What Is a Mother Sauce, Exactly?
The five French mother sauces—Béchamel, Hollandaise, velouté, Espagnole, and sauce tomat—are the building blocks of all other French sauces.
Chef Marie Antoine-Carême named Béchamel, velouté, Espagnole, and sauce tomat the “four French mother sauces” in the 19th century, and Chef Auguste Escoffier added Hollandaise to the mix in Le Guide Culinaire in 1903.
It’s important to note that four of the five sauces (Hollandaise is the outlier) start with a roux. A roux is typically made from equal parts flour and fat cooked together and is used to thicken sauces.
So why should non-culinary students care about any of this? Well, once you’ve mastered the five basic recipes, you’ll be able to tackle more complex sauces down the road. There would be no bœuf bourguignonne without Espagnole, no au gratin potatoes without Béchamel.
Think of it this way: Remember when you missed one math class in high school and were lost for the rest of the year? That’s how you should approach French sauces. When you’ve learned the basics, jumping into the deep end later doesn’t seem quite as daunting.
1. Hollandaise Sauce
Hollandaise is pale yellow, smooth, and creamy sauce made with eggs, butter, water, and lemon juice. It is thickened by an emulsifying egg yolks and melted butter, which simply means creating a cohesive, stable mixture of two things that do not naturally blend together under normal circumstances. The sauce is commonly associated with eggs Benedict, but it is also often served with vegetables (like asparagus), chicken, ham, and fish.
2. Béchamel Sauce
Béchamel sauce, also known as white sauce, is made with butter, flour, and milk. Though it is rather bland by itself, it’s often used as a base for other sauces, such as Mornay sauce (Béchamel with cheese). You’ll find Béchamel is key to some of your favorite comfort foods: Mac and cheese, scalloped potatoes, and gratin are all held together by the basic sauce.
Get the recipe: Béchamel Sauce
3. Velouté Sauce
The word “velouté” means “velvety” in French. Velouté sauce is made of butter, flour, and chicken or fish stock. The basic sauce—and the sauces derived from it—is often found in chicken or seafood dishes. Allemande sauce, a derivative of velouté, is made by adding a few drops of lemon juice, egg yolks, and cream.
Get the recipe: Velouté Sauce
4. Espagnole Sauce
Espagnole sauce is a basic brown sauce with Spanish origins. It’s made of beef or veal stock, tomato puree, and mirepoix, and is thickened with a dark brown roux. Espagnole is quite strong and is rarely used directly on food. Instead, it’s used as a base for other sauces. Bourguignonne, a French sauce with red wine and onions or shallots, is the most famous derivative of Espagnole sauce.
Get the recipe: Beef Bourguignonne
5. Sauce Tomat (Tomato Sauce)
Though tomato sauce is associated with Italian cuisine and likely has South American roots, it’s considered a French staple. There are obviously plenty of modern (and simpler) versions of tomato sauce, but the classic sauce tomat is made with cooked tomatoes, thickened with roux, and flavored with pork and vegetables.
Read more: The Best Way to Make Fresh Tomato Sauce