Holy Mothers of Sauce!

An Introduction to the Fundamental Sauces of

French and Continental Cuisine

by T. P. Kaine


ETSU, Advanced Composition, 16 June 2011


Food is simply better with sauce. Nuggets need to be dipped; chopped steak, smothered; and macaroni, cheesed. The French have known this for quite some time, as evidenced by their culinary reliance on 5 classic sauces. These so-called mother sauces serve as the foundation to literally hundreds of other traditional dips, glazes, purees, and gravies. By mastering the preparation of these 5 basic sauces—the Pentaverate of French cuisine—you’ll immeasurably expand your cooking prowess.

Table of Contents

Know Your Mother                                                                                                                                                   

First Steps                                                                                                                                                                       

The Mirepoix                                                                                                                                                              

The Roux                                                                                                                                                                      

On Straining Sauces                                                                                                                                                

The Fabulous Five                                                                                                                                                     

1. Sauce Béchamel                                                                                                                                                   


Basic Recipe (yields 1 cup)                                                                                                                            


2. Sauce Velouté                                                                                                                                                        


Basic Recipe (yields 1 ¾ cups)                                                                                                                     

3. Sauce Espagnole                                                                                                                                                  


Basic Recipe (yields 5 cups)                                                                                                                          

4. Sauce Tomate                                                                                                                                                       


Basic Recipe (yields 2 quarts)                                                                                                                       

5. Sauce Hollandaise                                                                                                                                               


Basic Recipe (yields 1 cup)                                                                                                                            

Final Thoughts and Tips                                                                                                                                       


Know Your Mother

So who died and made these sauces king? His name was Antonin Carême (1784-1833), and around the turn of the 19th century, he classified French cooking sauces into four primary categories. Each category featured a basic, or mother, sauce. Over a century later, Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935) expanded the list to include 5 sauces, and it is these 5 that every culinary student learns today.

The list below comprises the five mother sauces. Take note that the pronunciations are pseudo-French; they reflect common American preferences.


The Five Modern Mother Sauces




Liquid Base








Stock (light)




Stock (dark)




Stock and Tomato




Egg Yolk

First Steps

The author assumes the reader’s competence in basic cooking techniques, but there’s no harm in calling attention to a few points of order.

French cuisine, like the food of all ethnicities, frequently employs many of the same ingredients regardless of the particular recipe. Two such ingredients are the mirepoix (meer-pwah) and the roux (roo). Knowing how to correctly prepare each is essential to making the mother sauces.

The Mirepoix

A mirepoix is a collection of aromatic vegetables (traditionally 3) that serves as the base to many sauces, stews, soups, and stocks. The vegetables are usually “sweated,” i.e. lightly sautéed until they are tender, upon being added to a dish. Which vegetables are used varies with the ethnicity of cuisine. Creole (onion, bell pepper, celery), Spanish (garlic, onion, tomato), and Chinese (green onion, ginger, garlic) cuisines all offer their own variations of this “Holy Trinity.” In French cooking, however, it is always as below:


Mirepoix (yields 1 cup)

·        ½ cup finely chopped onions

·        ¼ cup finely chopped carrots

·        ¼ cup finely chopped celery


Scaling this recipe is easy—simply maintain the 2:1:1 ratio of vegetables. The preferred fat for sweating the mirepoix is butter, although in some applications, olive or vegetable oil may be appropriate.

The Roux

A roux is a key thickening agent found in many sauces; it gives body to four of the five mother sauces. It consists of equal parts fat and flour cooked until it reaches the desired doneness. In French cooking, it is traditionally prepared with good quality, unsalted butter. Other cuisines may call for bacon fat, lard, or vegetable oil. Regardless the specific ingredient, preparation remains the same.

            The key factor in making a roux is cooking time. The longer the mixture is cooked, the darker the color of the roux. This dark color translates into a “richer” or “darker” flavor. Also important is using an appropriate level of heat. If the roux is processed for too short a time or at too low a temperature, it results in an undercooked sauce with the undesirable flavor and texture of raw flour. Conversely, if the roux is cooked for too long a time or with extreme heat, the flour may burn, resulting in a sauce with a sharp, scorched flavor.

