The term mother sauce is used in French cooking. Although there are an astounding array of sauces in French cooking, contrary to what you might assume, they are not all unique from start to finish. There are five main families of sauces, called the mother sauces, from which most sauces are derived. This system of organization, developed by Antonin Carême (with four sauces) in the 19th century, is one of the reasons French cooking has become so important and influence on Western cooking. Other cuisines tend to be more regional with cooks having different versions of the same thing or calling the same thing by different names.
If you attend culinary school, the French mother sauces will most likely be one early lessons you learn.
The first three of the mother sauces, listed below, are based on a roux. A roux is a thickening agent that is made with fat (usually butter) and a wheat flour. This is usually accomplished by heating the fat in a saucepan and adding equal parts flour, which is stirred and cooked for a few minutes, just enough so that there is not a raw flour taste, which would be very disastrous to the finished sauce. The thickening power of the roux depends on the ratio of flour to fat.
- Béchamel sauce: A roux to which milk is added.
- Velouté : A roux to which chicken or fish sauce is added.
- Demi-glace : A browned roux to which brown stock is added, usually brown veal (also called espagnole)
- Mayonnaise: A cold egg and oil emulsion
- Hollandaise: A warm egg and butter emulsion, much like mayonnaise but prepared and served hot.
To make a never-ending variety of new sauces from these basic sauces, all you have to do is add ingredients. Some standard editions to the mother sauces are given standard names:
- Béchamel sauce plus cheese: Mornay sauce
- Hollandaise with blood orange flavor: Sauce Maltaise
- Demi-glace with tomatoes and mustard: Sauce Robert (pronounced the French way, of course)
- Hollandaise with white wine, shallots and tarragon: Bearnaise sauce
- Hollandaise with whipped cream folded in: Mousseline
(See many more below)
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Some chefs do not consider the Hollandaise a mother sauce, and there is a good argument to support this stance. For instance, most sources (but not all) do not list the French sauce tomate as a mother sauce, since it is a sauce itself, rather than the base for a sauce. Hollandaise, as well, is a sauce unto itself. However, since it still can be viewed as a basic method to which additional flavors can be added, it is hard to say who is right or wrong, and it probably does not matter, unless you are an over-sensitive French cook.
There is another very important sauce called a Beurre blanc, which is sometimes considered a Hollandaise without the egg yolks. It is usually made with vinegar and white wine acid base to with which butter is emulsified. Since the emulsion relies only on the proteins in the butter solids, instead of the much better emulsive properties of egg yolks, this sauce has long been claimed to be extremely difficult; a sauce which only a few chefs with a special talent can master. Although whipping up a perfect one under pressure in a busy restaurant kitchen may be difficult indeed, it is not that difficult at all at home. Beurr blanc became a popular alternative to Hollandaise in nouvelle cuisie, which emerged in the 1970s. It is such a ubiquitous restaurant sauce, a recipe is included below.
Of course, there are other important French sauces that are not themselves mother sauces. The vinaigrette and simple warmed butter are two. There are also many dessert sauces:
- Creme anglaise: A stirred custard sauce
- Sabayon: Warm egg and fortified wine sauce
- Fruit Puree
- Caramel: Sugar and water heated until the sugar caramelizes
- Chocolate: Of course
French Roux versus Louisiana Roux
Since it is possible you have seen the making of a Louisiana roux, such as the start of gumbo, rather than a French roux. If that is true, it is important for you to know that the French roux differs from the Louisiana roux (Creole/Cajun) in a couple of ways. One, whereas the French roux uses butter, a Louisiana roux uses oil. And where a French roux cooks only for not more than two minutes, a Louisiana roux may cook up to one half hour, so that the flour becomes brown and flavorful. The longer you cook flour, by the way, the more of it’s thickening power it loses.
Beurre Blanc Recipe
4 finely chopped medium shallots
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 cup dry white wine (an inexpensive Sauvignon Blanc is perfect)
2 tbs heavy cream (optional)
2 sticks unsalted butter cut into chunks (plus a few chunks extra)
In a large saucepan, combine the shallots, vinegar, and wine over medium heat. Simmer until only a few tablespoons of liquid remain, which barely covers the shallots. Add the heavy cream, if desired, and bring to a simmer. Switch heat to low and remove the pan from the heat.
