Do You Know Your 5 Mother Sauces?

Words: Crush

five mother sauces of french cooking

Marie-Antoine Carême was probably the first renowned celebrity chef in history. Not only was he a badass in the kitchen but he institutionalised the art of ‘Haute Cuisine’ and wrote many important books on the foundations of French cookery. One such important set of guidelines was his group of Five Mother Sauces, on which many sauces in classical French cookery are based. What’s a dish without a little sauciness? We run through the five mother sauces and what variations you can make with them.

The Five Mother Sauces


Bechamel is probably the most recognisable of the five mother sauces out there. Macaroni and cheese, savoury soufflés, Welsh rarebits all make use of a béchamel sauce base. It involves a simple process of combining equal parts of butter and flour in a saucepan and cooking them together to form a roux. A roux, simply put, is a paste used as a thickener and features in a lot of important sauces.

There are also various stages of a roux, identified by their colours; white, blonde, brown and dark brown.

Fun fact, flour can be used to thicken sauces by itself but the benefit of using a roux means that you’re able to cook out the flour first.

This means no floury taste and no lumpy texture to fight with. Liquid, usually milk, is then slowly incorporated into the roux, which then thickens into a luscious sauce.

Béchamel sauce itself is quite an outdated sauce but still features in a lasagna and a Croque Monsieur. Generally, we’re familiar with the Mornay variation, where grated cheese is melted in the béchamel, as well as Soubise with finely chopped onions sweated in butter have been incorporated.

Try your hand at béchamel in this recipe for Macaroni Cheese and Croque Monsieur.

Do You Know Your Five Mother Sauces?
Do You Know Your Five Mother Sauces?


In a velouté, a light stock – traditionally chicken, but now includes vegetable and fish– is thickened by a blonde roux. Generally, a velouté wouldn’t be used as a sauce on its own but would be the base for gravies and sauces (like the one you would make a creamy chicken pie with).

Bisques generally start with a velouté, as do a lot of very creamy soups. Making a velouté based soup means you can make it extra creamy, without actually having to add cream. Discover the wonder of a velouté in this Pan Fried Angelfish with Carrot Purée and a Cumin and Orange Velouté, and in this Creamy Onion Soup.

Do You Know Your Five Mother Sauces?
Do You Know Your Five Mother Sauces?


Espagnole is where your skills in making dark roux come into play. A mirepoix of carrots, celery and onion is then added, along with beef stock and beef fond (the sticky deglazed bits left at the bottom of your roasting tray after roasting meat). Sometimes tomato paste is added, but this step is not necessarily required. From there, Espagnole will go on to create many rich dark sauces, namely a demi-glace, where more beef stock is added and everything is reduced.

A Bordelaise can then be made from the demi-glace by adding red wine and herbs. Get to grips with an Espagnole sauce by making this Venison Loin with Bordelaise Sauce and the gravy in this Bangers and Mash recipe.

Do You Know Your Five Mother Sauces?
Do You Know Your Five Mother Sauces?


Ah Hollandaise, do you need an introduction? We think not. Fans of breakfast, brunch and happiness in particular, will all be fans of Hollandaise’s work. Hollandaise is essentially a mayonnaise made with butter in place of oil and is probably most famous as a topping on eggs Benedict. The process of making Hollandaise is slightly more tricky than that of a mayo, however, it requires the careful emulsification of egg yolks, butter and an acid –usually white wine vinegar or lemon.

A little trick when making Hollandaise is to gently melt your butter before slowly pouring it into your egg yolk mix, which has been whisked until light and fluffy.

Hollandaise, while seemingly perfect as is, becomes a number of equally tasty sauces with the addition of a few ingredients.

The most well-known would be Béarnaise, the wonderfully tarragon-flecked sauce that goes exceptionally well with steak. Mousseline is made by folding in gently whipped cream, and the sauce is usually paired with equally delicate foods like fish.

Another classic pairing for fish is Vin Blanc, made by adding a reduction of fish stock and white wine to a Hollandaise. Master a classic Hollandaise as served on this Eggs Benedict and then go on to create a Béarnaise and top a great steak burger off in style.

Sauce Tomate (Tomato Sauce)

Sauce Tomate may sound a lot more exotic than it really is, and chances are you’ve eaten it many times. In South Africa, we may be more familiar with the Italian style of serving – with pasta – but it is in fact accepted as one of the founding sauces in French cookery too and hence is one of the five mother sauces. Escoffier’s recipe for Sauce Tomate is a little different though and includes pork belly as well as a roux for thickening.

Seeing that food trends have changed in the last couple of centuries, Sauce Tomate has become a lot lighter, losing the pork and the roux. A classic tomato sauce can take your cooking anywhere and can be used in many different ways. Be it the base of a soup, a condiment or even pizza, it’s widely versatile and damn tasty. Start your journey into Sauce Tomate with this iconic Spaghetti with Red Sauce and a tomatoey Shakshuka

Do You Know Your Five Mother Sauces?
Do You Know Your Five Mother Sauces?

Now that you know your 5 Mother Sauces, improve your handle on French Cooking Terms and then get cooking with these French-inspired recipes.

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