French Cooking: The Five Mother Sauces (and Why You Need Them)
When we no longer have good cooking in the world, we will have no literature, nor high and sharp intelligence, nor friendly gatherings, no social harmony.— Antonin Carême
What Are "Mother Sauces?"
In the art of cooking, there are five basic sauces; each one is the foundation, the starting point, for many, many more. If you have made a white sauce for lasagna, or a cheese sauce for macaroni, if you have simmered gravy for a chicken dinner or a rich wine sauce for sliced roast beef, you have used one of the Mother Sauces.
One would think that such lofty embellishments would come from the elite. Not so. The original concept for this French quintet came not from royalty but from an orphan employed as a kitchen servant.
The Original "Celebrity Chef"
Before Gordon Ramsay, before Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, or even Julia Child there was Antonin Carême.
Born in Rue du Bac, Paris in 1784, Marie Antoine (Antonin) Carême was one of 15 children. The family lived in abject poverty near the wharves where his father labored as a dock worker. In the midst of the French Revolution, when he was still a young lad (accounts place his age somewhere between 8 and 10) Antonin ceased living with his family. Some stories say that he was forced from the home to look for work and signed on for an apprenticeship at the Fricassée de Lapin. Others create a more Dickensian tale of eating a meal with his father at the tavern and then being abandoned. The tavern owner then took pity on him and offered him a job as a pot washer in exchange for room and board.
At the age of 16, Carême took the next step in his employment resume; he began an apprenticeship with Sylvain Bailly at a patisserie near the Royal Palace.
Bailly’s head pastry maker, Avice, instructed the young man in the art of making pastry, but he also took a personal interest in him, recognizing his talent and intellect. Avice encouraged Carême to learn to read and write. In his free time, Carême studied at the Bibliothéque Nationale Department of Prints and Engravings and there developed an appreciation for fine architecture. Using sugar, marzipan, and pastry, Carême reproduced some of the works he had seen in books.
These elaborate creations, some as large as 4 feet in height, were displayed in the shop windows of the patisserie. Carême’s work was noticed by the French diplomat, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand. This marked a turning point in the career and life of the young apprentice. National Public Radio provides this summary of what occurred next.
Around 1804, Talleyrand challenged Carême to produce a full menu for his personal château, instructing the young baker to use local, seasonal fruits and vegetables and to avoid repeating entrees over the course of an entire year. The experiment was a grand success and Talleyrand's association with French nobility would prove a lucrative connection for Carême.
French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was notoriously unimpressed by the decadence of early 18th century cuisine, but under pressure to entertain Paris' high society, he too summoned Carême to his kitchen at Tuileries Palace. In 1810, he designed the lavish cake for the wedding of Napoleon and his second bride, Marie-Louise of Austria. Carême became one of the first modern chefs to focus on the appearance of his table, not just the flavor of his dishes. "I want order and taste. A well displayed meal is enhanced one hundred per cent in my eyes," he later wrote in one of his cookbooks.
And Then International Fame
In 1816 Carême traveled to England; he had been invited to cook for George IV. This journey was then followed by a trip to prepare several grand feasts for Tzar Alexander I of Russia.
As he traveled through Europe, rubbing elbows with early 19th-century nobility, Carême created the art of French haute cuisine. It was at this time that he devised the concept of four “mother” sauces—béchamel, velouté, Espagnole, and allemande. (And in his spare time he developed the pastry bag, the soufflé, and the chefs uniform of the double-breasted white coat and tall white toque, all of which are still used today.) Carême was also a prolific writer; he published and illustrated seven cookbooks in his lifetime.
“SAUCE, n. The one infallible sign of civilization and enlightenment. A people with no sauces has one thousand vices; a people with one sauce has only nine hundred and ninety-nine. For every sauce invented and accepted a vice is renounced and forgiven.”— Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914)
Was He a Culinary Genius?
...or a narcissistic fanatic? Each of Carême’s cookbooks contained at least one portrait; he wanted to ensure that he would be recognized wherever he went. And his displays were astounding, flamboyant, one could say even ostentatious. Guests would gasp in awe of the elaborate dishes carried into the dining halls. For a feast celebrating the Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia’s visit to George IV’s Brighton Pavilion, the menu featured no less than 120 different dishes (including 8 different soups, 40 entrees, and 32 desserts).
In addition to his cookbooks, he created a 5-volume encyclopedia although the final two volumes of the set were not published until after his death in 1833.
