Taken from the Latin salsa, meaning salty, a sauce is defined as a liquid, thickened and seasoned, served on or used to prepare other foods. A crucial element that ties together the crunch of vegetables with the succulent richness of a slice of meat, whether smeared, splatted or simply poured over, sauces are never consumed by themselves but used to add flavour, moisture and visual interest to a dish. An ancient Roman fish sauce known as garum was made from fish intestines, which were salted, packed in clay containers and left out in the sun to mature — now enjoying a modern-day revival with Rene Redzepi’s Noma, ranked number one on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Similarly, the Chinese fermented soybean paste doubanjiang mentioned as far back as the third century BCE was used as a condiment and an ingredient.
Building on the pioneering work of 19th-century chef Marie-Antoine Carême, it was the father of modern-day French gastronomy Auguste Escoffier who codified the five Mother Sauces. They are called mother sauces because they are the foundation from which hundreds of other sauces can be created, sometimes referred to as daughter sauces.
Having a repertoire of tried and tested sauces will instantly elevate your home-cooked dishes. A sauce accompanied by meat or vegetables adds a sense of sophistication to your cooking. Mastering the base sauces is the trick, followed by expanding your repertoire depending on the dish you are preparing.
The Five Mother Sauces
In four of the five mother sauces, a roux is used as a thickening agent. Made from equal parts butter and flour cooked to varying degrees of colour, depending on the sauce and flavour profile required. As the butter and flour cook, a nutty biscuit flavour develops. Egg yolks are also used as a thickening agent for some sauces, adding richness to the finished product. A slurry of corn starch is commonly used in eastern style sauces.
An essential in French and Italian dishes. Made from aromatics steeped in milk and a light roux. Bechamel is often used in pasta dishes, gratins and the ever-popular croque-monsieur. It is used as a base sauce when making the delicious sauce mornay, better known as cheese sauce.
From the French word for velvety and an incredibly versatile stock. Velouté is similar to béchamel, but milk is exchanged for stock, and the roux is cooked to a golden blond hue. From this base stock, delectable derivatives such as Allemande sauce — a velouté thickened with egg yolks and cream with a punch of acidity from lemon juice to balance out the richness. Use fish stock with shallots and white wine for a light Bercy sauce.
They are called mother sauces because they are the foundation from which hundreds of other sauces can be created
With very little to do with Spanish flavours, this very French sauce gets its name as a way to pay homage to the Spanish cooks who prepared the wedding feast of Louis XIII to Spanish born Anne of Austria. Brown stock, tomato paste and a bouquet garni are added to a brown roux giving you a robust base sauce. Seldom used on its own, sauce Espagnole is used as a starting point for sauces such as a demi-glaze or sauce bourguignonne.
The perfect sauce for eggs benedict or simply smothered over blanched asparagus. Though concise with ingredients — egg yolks, melted butter and lemon juice — this sauce can be tricky to get right. Get the heat wrong, and you can quickly go from a smooth sauce to scrambled eggs.
Unlike the Italian version, this French mother sauce calls for pork belly, flour, and a host of other ingredients. The in-depth preparation and over a dozen ingredients result in a sauce that exhibits a deep layered depth of flavour.
To get you going on your way, I wanted to share my go-to recipe for béchamel. I include the addition of some warm spices, which give this white sauce depth of flavour.
The recipe below should yield sufficient sauce for a family-sized lasagne or multiple Sunday brunch croque monsieurs paired with mimosas.
- 4 TBSP all-purpose flour
- 4 TBSP butter
- 2 cups full-cream milk
- 1 bay leaf
- Half an onion
- 4 cloves
- A slight grating of nutmeg
- Decant the milk into a small saucepan and turn the heat to medium.
- Stud the onion with the cloves and add to the warming milk together with the bay leaf. We are looking to infuse the milk with the flavour of the aromatics and warm spices. The warm milk will also help with producing a smooth sauce. Heat until nearly boiling, then turn the heat off and allow to infuse.
- In a separate medium-size heavy-based saucepan on medium heat, melt the butter until frothy. Add the flour, and using a whisk, combine the flour and butter. It is important to cook out the flour, but we are not looking for too much colour. This process should take two to three minutes.
- Fish out the clove-studded onion and bay leaf from the hot milk.
- Turning the heat to low on the saucepan with the roux, carefully add one third of the aromatic milk and vigorously whisk the sauce.
- The mixture should thicken immediately. Continue to whisk and add the balance of the milk. Cook for a further two minutes, whisking the sauce to a smooth consistency
- Season with salt and pepper and a little grating of nutmeg, and should you have any lumps, the sauce can be passed through a fine mesh strainer.