It’s the wee hours of the morning. Though your body is weary and your mind is at its lowest activity level, sleep evades you like a runaway convict. You toss, turn and flip like a world-class gymnast but the minutes mock you as they slowly tick by. Defeated, you turn on the television with the full knowledge that the pervasive glow of the blue light will destroy any chance of sleep anytime soon. As you aimlessly switch from one channel to the next, you come across a rotund chef with far too much energy bestowing the virtues of mother sauces.
Mother sauces? What are they? Are these akin to the sauces, gravies and creams that only a mother can make … any mother? No, not quite (although they can involve a mother [or a father, cousin, girl, boy, next door neighbor, Mormon, the ice cream man, soap opera star, etc.]).
So What Exactly Is a Mother Sauce?
I’m pleased that your inquiring mind would like to know. In classic French cooking, a mother sauce is the highly flexible basis of sauce-making. Essentially, it is the starting point for the sauces that follow.
The idea of mother sauces originated in France by Marie-Antoine Carême, a 19th century chef and food writer. Carême classified the foundational sauces into four distinct categories, and from these base sauces a myriad of other, secondary sauces, also referred to as “small sauces,” are derived. Georges Auguste Escoffier is credited with the fifth sauce added to the list in the 20th century.
And The Five Mother Sauces Are…?
Tomate (sometimes spelled Tomato or Tomat). You might be surprised to learn that, since this is a French tomato sauce and not an Italian one, the ingredients list for this sauce includes pork fat or rendered salt belly (Escoffier’s recipe), as well as tomatoes, carrots, garlic and herbs. This sauce pairs wonderfully with baked fish, pasta and can be used as a base for pizza.
A few small sauces derived from Tomate:
- Provençale sauce
- Portuguese sauce
- Meat sauce
Béchamel (bay-sha-mel). Béchamel is a rich, smooth and creamy white sauce made from a thickening agent, roux (comprised of flour, milk and butter) and seasonings. There are several theories as to whom the credit goes for the creation of this sauce, including Marquis Louis de Béchamel, Chef Francois Pierre de la Varenne and Duke Philippe De Mornay.
A few small sauces derived from Béchamel:
- Mornay sauce
- Cheddar cheese sauce
- Chantilly sauce
Velouté (veh-loo-tay). Velouté sauce (translation in French: velvety) is similar in its staple ingredients to Béchamel, but it incorporates fish, turkey or chicken stock in place of milk. It is a smooth and delicate sauce that adopts the flavor of the stock that is added to it.
A few small sauces derived from Velouté:
- Allenmande sauce
- Poulette sauce
- Normandy sauce
Espagnole (Es-pah-nyol). While this sauce may sound Spanish, it actually has French origins. Espagnole is a rich brown sauce made from brown stock made with dark meat (beef or veal), thickened with roux (a mixture of flour and butter). It also includes vegetables, herbs and tomato paste. Espagnole is great served with red meats.
A few small sauces derived from Espagnole:
- Demi-glace sauce
- Bordelaise sauce
- Maderia sauce
Hollandaise (hol-un-days). Hollandaise sauce is an emulsification and one that is rich, airy and full-bodied. Butter, egg yolks and lemon juice comprise this sauce that is wonderful over poached eggs, blanched asparagus or paired with seafood.
A few small sauces derived from Hollandaise:
- Beurre Noisette sauce
- Béarnaise sauce
- Mousseline sauce
So there you have it. Mother sauces are the starting point that ‘spawn’ wonderful sauces of their own. And I must say, these are some proud mothers.
You wanted to know? Now you know.
[DISCLAIMER: I am not a chef and I don’t play one on TV. If you feel that I got a fact wrong, feel free to let me know by sending a note through the Contacts page. [Get more of “So You Say You Wanna Know” and stay in the culinary know!]