And Then There Was a New Celebrity
Twenty-five years after the death of Carême, Auguste Escoffier began his cooking career as a 12-year old apprentice in his uncle’s restaurant, Le Restaurant Francais, in Nice. At the age of 19, he moved to Paris where he was employed at Le Petit Moulin Rouge as an apprentice roast cook. However, that career was cut short when 7 months later he was called to active military duty. He was given the position of Chef de Cuisine for the army.
Following his military service, Escoffier returned to work at Le Petit Moulin Rouge until 1878. He worked in several more kitchens in Paris from 1878 to 1890. In 1890 he was given the opportunity to direct the kitchen of the newly opened Savoy Hotel, and 9 years later the Carlton Hotel where he built a reputation for eschewing the excess that had been popularized by Carême. Extravagant dinners with outrageous garnishes were replaced with simple, nutritious foods. It was at this time that Escoffier revised the mother sauces—allemande was removed, sauce tomat (tomato) and hollandaise were added.
Let's examine each of those five sauces:
Bechamel (White Sauce)
Bechamel ( bey-sha-mel)
The creamy white sauce in a spinach lasagna, or the cheese sauce for macaroni and cheese—these begin with a bechamel. Of the five mother sauces, this indeed the simplest, and an easy one for the beginner. Only three ingredients are required—milk, flour, and butter. The key to success in the creation of this sauce is preparing the roux (rhymes with Winnie the Pooh). Watch this video which explains step-by-step how to create a perfect roux.
So, now that you have seen the technique, here is the recipe.
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 2 cups whole milk
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste (optional)
- Heat the milk in a saucepan. While it is warming, melt the butter in another pan.
- Add the flour and stir to create a white roux. Slowly add the heated milk in increments to the roux, whisking all the while.
- When the desired thickness and smoothness is achieved, bring the mix to a boil. Reduce the heat and stir frequently for 3 to 5 more minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Veloute (Blond Sauce)
Veloute is similar to béchamel, but the milk is replaced with stock, typically chicken or veal but fish or shellfish stock can be used as well. Technically it's not a finished sauce but rather is used as a flavorful starting point for gravies, mushroom sauces (think chicken pot pie), and shrimp sauce (oh my goodness, shrimp bisque) for example.
- 2 cups white stock (veal, chicken, fish, or seafood)
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 3 tablespoons flour
- salt and pepper to taste
- Melt the butter until it is frothy. Add the flour and stir frequently to create a roux. Veloute is darker than Bechamel, so allow the roux to cook until it develops a golden color.
- Whisk in the stock in 1/2 cup increments until the mixture is smooth. Then, add the desired amount of salt and pepper.
- Bring the sauce to a boil, then reduce the heat and let it simmer for around 20 minutes.
Espagnole (Brown Sauce)
Despite the name, this sauce is not "Spanish". For an explanation, I went directly to the source--Escoffier Online:
Sauce Espagnole or Spanish Sauce, has actually very little to do with Spain or Spanish cuisine. The story goes that when the Spanish cooks of Louis XIII’s bride, Anne, were preparing their wedding feast, the cooks weren’t impressed with the flavor of the standard French sauce. To add flavor and richness, they threw in some Spanish tomatoes and the immediate hit was named in the country’s honor out of respect.
Espagnole gets its rich, brown color from hearty meat stock (homemade is best but you can use canned if you must), browned vegetables, a browned roux and a touch of tomato paste. Carême’s original Espagnole sauce called for throwing ham, a round of veal, and two partridges into a tall saucepan. The following recipe from Epicurious.com is partridge-free (thank goodness!):
- 1 small carrot, coarsely chopped
- 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
- 1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 4 cups hot beef stock (recipe is given below)
- 1/4 cup canned tomato purée
- 2 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
- 1 celery rib, coarsely chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- 1 Turkish or 1/2 California bay leaf
- Cook carrot and onion in butter in a 3-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until golden, 7 to 8 minutes. Add flour and cook roux over moderately low heat, stirring constantly, until medium brown, 6 to 10 minutes. Add hot stock in a fast stream, whisking constantly to prevent lumps, then add tomato purée, garlic, celery, peppercorns, and bay leaf and bring to a boil, stirring. Reduce heat and cook at a bare simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until reduced to about 3 cups, about 45 minutes.
- Pour sauce through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, discarding solids.
