Classic French sauces—the original mothers of invention

Sauces—the original mothers of invention.

Oftentimes, the sauce makes the dish.

Sure, a few foods (steak and lobster, for example) are delicious on their own, but a great sauce both enhances and compliments the dish you’re serving. Imagine plain pasta and how boring that can be.

There is a whole world of sauces out there—each cuisine has its own pantheon. Even within what we might consider to be one cuisine, like Chinese, there are regional differences. A Cantonese dish with be sauced quite differently from one from Sichuan. But there are some basics we can look at in Western cuisine.

The French, of course, have turned cooking into a science, literally. They have taken saucing and created an entire classification system. It starts with five “mother” sauces, each of which forms the basis for other “small” or “compound” sauces.

The five mother sauces are: béchamel (aka white sauce), velouté, Espagnole (aka brown sauce), tomato, and hollandaise. We’ll take them one at a time.

Béchamel

Béchamel is made by thickening milk with a roux made of butter and flour (the original technique was a bit different, but produced similar results). The sauce is moderately thick and very creamy, with a rich flavor and very smooth texture.

Bechamél
Bechamél

The key to a great béchamel is patience—you need to add the milk slowly to be sure any lumps are worked out. While modern recipes don’t always call for it, the classic technique includes simmering for ½ hour to endure the proper consistency and flavor.

Béchamel recipe

Small sauces:

  • Cream sauce: mix four parts béchamel with 1 part scalded cream and add a drop or two of lemon juice
  • Cheddar sauce: for every two cups of béchamel, add 4 oz. grated cheddar cheese, a few drops of Worcestershire sauce, and 1 tsp. dry mustard
  • Mornay sauce: for every two cups of béchamel, add 2 oz. Gruyere cheese and ½ oz. grated parmigiana Reggiano cheese. Thin with scalded cream as needed. Off the heat, add 2 tbps. butter
  • Soubise: sweat ½ lb. diced onions in 1 tbsp. butter. Add two cups béchamel and simmer until onions are completely soft. Strain through a China cap or other fine mesh strainer.

Velouté

The process for velouté is very similar to béchamel. The difference is in the liquid added to the roux—for velouté, you add white stock (veal, chicken, or fish stock made from unroasted bones) instead of milk.

The small sauces made from velouté are a bit more complicated than those made from béchamel. Note that while pan gravy is very similar in technique to velouté, it is not considered to be one, since it usually uses the pan drippings in the roux instead of butter.

Velouté recipe

Small and compound sauces (note that the first two use fish velouté; the rest use chicken or veal):

  • Bercy (fish-based): Sauté an ounce of finely diced shallots in butter. Deglaze with ½ cup white wine, then add ½ cup fish stock. Reduce by a third and stir in 2 cups of fish-stock velouté. Season with salt and pepper.
  • Normandy (fish): add 2 oz. chopped mushrooms and ¼ c. fish stock to 2 cups fish-stock velouté. Reduce by a third. Mix one egg yolk with 1/3 cup cream. Temper the cream mixture by slowly adding about at third of the hot sauce a bit at a time while stirring. Then add the cream mixture back into the remaining sauce, stir, and simmer briefly without boiling. Strain through a fine mesh strainer, then season.
  • Allemande: Heat 2 cups of chicken or veal velouté to a simmer. Mix one egg yolk with 1/3 cup cream. Temper the cream mixture by slowly adding about a third of the hot sauce a bit at a time while stirring. Then add the cream mixture back into the remaining sauce, stir, and simmer briefly without boiling. Strain through a fine mesh strainer, then season.
    • Aurora: add an ounce of tomato paste to 2 cups Allemande sauce. Finish with a tablespoon of butter.
    • Horseradish: add ¼ cup heavy cream and ½ tsp. dry mustard to 2 cups Allemande sauce. Just before serving, add 1 oz. horseradish, freshly grated (sorry, jarred won’t do). Don’t cook the horseradish in the sauce; just add at the end.
    • Poulette: sauté 4 oz. sliced mushrooms and 1 tsp. finely diced shallots in 1 tbsp. butter until shallots are soft and mushrooms begin to soften. Add to 2 cups Allemande, then add 1 oz. heavy cream and ½ tbsp. chopped fresh parsley.
  • Suprême sauce: simmer 2 cups chicken or veal velouté with an ounce of mushrooms until reduced by one quarter. Add ½ cup heavy cream, season with salt and pepper, then strain through a fine mesh strainer.
    • Hungarian: Sweat an ounce of diced onion in a little bit of butter. Add ½ tbsp. paprika. Stir in 2 cups of suprême sauce. Cook for 2-3 minutes, then season and strain. Finish with a bit of butter

Sauce Espagnole

Sauce Espagnole
Sauce Espagnole

Sauce Espagnole, or brown sauce, is not often used on its own. Its main use is to make demi-glace, a thick, rich sauce that is used to thicken and flavor many other sauces.

