LESSON 2: The Five Basic Mother Sauces

There are five basic sauces that you need to know and learn how to make. Once you master these five sauces you can make any other sauce you so desire. Think about never buying another jar or can sauce of gravy again.

These are so very simple to master. With a few simple ingredients (mostly flour, butter, and a liquid) and a couple easy techniques, these five sauces, all equally important to your cooking repertoire, serve as the starting point for a slew of other classics.

Once you get the feel for these sauces, you’ll be able to whisk them up whenever you want to get fancy. And soon enough, you'll feel confident enough to break tradition and take that Mother Sauce somewhere she’s never gone before. Here's what you need to know about the building blocks of sauces:

Beyond flavor, the most important element of any sauce is its ability to smother and cling to whatever it gets drizzled, dolloped, or poured on. That means making the sauce thick and stable, which is accomplished with three techniques: a roux, an emulsifier, and a reduction (liquid that's slowly cooked down until thick).

Here are the basic formulas of the five mother sauces:

  1. Béchamel: Roux + Dairy (traditionally milk or cream)

  2. Velouté: Roux + White Stock (traditionally chicken, but also vegetable or fish)

  3. Espagnole: Roux + Brown Stock (traditionally veal or beef)

  4. Tomato: Roux + Tomatoes (or, go the Italian route by skipping the roux and simply reducing tomatoes over medium-low heat until thick)

  5. Hollandaise: Egg Yolks + Clarified Melted Butter + Acid (like lemon juice or white wine)

Bechamel Sauce

Veloute Sauce

Espagnole Sauce

Tomato Sauce

Hollandaise Sauce

Four out of the five mother sauces start with a roux. Roux is a fancy name for flour mixed with fat. Equal parts butter and flour get cooked over medium heat, then a liquid gets added. This mixture then boils, thickens (reduces), and becomes the base of your sauce. Just note, if you’re making a white sauce—like Béchamel or Velouté—do not brown the butter, as it will darken the finished product. The last mother sauce is a product of emulsification, which is explained below.

The simplicity of making a roux makes creating sauces so easy. Why would you do it any other way?

You want to cook the roux enough to get the "floury" taste out of it. On the other hand you do not want to cook it too much to over cook it. Here is a simple way to cook the roux enough to get the taste you want.

These tablespoons give the time it takes to create the best roux for you intended final sauce. As you will also note, the longer you cook the roux the less thinking power it has. Therefore, if you a looking for a thick béchamel sauce for you mac and cheese cooking the roux for 10 minutes will not give you that thick sauce you want for it.

On the other hand, when you want that delicate yet flavorful sauce that compliments a great piece of meat or chicken you will want to cook out that thickening agent from the starchy flour, so cooking it longer does the trick.

The other thing about mother sauces is your ability to flavor them with onions, shallots, garlic, thyme, rosemary or just about anything that you want to flavor it.

Béchamel is the base for lasagna and casseroles. It is the root of all white, cream and cheese-based sauces. The famous mornay sauce comes from knowing how to make a béchamel.

So how do you make a béchamel sauce? It is quite simple. Remember, it is equal parts fat to flour then you add the milk. The easiest way to remember is this: 5/5/4. That is 5 tablespoons of butter/5 tablespoons of flour/4 cups of hot whole milk. That is all you need!

Here is what you do with these simple ingredients:

  • In a medium saucepan, heat the butter over medium-low heat until melted. Add the flour and stir until smooth.

  • Over medium heat, cook until the mixture turns a light, golden sandy color, about 6 to 7 minutes. The change in color means you have cooked out the floury taste.

  • Heat the milk in a separate pan until just about to boil.

  • Add the hot milk to the butter mixture 1 cup at a time, whisking continuously until very smooth and bring to a boil. Cook 10 minutes, stirring constantly, then remove from heat.

  • Season with salt and nutmeg (if desired) and set aside to let cool until ready to later or use you can use it right away.

  • Béchamel can be frozen for up to six months.

Making the other sauces are just as easy.The velour and the espagnole are made using the same 5/5/4 formula, but swapping out the milk for the appropriate stock (see above).

You do not always need to make a big batch and store it. To make a smaller batch, you use the formula of 2/2/2. For a thicker sauce you can use a 3/3/2 formula or and in between sauce you can keep use 2/2/1.5.

For the tomato-based sauce you do not need to make a roux. The basis for this sauce is the cooking down of the tomatoes to a thick consistency. Most people making a red sauce undercook the sauce. When you cook a tomato sauce low and slow the robust flavor of the tomatoes. There would be no need to add tomato paste to thicken your sauce. That is what chef use to "cheat" a sauce. The lesson here is to cook your tomato sauce low and slow. The greatest invention is the crock pot/slow cooker to help you do the job. They are terrific at making a great tomato sauce.

The hollandaise sauce is the queen of the mother sauces. It is rich and decadent that has three components, egg yolks,butter and lemon juice. The formula here is 3/1/1--that is 3 egg yolks/1 stick melted butter/1 tablespoon of lemon juice.

I like making hollandaise in my blender. Here are the steps"

  • Melt the butter and separate the eggs.

  • Place the eggs in the blender and blend for 30 seconds on medium speed. Do not do this on high speed otherwise the eggs will start to cook.

  • Add the lemon juice.

  • Lower the speed of the blender and drizzle in the hot melted butter until the butter is completely incorporate.

  • Add salt and cayenne pepper to taste.

  • Use immediately.

Now you know how to make all of the mother sauces. Try making each of these sauces and you will see how easy they are do. Trust me, you will never buy bottled, packaged or canned gravy or sauces again. When you master these, you are on your way to becoming a well-rounded home cook.

Bon appetit!

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