces are 1) whole milk for Béchamel, 2) stock (chicken, veal, fish) for Velouté, 3) brown stock for Espagnole, 4) tomato for tomato sauce, 5) clarified butter for Hollandaise sauce.
A “liaison,” or thickener, is the base of any French sauce, and must come to a brief boil to achieve their full holding power. Egg yolks, butter, flour, and puréed vegetables are all liaisons.
A mixture of flour and cold water, called “whitewash”, or “slurry”, constantly whisked as it is added to the Mother Sauce is a long favored thickening agent.
Cornstarch mixed with a little cold water, thickens more quickly. It is used like whitewash but normally cooks in just a couple minutes.
Egg yolks that have been tempered (mixed with hot stock) and then added back into the sauce is an effective thickener. Whisk egg yolks in a bowl, then whisk in a small bit of the hot stock whisking constantly so the eggs won’t scramble. When well combined, add the mixture back into the sauce while whisking constantly. Cook over low heat.
Adding a puree of roasted vegetables to a sauce will thicken it without adding fat and will give an added fullness that will enrich your sauce immensely.
Fine bread crumbs is another low-fat way to thicken sauces. Add these a little at a time because they thicken very quickly because the starch has already been cooked out.
A roux is a cooked mixture of equal portions of fat (The Liquid) and flour (The Thickener). The fat can be butter, drippings from meats, vegetable oils, etc. Roux can be white, blond or brown depending on its intended use. To make the roux, stir flour into the melted fat and cook to the desired color. Add stock. The stock and the roux should always be different temperatures to prevent lumping. Whisk in the stock gradually and stir occasionally to insure smoothness. Whisking usually produces a smoother sauce than stirring does. Strain if necessary.
A roux can be white, blond, or brown, depending on ingredients and cooking time (the longer you cook butter, the browner it gets). White roux is cooked for a very short time and used in white sauce (Béchamel). Blond roux is cooked for a medium amount of time and used in light yellow (Velouté) sauces. Brown roux is cooked for a considerable time for use in Espagnole sauce or gumbos.
Wikipedia.com states that the basic method of making espagnole is to prepare a very dark brown roux, to which are added several liters of veal stock or water, along with 20–30 lb of browned bones, pieces of beef, many pounds of vegetables and various seasonings. This blend is allowed to slowly reduce while being frequently skimmed. The classical recipe calls for additional veal stock to be added as the liquid gradually reduces but today water is generally used instead. Tomato sauce is added towards the end of the process, and the sauce is further reduced.
Espagnole has a strong taste and is rarely used directly on food. As a mother sauce, however, it then serves as the starting point for many derivative sauces. A typical espagnole recipe takes many hours or even several days to make, and produces four to five quarts of sauce. In most derivative recipes, however, one cup of espagnole is more than enough, so that the basic recipe will yield enough sauce for 16 to 20 meals. Frozen in small quantities, espagnole will keep practically indefinitely.
Flavor is already in the stock used to base the sauce on. These flavors are the beginning of the final sauces you will create. There are a number of ways to increase and enhance the final flavor of the Mother sauce to produce a presentation sauce.
Making a reduction means “cooking down” or condensing the stock to concentrate the flavor. A reduction results from rapidly boiling a liquid (like stock, wine, or a sauce) and causing evaporation, thereby “reducing” the sauce. The reduction is thicker and has a more intense flavor than the original liquid.
Seasonings must not be confused with flavorings. Flavor is what the Mother sauce has in the beginning. Seasoning is added to the Mother sauce to make the finished, or presentation, sauce.
Salt is normally used by most cooks to bring up the final flavor of sauces. However, a well reduced stock carefully simmered, will require very little salt to do the job. Black, white, green and cayenne pepper can also nicely accent without the use of salt. Citrus and vinegars, too, can be used to delicately enhance flavors already present in a Mother sauce.
Pan juices very often are used to season a Mother sauce to create the presentation sauce. These are made simply by thickening the juices left in the pan after sautéing. De-glaze the pan by adding a little water or wine to dissolve the bits of food in the bottom. Then reduce or thicken to the desired consistency.
(Cook’s Note: The final procedure in every recipe, whether stated or not, is to adjust seasoning to your own taste.)
Presentation Sauce Techniques
Gradually whisk in an uncooked butter roux (Beurre manie ) at the end of the cooking to produce a nice shine and fine texture to the finished sauce.
Numerous other flavorings can be used to turn a Mother sauce into the finished presentation sauce. Add melted sharp cheddar cheese to Béchamel and you have a very nice cheese sauce. Simple tomato sauce becomes Creole Sauce with just a few additional seasonings, or tomato paste for countless other applications.
Samples of sauces made from the five mother sauces:
Demi glace sauce
Sauce au Poivre
Café de Paris