In the early nineteenth century, in his book L’Art de la Cuisine Française, Chef Marie-Antoine Carême named allemande, béchamel, velouté, and espagnole as the four foundational sauces of French cooking. Chef Auguste Escoffier expanded and refined Carême’s sauce work in his 1903 Le Guide Culinaire. Escoffier made allemande a daughter sauce of velouté and added “sauce tomate” and hollandaise to a list commonly known as French cuisine’s mother sauces. Hundreds of sauces are built on the backs of these basics.
Much has changed in the century-plus since Escoffier laid the rules down—opinions of how thick stocks should be, or how they should be emulsified (more or less roux? xanthan gum?). Fashions have changed, too, and some of these sauces have fallen far enough out of favor as to be functionally archaic.
But, much as is true when fighting the forces of Cobra, knowing is half the battle. And since an informal poll of friends and colleagues revealed that none could name Escoffier’s five mother sauces of the top of their heads, we present the sauces here, for your use in the kitchen, or the next time they come up in Trivial Pursuit or some sort of back-alley food-nerd fight.
The mother sauces are divided into two families: WHITE SAUCES and BROWN SAUCES.
The building blocks: STOCK + ROUX
“For brown stock, you roast veal bones and then put them in a pot with vegetables and water. Simmer for four hours,” according to André Soltner, the great French chef who serves as dean of the International Culinary Center. “If you do that same process with chicken or fish bones, you get a white stock.” It’s a simplification of a process with a million variables and nuances—How roasted are the bones? What aromatics go in the pot?—but it lays out the basics: there is BROWN STOCK and WHITE STOCK.
Roux comes in three colors: WHITE, PALE, and BROWN. Escoffier called them the “cohering element in sauces.” All roux are made the same way: butter is melted, flour is added, and the mixture is cooked and constantly stirred until the desired color of doneness is achieved. Escoffier liked brown roux for brown sauces; he wrote that a brown roux should exude “a scent resembling that of the hazelnut.” Pale roux is for veloutés or cream sauces; “cooking must cease as soon as the color of the roux begins to change,” he advised. White roux is for béchamel and white sauces. Escoffier advised cooking it only as long it is “needful…to do away with the disagreeable taste of raw flour.”
Béchamel is found as a thickener in soups, a fundamental part of soufflés, and the creamy binding thing that isn’t cheese in classic lasagnas. (And in not-so-classic lasagna.) It is a WHITE ROUX and MILK that is then seasoned with salt and pepper and sometimes nutmeg. Escoffier’s version called for a few more things—lean veal and onions, among others—but those ingredients have been stripped out in common usage over the years.
Velouté means “velvety”, which tells you a lot of what you need to know about this fundamental white sauce—it and its progeny are velvety while béchamel and its derivatives are creamy. PALE ROUX and WHITE STOCK are cooked into a glossy emulsion. Velouté isn’t a sauce you see out front on a lot of dishes—chicken or fish with it, maybe—but it is the basis for many others (like ravigote, which adds shallots, or suprême, which adds cream).
Hollandaise was a latecomer to the mother sauce party. French chefs didn’t start working with it until the late eighteenth century. Making Hollandaise requires finesse: egg yolks and lemon juice (or, in Escoffier’s time, vinegar) are whisked rapidly in a double boiler set over simmering water; butter is added in a slow stream until it becomes a smooth shiny frothy emulsion; salt and cayenne come in to finish. Hollandaise itself is a most often employed in the ultimate egg-on-egg dish: eggs benedict. With the addition of tarragon and shallots, it becomes béarnaise, steak’s best friend.
BROWN SAUCE / ESPAGNOLE
Sauce espagnole is the product of brown stock thickened with brown roux. Tomatoe purée or tomato paste is added at the end. During the cooking process, it’s important to skim the top every two hours. It’s heavy and dark and as such, has fallen out of favor in modern kitchens. Nowadays, its derivatives are more common: combined with brown stock and reduced down further it becomes demi-glace; add red wine to that and it becomes a bordelaise. Both are served with red meat.
Imagine a roux-thickened tomato sauce and you’re close to the original sauce tomate. Escoffier called for rendering a salt breast of pork, sweating carrots and onions in that fat with a bit of butter, dusting the mixture to make a roux, adding the tomatoes and white veal stock, boiling, and reducing until thick. Though included by Julia Child in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, this style of tomato sauce is rarely used in modern kitchens. Today, the tomatoes are more likely to be canned than fresh and the thickening comes from a longer reduction, not a roux.