            There are three traditional levels of doneness for a roux: white, blonde, and brown. In each case, the fat to flour ratio is 1:1 and cooked over medium-low heat in a heavy bottomed saucepan. The fat should first be heated until liquid and then the flour whisked in and continually stirred until it reaches the desired doneness. Recipes calling for a roux will specify the amounts of fat and flour, as well as the desired color.


The Three Types of Roux


Cooking Time



3-5 minutes

white in color; generally bland; has the most thickening power


6-7 minutes

ivory in color; faint nutty aroma; offers medium thickening power


15-20 minutes

dark brown; strong nutty flavor; is the least thickening

On Straining Sauces

            Escoffier calls for some sauces to be strained using a tamis (a flat, disc-shaped sieve), but these are often absent from home kitchens. Instead, a chinois (a conical or “china-hat” strainer), basic kitchen sieve (dome shaped), or cheesecloth may be employed. Prior to straining, it may be helpful to purée the sauce using a food mill, blender, or food processor. This makes straining both easier and less wasteful.

The Fabulous Five

This section lists the 5 mother sauces. While nearly none (spare the last) of these sauces are served as-is, each can be adapted for particular applications with relative ease. In each case its use (serving suggestions) and basic recipe is given, along with any appropriate cooking tips.

1. Sauce Béchamel


            This plain white sauce serves to cream vegetables and meats, as well as playing mother to cheese, onion, shrimp, oyster, and mustard sauces. Sauce Béchamel is ubiquitous in “creamy” dishes, and with a little creativity, the variations are endless.

Basic Recipe (yields 1 cup)

1.      Heat 1 cup milk to medium.

2.      Make a white roux using 2 tbs each butter and flour.

3.      Remove the pan from the heat and slowly whisk in milk.

4.      Return the pan to the heat and bring to a simmer, whisking quickly as to prevent lumping.

5.      Cook 1 to 2 minutes until desired thickness is reached.

6.      Season with salt and pepper.


            On its own, this basic white sauce is more or less flavorless, dependent on the type of fat used. The following are just a few additions that may be added to enhance its flavor:

·        1 tsp. fresh lemon juice

·        ½ tsp. Worcestershire sauce

·        1 tsp. sherry

·        2 tbsp. chopped parsley

·        2 tbsp. chopped chives

2. Sauce Velouté


The difference between sauce velouté and sauce béchamel is one of ingredients, as the preparation methods are almost identical. Velouté utilizes a blonde roux (instead of white) and stock (instead of milk). Any light-colored stock or broth may be used, including chicken, veal, fish, or vegetable.

            Sauce velouté is mother to the decadent cream sauce, sauce suprème, as well as champagne, curry, paprika, and caper sauces. It is appropriate for a variety of meats, fish, and vegetables.

Basic Recipe (yields 1 ¾ cups)

1.      Heat 2 ½ cups stock or broth.

2.      Make a blonde roux using 3 tbs each butter and flour. Once prepared, allow it to cool for 2 minutes before continuing.

3.      Remove stock from heat and gradually whisk into the roux, along with ¼ cup mushrooms, minced.

4.      Return to heat and cook about 20 minutes (or until it coats the back of a spoon). Do not boil.

5.      Strain the sauce, if desired.

6.      Season with salt and pepper.

3. Sauce Espagnole


Sauce espagnole is the mother of all brown sauces—literally. An important difference to the two sauces above is that a mirepoix is added to the fat prior to creating a roux.

This sauce is mother to more children than Kate Gosselin. From it you derive Madeira, brown onion, Hunter’s, Bordelaise, mushroom, pepper, and piquant sauces. In it’s most simple form, sauce espagnole, with the addition of a few mushrooms, is superb on any red meat.

Basic Recipe (yields 5 cups)

1.      Heat 8 cups beef stock.

2.      Combine 1 cup mirepoix with ½ cup butter and cook until vegetables are tender.

3.      Make a brown roux using the above and ½ cup flour.

4.      Once cooked (roughly 20 mins), stir in 10 whole peppercorns, 2 cups canned tomatoes (drained, peeled, and chopped), and ½ cup chopped parsley.

5.      Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to simmer the mixture for 2 to 2 ½ hours, stirring occasionally.

