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Make What Your Mama Gave You: The Five Mother Sauces

Flavor Explorations Feature
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By: Elizabeth Winslow
Make What Your Mama Gave You: The Five Mother Sauces

Early on in the history of modern gastronomy, nineteenth-century chef Marie-Antoine Carême, founder of haute cuisine, identified four sauces that were the building blocks of all dishes worth cooking. And because from them all things delicious were said to be born, he called them "mother sauces." 

Later, the great chef Auguste Escoffier tweaked the list and—voila!—identified the mother sauces we recognize today.   Every chef-in-training learns to make béchamel, velouté, espagnole, tomato and hollandaise sauces. Even if you're not a professional chef, working these sauces into your at-home repertoire is a great way to up your culinary game. If French sauces seem intimidating, keep in mind that practice makes perfect. Once you master them, they're a great foundation for almost anything you want to cook, and with confidence, you'll experiment with endless variations that form the basis of your own signature grande cuisine. 

In addition to flavor, texture makes a sauce. The mother sauces each play with variations on essential techniques to create a range of consistencies. Béchamel, velouté and espagnole begin with a roux, or flour cooked in fat. Tomato sauce relies on reduction to achieve a rich mouthfeel, while hollandaise creates an emulsion of fat suspended in another liquid. For more in-depth introductions to each of these foundational sauces, we've got you covered below.  

Béchamel A smooth, medium-thick white sauce, béchamel begins with a light roux combined with milk or cream. Once you master béchamel, you'll find yourself employing it whenever you want a creamy cheese sauce or gratin. It's the basis for many a soup, savory pie filling and soufflé. Once you get the hang of it, try Wild Mushroom and Spinach Crepes with a blue cheese béchamel.

Velouté Similar to béchamel but made with light fish, chicken or vegetable broth rather than dairy, velouté is great for light gravy, sauces for fish and chicken or seafood bisque. To get started, try a simple Chicken Pot Pie with a creamy, thyme-scented velouté.

Espagnole A classic brown sauce, espagnole also begins with a roux, cooked darker this time, and finished with a dark beef or veal stock. Espagnole will bring greater body to recipes like the rich and complex Beef Barola, and you'll start to recognize it hiding in plain sight in many dishes like Stout Pasilla Chile Beef Stew.

Tomato There's not much of a secret to this sauce that gains flavor and richness through reduction, which happens simply over time. Place crushed tomatoes in a pot with aromatics and bring to a low simmer. In a few hours or less, you have a rich, umami-filled sauce. For a tomato sauce with an Argentine twist, try Salsa de Tomate.

Hollandaise An emulsion of butter, lemon juice, and egg yolks, hollandaise adds a luxurious richness to Lemony Roasted Asparagus and poached eggs. Perhaps the most temperamental of the mother sauces, hollandaise becomes easier and easier with practice. If the sauce "breaks" or curdles, there's a fix for that, so don't panic.

Once you get a handle on these techniques, all you need are a heavy-bottomed saucepan and a whisk to know firsthand that maman really does know best.

Elizabeth Winslow is a writer, food blogger, teacher and entrepreneur in Austin, Texas. She is a regular contributor to Edible Austin and creates compelling content for brands both large and small. She has an M.A. in Literature from the University of Texas at San Antonio and teaches cooking classes with Kitchen Underground. Winslow + co

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