Sauce Espagnole recipe

Small/compound sauces:

  • Demi-glace: Combine equal parts sauce Espagnole and brown stock. Simmer until reduced by half. Strain.
  • Bordelaise: Combine 1 cup dry red wine, 1 oz. chopped shallots, 1 bay leaf, a small sprig of thyme, and a pinch of black pepper in a saucepan. Simmer and reduce by three-quarters, then add 2 cups demi-glace and simmer for 15 minutes. Strain and finish with 1 tbsp. butter.
  • Chasseur: Sauté 2 oz. sliced mushrooms and ½ tbsp. diced shallots in butter. Add ½ cup dry white wine and reduce by three quarters. Add 2 c. demi-glace and 3-4 oz. diced tomatoes. Simmer for 5 minutes, then season and add a touch of fresh chopped parsley.
  • Poivrade: sweat 2 oz. each diced onions, carrots, and celery in olive oil. Add a bay leaf, a bit of fresh thyme, two parsley stems, 1 cup red wine vinegar, and ¼ cup white wine. Reduce by half, then add 2 cups demi-glace and simmer for 30-40 minutes. Add 20 crushed black peppercorns and simmer another 5 minutes. Strain and finish with butter (optional)

Tomato Sauce

This resembles the jars of sauce in the pasta aisle the way a Picasso resembles a person’s face—you can tell that some of the parts are the same, but the result is very different. This is a very hearty sauce that is perhaps closest (ironically) to the Italian “gravy” that The Sopranos made famous.

Tomato Sauce Recipe

Small Sauces

  • Creole: Sauté 3 oz. finely diced onion, 2 oz. of thinly sliced celery, and one clove of garlic (minced) in a small amount of oil. Add 2 cups tomato sauce, a bay leaf, and a pinch of dried thyme. Simmer for 15 minutes. Add 2 oz. finely diced green pepper and a few drops of hot sauce (to taste) and simmer 15 minutes longer. Season and remove bay leaf before serving.
  • Spanish: prepare Creole as above, but add 2 oz. sliced mushrooms to the initial sauté. Garnish with chopped olives at the end.

Hollandaise

What, you thought this was just something you poured over poached eggs when having a special breakfast? As good as that is, hollandaise is a truly great sauce with many potential uses. We still remember a delicious appetizer of Maryland crab cakes served with a lemony Hollandaise that was out of this world. But we digress.

Asparagus with Hollandaise
Asparagus with Hollandaise

Hollandaise is the trickiest of the mother sauces to master. It required a fairy precise technique to avoid scrambling the eggs. However, there is a simpler blender method that is practically foolproof. The resulting sauce isn’t quite as frothy, light, and creamy as the classic method, but it’s pretty darn close.

Classic Hollandaise Recipe (this also has instructions on how to rescue a broken hollandaise)

Blender Hollandaise (omit the cayenne if you choose)

Small Sauces

  • Bérnaise: This is considered by some to be a mother sauce, because it doesn’t use finished hollandaise. But that’s quibbling. Combine 1 oz. shallots, 2½ tbsp. chopped tarragon, 1½ tbsps. Chopped fresh chervil, ½ tsp. crushed black peppercorns, and ½ cup white wine vinegar. Reduce to ¼ cup and add this to the egg yolks in the first step of the hollandaise recipe, proceeding from there (assumes you are making two cups of sauce). Garnish with fresh tarragon. This is great over steak.
    • Choron: Add an ounce each (by weight) of tomato paste and heavy cream to 2 cups of sauce bérnaise.
  • Grimrod: Infuse a hollandaise sauce with saffron. Yum!
  • Maltaise: Add 2 tbsp. orange juice and 1 tsp. orange zest to 2 cups hollandaise (blood oranges are traditionally used, but any will do).
  • Mousseline: for the ultimate decadence, whip ½ heavy cream until stiff, then fold into 2 cups hollandaise just before serving.

The rest

There are some traditional sauces that don’t fall into this classification system:

  • Coulis: made from crushed fruits or vegetables
  • Buerre blanc: made by whisking butter into a vinegar- or wine-based sauce
  • Salsas: typically made by combining fresh ingredients
  • Compound butters: made by stirring different ingredients into softened butter
  • Relishes: generally made from chopped vegetables, which may or may not be pickled
  • Pan gravy: made from the drippings from a roasted piece of meat
  • Gastrique: a sweet-sour sauce made from equal parts caramelized sugar and vinegar.
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