Ingredients for the Beef Stock
- 4 fresh flat-leaf parsley sprigs
- 1 fresh thyme sprig
- 1 Turkish or 1/2 California bay leaf
- 2 lb meaty beef shanks, sawed crosswise into 1-inch slices by butcher
- 2 lb meaty veal shanks, sawed crosswise into 1-inch slices by butcher
- 2 onions (left unpeeled), quartered
- 1 carrot, quartered
- 4 qt plus 2 1/2 cups cold water
- 2 celery ribs, quartered
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Directions for the Beef Stock
- Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 450°F.
- While oven heats, wrap parsley, thyme, and bay leaf in cheesecloth and tie into a bundle with kitchen string to make a bouquet garni.
- Spread beef shanks, veal shanks, onions, and carrot in a large flameproof roasting pan, then brown well in the oven, turning occasionally, about 1 hour.
- Transfer meat and vegetables to a 6- to 8-quart stockpot. Add 2 cups water to roasting pan, then straddle pan across 2 burners and deglaze by boiling over high heat, stirring and scraping up brown bits, 2 minutes. Add deglazing liquid to stockpot along with 4 quarts water, celery, salt, and bouquet garni. Bring to a boil and skim froth. Add remaining 1/2 cup water, then bring mixture to a simmer and skim any froth.
- Simmer gently, uncovered, skimming froth occasionally, until liquid is reduced to about 8 cups, 3 to 5 hours.
- Pour stock through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, pressing hard on and then discarding solids. If using stock right away, skim off and discard fat. If not, cool stock completely, uncovered, then chill, covered (it will be easier to remove fat when chilled).
Tomato (Red Sauce)
This one contains a few more ingredients, but it probably the easiest as far as execution. You can’t wreck this one. Trust me. Some cooks thicken their tomato sauce with a roux, but I prefer slow simmering and allowing the tomato to thicken on its own as some of the liquid evaporates. This concentrates the flavor and makes a more pronounced tomato taste. The best recipe I have found for this sauce is here from The Spruce.
Hollandaise (Butter Sauce)
This sauce, unlike the others, is an emulsion.
In the words of Luther “what does this mean?” Simply put, two opposing forces (water and oil) are magically combined. The droplets of fat in the butter are suspended in the watery portion of the eggs. Actually, it’s not magic. A fast-moving whisk provides the abracadabra. Don’t worry. I’ll show you a video to guide you to that emulsified bliss.
- 6 oz. (3/4 cup) unsalted butter
- 2 large egg yolks
- 1 Tbs. fresh lemon juice; more as needed
- Kosher salt
Directions (from Fine Cooking)
- Melt the butter in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat and let stand for a few minutes off the heat. Don’t stir it—you want the milky solids to fall to the bottom and the clear yellow butterfat to float to the top. Skim off any milk solids still on the surface with a spoon. Pour the butterfat into a measuring cup, leaving the milky-watery layer behind. Keep warm.
- Fill a 3-quart saucepan with 1 inch of water and bring to a simmer over medium heat; then reduce the heat to low.
- Put the egg yolks, lemon juice, 1/4 tsp. salt, and 2 Tbs. water in a 2-quart stainless-steel bowl that will fit over the saucepan without touching the water. Put the bowl over the pan and whisk vigorously until the mixture is thick and frothy and the whisk leaves a trail in the mixture, 2 to 5 minutes. Scrape around the sides of the bowl with a silicone spatula from time to time so that the yolks don’t stick or overcook and curdle.
- Remove the bowl from the heat and whisk for another 30 seconds, letting the eggs cool down a bit.
- Lay a folded kitchen towel over a cool saucepan off the heat and nestle the bowl into the pan to hold the bowl steady. Slowly drizzle in the warm clarified butter, whisking constantly, until all the butter is added and the sauce is smooth and creamy. (If at any point the sauce breaks and looks curdled, stop adding the butter and see Hollandaise Troubleshooting, opposite).
- Adjust salt and lemon juice to taste. Serve immediately.
But If You're Short of Time...
...or feel like cheating a little, this method should give you a satisfactory hollandaise.
Now That You Have the Basics
These are called "Mother Sauces" for a reason. They are the springboard, the platform, the basis for many, many other sauces. Look at the chart below. With a few simple additions, you can transform a basic bechamel into a cream sauce, Cheddar cheese sauce, or Mornay. Sauce tomat (tomato) can be transformed into Creole or a Bolognese.
Now That You Know About the Mother Sauces, Which One Will You Try?
© 2018 Linda Lum