Add the two sticks of chunked butter, holding back the extra. Whisk continuously until the better has melted, about two to three minutes. If needed, place the pan briefly back onto the low heat burner, but do not allow the sauce to boil. The butter should warmed to just melting. Keep stirring until the sauce is creamy and whitened.
Make sure to keep stirring constantly and vigorously, or the emulsion will fail. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add more vinegar if the sauce needs more acid or some of the extra butter if it is too acid. Once all the butter i added, and the sauce does not look oily, but is light an creamy, remove from heat. If the sauce does look oily, this means it is beginning to break. Too much heat can cause this. In this case, add a few tablespoons of water and stir until the sauce is no longer oily. For a lighter and airier sauce, use a handheld mixer and give the sauces a few whirs. Keep warm until ready to serve, but not too hot.
More French Sauces
Béarnaise is a close kin to Hollandaise. It is named for the Béarn region in southwest France and is a warm egg and butter emulsion to which additional flavor is added with white wine, vinegar, tarragon, pepper and shallots. Hollandaise, on the other hand, as a basic mother sauce, usually only has pepper, at most, added, although a bit of lemon juice is sometimes put in. So, although Béarnaise is made in exactly the same way as Hollandaise, since it has always has the same extra flavor ingredients, it is thoguht of as its own sauce, although not a mother sauce.
Although Holldandaise is served over vegetables (especially asparagus), or any kind of roasted or grilled meat, Béarnaise is traditionally served over fillet Mignon, and also grilled meats or fish. Of course, you can serve it over anything you like! Both Hollandaise and Béarnaise have some common variations, beside the few already listed for Hollandaise above. I have described some of these below. Keep in mind that Hollandaise is so basic you can add almost any flavor you can imagine. It is a great base for adding Mexican or Southwestern flavors, with some spicy chiles. Béarnaise, on the other hand, since it is already flavored with tarragon, is not quite as flexible.
A great resource to learn about these sauces, and many more sauces, cooking techniques, and recipes is Cooking by James Peterson.
Classic Variations of Hollandaise and Béarnaise Sauce
Hollandaise Based Sauces
The amounts of the added ingredients are based on a recipe that makes 2 1/2 cups of hollandaise sauce.
Buerre Noisette (burr-nwah-ZET), the French term for “browned butter” or, more literally, Hazelnut Butter, is added to the finished sauce. This is butter that has been gently cooked in a pan until the butter turns a golden brown color, which gives it a nutty flavor. Noisette Sauce goes well with fish. About 1/4 cup beurre noisette would be added to 2 1/2 cups of finished hollandaise.
This one should be self explanatory. You add a little mustard to the finished sauce. Except not yellow hot dog mustard, of course! Add about one tablespoon of Dijon mustard to the hollandaise. Good with broiled or grilled fish or chicken.
Foyot Sauce (or Volois)
You have to do some additional cooking for this sauce. About 2 tablespoons of meat glaze, called glace de viande is added to the sauce. Meat glaze is simply a very concentrated reduction of brown stock. You can make your own or buy it read-made from the store. If you do buy a ready-made stock, make sure it is unsalted or else the reduced stock will be so salty you’ll pucker up so severely you could swallow your own face. Let it cool before adding it to the sauce. Grilled meats, fish or vegetables.
Béarnaise Based Sauces
Again, the amount of added ingredient is based on 2 1/2 cups of finished béarnaise sauce.
Add one tablespoon white horseradish. This sauce is classically served with roast rib of beef. Also goes good with grilled or broiled fish, especially salmon.
You don’t add anything to the béarnaise. Instead, you substitute fresh mint for the tarragon. Mint means lamb, of course.
Choron is a tomato béarnaise sauce. For this you need to reduce some tomato coulis or a tomato sauce (sauce tomate). A coulis is simply a tomato puree that has been strained. Chop some good fresh tomatoes and simmer them until softened. You don’t need to peel them. Once they are soft, work them through a strainer or food mill and then cook the resulting puree until thickened. If your puree is not thick enough when you add it to the sauce, your sauce will be too thin. Again, make sure it is cooled down first!
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