6.      Strain the sauce.

7.      Season with salt and pepper.

4. Sauce Tomate


Many are surprised to learn that a tomato sauce is included in the mother list; it is generally perceived as Italian in origin. In truth, tomatoes find origin in the Americas, but their worldwide culinary uses are vast.

            Besides the sauce’s obvious use in pastas and pizzas, it is also at home on numerous meats and vegetables.

Interestingly, Escoffier’s original recipe does not call for any herbs or spices. If you choose to add them, however, do so at the same time the veal stock is introduced, immediately before simmering.

Basic Recipe (yields 2 quarts)

Author’s Note: This sauce can be prepared either on the stovetop or in the oven. The latter is Escoffier’s preferred method of preparation, and is the one offered below.


1.      Preheat an oven to 350° F.

2.      In a Dutch oven, render the fat from 2 oz. of salt pork, diced. This should yield roughly ¼ cup liquid fat.

3.      Add 4 cups mirepoix to the rendered fat and cook until vegetables are tender.

4.      Make a blonde roux using the above and ¼ cup flour.

5.      Add 2 28-oz. cans of crushed tomatoes and cook briefly to allow them to release their juices.

6.      Add 1 qt. light veal stock and 1 clove garlic, crushed.

7.      Cover and cook in the oven for 1 ½ - 2 hours.

8.      Strain the sauce.

9.      Season with salt, pepper, and a pinch of sugar.

5. Sauce Hollandaise


Sauce hollandaise is the only sauce of the mother sauces to not employ a roux. Instead, thickening is accomplished via the use of egg yolks. It is also perhaps the most difficult of the sauces to make. Emulsions such as hollandaise require constant whisking and a “low-and-slow” method, as noted in Joy of Cooking: “A professional chef will make these sauces over low direct heat, but don’t try this unless you are prepared to act out a new definition of ‘stir crazy.’”

            Aside from the traditional use of hollandaise in Eggs Benedict, it is also mother to other decadent sauces like béarnaise (great on grilled meats and fish) and Newburg (heavenly with shellfish).

      The sauce should be served immediately after making.

Basic Recipe (yields 1 cup)

1.      Melt, over low heat, 10 tbs. butter.

2.      Skim the foam off of the butter and discard. Keep the skimmed butter warm.

3.      Into the top of a double boiler (cool), place 3 egg yolks and 1 ½ tbs. cold water.

4.      Whisk until light and frothy.

5.      Using the double boiler, heat with very low heat (barely simmering) the yolks until eggs are thickened, approximately 3-5 min.. Do not allow the eggs to become too hot, as they will scramble.

6.      Remove from heat and gradually drizzle in melted butter, whisking constantly. Add only the clarified (clear) portion of the butter, leaving the milk solids (white) behind.

7.      Continuing to whisk, add ½ to 2 tsp. fresh lemon juice or vinegar.

8.      Season with salt and pepper.

Final Thoughts and Tips

            Below are a few recommendations for preparing and serving sauces.


·        Keeping Sauces Fresh: Most sauces can be held at a low temperature until ready to serve. However, resting for a long period will lead to a “skin” or hardened layer on the sauce. Plastic wrap can be floated atop the sauce to prevent this, or you may simply skim the sauce prior to serving.

·        Advance Preparation: Most sauces can be prepared and frozen for future use. If doing so, freeze in small batches (ice cube trays work well) and use care when reheating. Some sauces, such as hollandaise, are notoriously hard to preserve, but if reheated gradually over a double boiler may render a palatable result.

·        Ingredients: Many of these sauces have very few components, and thus it is crucial to use only the finest and freshest ingredients. The difference between a good and a great Hollandaise, for example, is found in the quality of the butter used.

·        A Finishing Touch: A final pat of good quality butter stirred in at the last moment before serving adds an appealing gloss to the sauce.



A Note on Sources: Many of Escoffier’s original recipes are easily found online. For recipes, variations, and discussion related to the mother sauces, refer to the 75th Anniversary Edition of Joy of Cooking, by Rombauer, Becker, and Becker.


About the Author: Kaine is a student of Philosophy with a longstanding interest in food & wine. As a child, he was educated in the nuances of dinner service and hospitality by his mother, a socialite frequently called upon to entertain. Later he worked for several years in a diamond-rated restaurant, during which he learned the foundations of gourmet continental cuisine.