The French Five
Even if you are unfamiliar with the term “mother sauces,” you are likely eating and enjoying them all the time without actually realizing it.
If you don’t spend a lot of time in the kitchen, you may not be familiar with the concept of the “five French mother sauces.” You may have possibly heard someone referencing the “mother sauces” in a cooking show, or perhaps on a movie set in the gourmet culinary world, but you still have little idea what it actually means.
Even if you are unfamiliar with the term, you are likely eating and enjoying these sauces all the time without actually realizing it — especially if you are a fan of that star dish of the brunch menu, eggs Benedict. The prime decadent ingredient that makes eggs Benedict so irresistibly delicious is hollandaise sauce, which just so happens to be one of the five mother sauces.
Alfredo sauce and other cream or cheese-based sauces are also derivatives that come directly from another one of the mother sauces, called béchamel. And if you’ve ever made a roux and added milk to it to thicken up a soup or pour over a casserole, you’ve made béchamel (see, you’re fancy and didn’t even know it). Many hundreds of other sauces we use today are all derived from these five main sauces — hence the name, “mother.”
The French mother sauces were originally proposed by Marie-Antoine Carême, a French chef in the early 19th century. Carême only set forth four sauces, however. These four were béchamel, espagnole, velouté, and allemande. But in the early 20th century, world-renowned French chef Auguste Escoffier changed it up a bit by dropping allemande (saying instead it was a daughter sauce of velouté), and adding hollandaise and sauce tomate. These remain the five recognized mother sauces.
The right sauce can elevate any dish — improving and balancing flavor, compensating for under-seasoning or adding striking visual contrast.
Because it is January, the prime season for staying warm inside and partaking of rich comfort foods, let’s take a more detailed look at each of these sauces so you can start to get an idea of how to enrich and liven up your next dish utilizing one of the five mother sauces:
The White Sauces: Béchamel and Velouté
Béchamel is simply a roux of flour and butter with milk or cream added to it. From there, a béchamel can be used in multiple ways: add herbs, spices, or additional melted butter to create a simple yet elegant finishing sauce; add Parmesan to make a decadent cheese sauce; or pour it as-is into a pot of soup to thicken it up, among many, many others.
Velouté is also made from a flour-butter roux, but instead of added dairy it receives a fish, meat, or poultry base, and often the addition of a splash of wine.
One of the main characteristics that distinguishes these two white sauces from the other mother sauces is that they are made rapidly, not simmered and slaved over for hours. According to Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she says, “Many of the old cookbooks recommend that a white sauce, especially a velouté, be simmered for several hours, the object being to rid the sauce of its floury taste, and to concentrate flavor. However, if the flour and butter roux is properly cooked to begin with, and a concentrated, well-flavored stock is used, both of these problems have been solved at the start.”
When making a white sauce, be sure to use a heavy-bottomed enamel or stainless-steel pot to do so, as a thin metal pan will cause the sauce to scorch and burn.
Brown Sauce: Espagnole
Espagnole, meaning “Spanish” in French, has a couple of different origin stories. Some say that this important brown sauce in French cooking came to be when the Spanish cooks in attendance to Louis XIII’s bride, Anne — a Spanish princess — were preparing her wedding feast, and they insisted on making improvements to the traditional brown French sauce at the time. But another story holds that espagnole came roaring onto the scene when Spanish fashions and foods were all the rage in Paris in the 1700s under Louis XV.
Whichever it may be, sauce espagnole is the heaviest of all mother sauces and is rarely served on its own, but used simply as a base to create dozens of other sauces.
It is made by first making a brown roux (clarified butter mixed with flour and cooked down for a longer period), and then adding in the stock and bones of veal or beef, and sometimes added vegetables as well. The sauce reduces down until the connective tissue dissolves, and a thick, rich, flavorful base sauce is achieved.
Hollandaise is made simply of three components: warmed egg yolks flavored with lemon juice, and butter. Hollandaise seems as if it would be easy to make, but the real trouble comes in with the egg yolks being susceptible to curdling. To avoid curdling the yolks, or accidentally scrambling them, they must be heated very slowly, with a gradual addition of the butter, giving the yolks time to slowly absorb. It’s all about getting the exact butter-to-yolk ratio correct, about 3 ounces of butter per yolk.
It is worth putting in the time to master this coveted sauce, as you can impress your friends or simply fancy up a Saturday morning.
This is not the same variety as your average jarred tomato sauce. Think rich, aromatic, and deeply layered with flavor. Sauce tomate is made by reducing down tomatoes into a thick sauce, thickened with a roux, and simmered with the addition of vegetables and meat — particularly salty pork.
What the heck is a roux anyway?
Though it sounds fancy, a roux is simply whisking a fat (like butter or ghee) with flour over heat until combined, and then adding in a liquid. The point of a roux is to create a sauce texture thick enough so that it will coat and cling to food, or thicken up a thinner liquid (like a soup).
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