We take a look at the five ‘mother’ sauces in French cooking – béchamel, velouté, hollandaise, sauce tomate and espagnole – all of which are the starting points for making many popular secondary sauces.
Did you know there are essentially five classic French sauces? Known as the ‘mother sauces’, they are the essential basis of many French dishes. Don’t get nervous about the names of some of these classic sauces like velouté, because you really don’t have to be the chef de cuisine to make them.
1. Béchamel Sauce
As the base for mornay sauce, soubise, cheese sauce, mustard sauce, béchamel is more commonly know as cream or cheese sauce. In French cooking it is classically served with eggs, fish, pasta or steamed poultry and generally flavoured with nutmeg, bay leaf, white onion or cloves. This is the classic way of making a white sauce, using a mixture of butter and flour that the French call a ‘roux’.
- 425ml milk
- 1 bay leaf
- 10 whole black peppercorns
- 1 slice onion, ¼inch (5mm) thick
- 40g butter
- 20g plain flour
- Freshly ground Salt and black pepper
Place the milk in a small saucepan and add the bay leaf, peppercorns and onion. Over a low heat let it come very slowly up to simmering point, which will take about five minutes. Strain the milk into a jug, then discarding the flavourings.
Melt the butter gently. Don't overheat it or let it brown, as this will affect the colour and flavour of the sauce. As soon as the butter melts, add the flour and – over a medium heat and using a small wooden spoon – stir quite vigorously to make a smooth, glossy paste.
Add the infused milk a little at a time, and keep stirring until all the milk has been added.
Turn the heat down to its lowest setting and let the sauce cook for five minutes, whisking from time to time. Season to taste.
Velouté is a very simple member of the five French mother sauces. It’s often served with fish, steamed vegetables and pasta. It is used as a base to make many different sauces, like white wine sauce, sauce supreme, sauce Normandy and sauce allemande. Basic velouté is much like a béchamel, created by starting with a roux, but instead stock is used rather than milk.
- 1 tbsp butter
- 1 tbsp plain flour
- 240ml beef or chicken stock
Create the roux by first melting the butter in a saucepan (taking care not to boil it). Remove from the heat and add the flour, whisking until completely free of any lumps.
While still off the heat, gradually add the stock, stirring constantly until the mixture is completely blended and smooth.
Return to the heat and stir until the sauce boils and thickens. Once the sauce starts to boil, reduce the heat and cook for a further minute to cook off the starch in the flour.
3. Sauce tomate
Sauce tomate came to the French from the Italians with a whole lot of other techniques and recipes. Traditionally, the difference between sauce tomate and its Italian counterpart is that the French thicken it with a roux while the Italian tomato sauce is thickened by slow reduction. Today it’s a matter or preference, but this version is quick and delicious. The addition of green peppers makes it a deeper, richer sauce.
- 1kg of plum tomatoes, crushed
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1tbsp of olive oil
- 2 green peppers, finely chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 2tbsp of red wine vinegar
- 1tsp of sugar
- Salt and pepper
Heat the oil and add the onions and green pepper. Over a medium heat, soften for a couple of minutes, then add the garlic and continue to cook for four minutes more or until all the veg has softened well.
Add the crushed tomatoes, red wine vinegar sugar, and season. Simmer on a very low heat without a lid until the sauce has thickened to a jam-like consistency, stirring now and then.
Make a good batch of this sauce and split between two or three freezer bags. The bags of sauce can then be kept in the fridge or frozen ready to be added to dishes when required.
Espagnole, or ‘brown sauce’, is made from simmering mirepoix (a blend of onion, carrot and celery), tomato puree, herbs, and beef stock. It's also the starting point for the demi-glace, a rich and deeply flavourful sauce that is traditionally served with red meats. Traditionally, a brown roux is used to thicken this sauce, which gives a rich and nutty aroma, Roasted veal stock is traditionally used, but beef stock works fine with modern versions.
- 225g butter
- 1 medium carrot, chopped coarsely
- 1 small onion, chopped coarsely
- 1 stick celery, chopped coarsely
- 50g flour
- 1L beef stock, hot
- 50g tomato puree
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
- Ground black pepper
- Bouquet garni
Over medium heat, melt the butter and sauté the carrots, onions, and celery in the melted butter until the veg becomes translucent.
Sprinkle in the flour lightly and evenly and stir until the flour is fully mixed into the melted butter. Allow the mixture to cook and thicken into a roux, about one to two minutes.
Whisking constantly, add the hot beef stock and tomato purée. Add the garlic, peppercorns and bouquet garni and simmer uncovered for 45-60 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the bouquet garni.
Split the sauce into two or three freezer bags and add to your sauces when required.
5. Hollandaise Sauce
Hollandaise is a wonderful classic French sauce used for eggs benedict, béarnaise, dijon sauce and Maltaise sauce. Buttery, tangy and luxurious, Hollandaise can be tricky to get right, as it curdles very easily. Although there are plenty of recipes out there, the one we find most successful is by Nigel Slater. The idea is to gently heat the egg yolk just enough to obtain the desired thickness of the sauce. Nigel solves this by using a bain marie, which keeps your delicate eggs away from any direct heat.
- 3 egg yolks
- Splash of water
- 200g of almost melted butter
- Squeeze of lemon juice
- Pinch of salt
Set up your bain marie: put a pan of water on to boil and find a glass or heatproof china bowl that will fit neatly into it without actually touching the water.
Add the yolks and a splash of water. Whisk, pouring in the melted butter. Go slowly at first, then as the sauce thickens, speed up a little.
Once thick and creamy, squeeze in a little lemon juice and a pinch of salt (no pepper). Use the sauce as is, poured over eggs benedict or fresh British asparagus. Or try adding the juice of blood oranges to the sauce to create a classic Maltaise sauce.