The Greatness of Mother Sauces

Ever since I left the kitchen I’ve been interested in what the professional cook can teach the home cook. Surely one of the most valuable lessons is the concept of the mother sauce—a base sauce to which any number of ingredients can be added to create a distinct, finished sauce. It can be the home cook’s ace in the pocket—a base that you can make up to five days before the meal to have on hand to create a masterful finished sauce in moments, or, a la minute.

I learned about mother sauces the first week of class in the teaching kitchen at the Culinary Institute of America. That’s how important they are. I was initially skeptical. As a devoted home cook, I’d never heard of espagnole or velouté. The only mother sauce I knew was béchamel, milk thickened with flour, and to me it sounded like tasteless paste.

Fortunately, though, our chef, Michael Pardus showed us what could be done with a properly made béchamel.

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First, he sautéed a chicken breast. When the breast was done, he removed it from the pan to rest, added some shallots, and deglazed the pan with a little white wine. Then he added a cup of béchamel, brought it to a simmer, and finished it with a creamy supreme sauce. We tasted, and the sauce was anything but pasty. In fact, it was a revelation—satiny, creamy, with just a slight hint of acidity for balance. I couldn’t believe how absolutely delicious this dish was.

With a little technique, a tasteless, ordinary paste was transformed into a flavorful, elegant sauce. Clearly, it was time to take the mother sauce concept a little more seriously.

We went on to discuss the other mother sauces. Velouté (chicken stock or fish stock-based) and espagnole, brown, veal-based stock are made the same way. Begin with a roux—a mixture of butter and flour—add liquid, then simmer for about 45 minutes with the pan partly off the burner so the impurities float to the cooler side of the pan. Skim off the impurities periodically throughout the simmer.

We discussed the fourth mother sauce, a tomato sauce, which does not behave quite the same way as the others, but does deserve to be considered a capital-M Mother sauce, because any number of ingredients can be added to transform it.

Then we debated whether or not Hollandaise sauce—the great emulsified butter sauce—deserved to be considered a mother sauce at all. Ultimately, we concluded that because it is not a sauce one makes ahead, it is not a mother sauce. Rather, we decided Hollandaise is more a technique. An emulsified butter sauce can take on many forms depending on what was added to it (Choron, Béarnaise, for instance), but it is not a mother in the way the other sauces are.

The béchamel, on the other hand, can become a cream sauce, a mushroom sauce, or, when cheese is added, a great cheese sauce (called Mornay). The espagnole is the most versatile, becoming Sauce Robert in a flash (with shallot, wine, and mustard) for pork, or a hunter’s sauce for beef tenderloin., It can become Sauce Chasseur, with mushroom, shallots, tomato, and herbs, and any number of other variations. (see Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire, for an idea of the range of variations). The fish velouté is a great base for an elegant sauce for any and all fish;, and chicken velouté for chicken dishes.

My favorite is the brown sauce, Sauce Espagnole, because it uses the most mutable stock—a veal stock—and thus has the broadest range of flavors. Veal stock will take on the flavor of just about anything non-veal you apply to it—rabbit, pork, chicken, beef, venison—without imposing its own.

For the home cook, the béchamel is arguably the most valuable. You don’t have to make a stock. All you have to do is buy good whole milk. And when you flavor this base with a little shallot, some freshly ground pepper, and a delicate shaving of nutmeg, you have a hundred fabulous sauces at the ready.

Start out simply. Make a béchamel and add a cup of grated cheese, and spoon it over just about anything—roasted potatoes, roasted broccoli, boiled cauliflower, chicken, fish. Or pour it over cooked macaroni, sprinkle with more cheese, then top with some panko bread crumbs for fabulous homemade mac and cheese.

I offer my béchamel sauce recipe to get you started, but you can turn it into any of the four main mother sauces simply by swapping in stock for the milk in the same quantity and omitting the sweet nutmeg and adding a bay leaf.

One technique, a thousand variations.