Sometimes I’ll be talking to a friend or client about cooking basics and I’ll say “mother sauce”. The look on their face followed with a usual billowy “MOTHER SAUCE”? is what has lead me to write about these seemingly intimidating sauces but are quite actually easy to make. And guess what? You’ve probably already made a few of them!
Let’s start with the five mother sauces.
The classic version of the standard white sauce, used to be made with lean veal, spices and herbs – simmered for hours with the sauce. This is rarely done today. Most béchamel’s today are made simply with a roux and some milk. Which can be improved upon with the addition of an onion and spices like bay laves and cloves.
There are actually three velouté sauces that are the bases of many other small sauces. There is the chicken, veal or fish velouté sauce which is roux and stock. Then from that sauce there are two variations that include the white wine sauce and suprême which includes heavy cream and butter. But they all begin with a roux and stock.
Espagnole or Brown Sauce
First glance at a recipe and you’ll notice that sauce is more complicated than the previous sauces. Because it’s the starting point for the hearty, flavorful sauces that accompany red meats, it is necessary to give it extra flavor and richness with mirepoix and cooking time for a reduction.
Classical tomato sauce (as explained by Escoffier) is made with a roux, but is rarely done in modern kitchens. The texture of puréed tomatoes is sufficient to give the sauce the proper texture.
The fifth mother sauce is hollandaise. Hollandaise and it’s cousin béarnaise are unlike the other sauces as their main ingredient is not stock or milk but butter. Even though these are considered an egg-thickened sauce, the egg doesn’t thicken by coagulation but from emulsification over low heat. This sauce does take the longest to master.
Now that we know what they actually are – why is it so important to learn these sauces? For starters, they are the base to almost all other sauces. Before you can have a cheese sauce for macaroni and cheese, you must make a béchamel. Before you make a bordelaise, you must make a brown sauce or Espagnole sauce. A velouté is the base for a chicken pot pie.
Once mastered, or at least memorized, you can start swapping out ingredients for healthier variations of the sauces. For example, a classic béchamel uses loads of butter for the roux and whole milk for the liquid. You could use slightly less roux and part skim milk if you want. Another alternative would be to replace the béchamel with a velouté. The variations are endless.
An understanding of the mother sauces is one of the first steps in becoming a better home chef and one that can start to cook healthier without sacrificing taste.