Culinary Lesson #5 - Mother Sauces

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Q9:  A recent recipe that I made noted that the sauce used was a mother sauce.  What do they mean by this term?

A9:  In short, a mother sauce is one of five basic types of French sauces.  The idea behind the phrase is that if you study and master the making of these five sauces, your repertoire increases considerably through minor tweaks of each recipe.

So what are these five sauces?  Although the list has changed slightly over time and still varies from source to source, the five sauces I will discuss include béchamel, velouté, espagnole, hollandaise and mayonnaise, and tomato sauce.  The following list will outline the basic ingredients to each sauce, pronunciations, and common variations.

  1. Béchamel [bay-sha-mel] sauce, also known as the white sauce, starts off with a white roux [ru] as the thickening agent, is whisked with milk, and then seasoned.  If you've ever had white lasagna, pizza with a white sauce rather than red, fettuccine alfredo, or homemade macaroni and cheese, you've most likely had béchamel.  Although its usually combined with grated cheese to make various dipping sauces or a mornay sauce, it can also be left as-is and seasoned with spices like cloves and nutmeg.
  2. Velouté [veh-lou-tay] sauce is made by combining a white or blond roux with a white stock (typically chicken, veal, or fish stock), left to simmer, and finished off with cream, and sometimes added to sautéed mushrooms, white wine reductions, and/or various seasonings.  Depending on what type of stock is used, the velouté is usually served over/with chicken (like in chicken pot pie), veal, or fish (like in shrimp bisque).
  3. Espagnole [ehs-pah-NYOHL] sauce, also known as the brown sauce, starts off by heating a mirepoix [meer-PWAH] (diced carrots, celery, and onions) with butter and/or oil until softened, stirring in some flour to create a dark roux, deglazing with a brown stock such as beef stock, simmering, incorporating with tomato paste and spices, and straining off the vegetables to make a smooth sauce.  If you've heard of demi-glace [deh-mee-glass], it's nothing more than equal parts of espagnole sauce and brown stock that has been reduced by half for an even more flavorful sauce.  One step further results in a bordelaise [bawr-dl-eyz] sauce, which is a demi-glace combined with red wine and a variety of herbs, and is often served with dishes such as filet mignon.
  4. Hollandaise and mayonnaise are often grouped together since they both rely on egg yolks as the thickening agent.  Hollandaise sauce is made by creating an emulsion between egg yolks and melted clarified butter, and is seasoned with lemon juice and salt.  You'll usually find it drizzled over asparagus or over a poached egg from Eggs Benedict.  The addition of whipped cream transforms a hollandaise sauce into mousseline [moo-sell-een].  Mayonnaise, on the other hand, is made by creating an emulsion between egg yolks and oil, and is often seasoned with mustard, vinegar, lemon juice, and salt.  To make an aioli for a nice side of fries, just combine some homemade mayonnaise with garlic.
  5. Tomato sauce probably the most well known of the five mother sauces is nothing more than roasted garlic and onion combined with crushed tomatoes, wine, fresh basil and oregano, and seasonings.  Tomato sauce has a huge list of applications, but is most commonly found topped over ravioli, as part of a traditional pizza, or as the basis for bolognese [boe-len-eese] sauce, which is commonly used for spaghetti.

Now with all that said, these are by no means the only sauces out there.  These are just the top five sauces that have their roots in France.  There's still barbecue sauce, pesto, chocolate and caramel sauce, zabaglione, fruit-based reductions, wine reductions, salsa, chimichurri...and the list goes on.  As you can see, trying to memorize the ingredients and techniques used for every French sauce is a bit intimidating and overwhelming, but if you can group each sauce to one of the five types listed above, you're 90% of the way there.

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