Classical French cuisine has been extraordinarily influential in the culinary world.
Even if you don’t fancy yourself a chef, you’ve probably incorporated elements of classical French cooking into your home kitchen on more than one occasion.
French cuisine is renowned for its liberal use of flavorful sauces. After all, a well-crafted sauce adds moisture, richness, complexity, and color to almost any dish.
There are countless varieties of French sauces, the majority of which are derived from one of five mother sauces.
Created in the 1800s by chef Auguste Escoffier, mother sauces are basic concoctions that serve as a foundation for any number of secondary sauce variations. Each mother sauce is primarily categorized according to its unique base and thickener.
This article highlights the 5 French mother sauces, explaining how they’re made, their basic nutrient information, and some secondary sauces you can make from them.
Béchamel, or white sauce, is a simple milk-based sauce made from butter, flour, and whole milk.
- Calories: 130
- Fat: 7 grams
- Carbs: 13 grams
- Protein: 3 grams
To make béchamel, start by cooking butter and flour in a saucepan until it forms a thick, paste-like substance called a roux. The roux is responsible for thickening the sauce.
There are many styles of roux, but the one used for béchamel is called white roux. It’s only cooked for about 2–3 minutes — long enough to remove the starchy texture of the flour but not so long that the butter begins to brown.
When the roux is ready, slowly whisk in warm milk and simmer it until it forms a smooth, creamy sauce.
With the addition of a few extra seasonings like salt, pepper, and cloves, béchamel is complete — though it may be used as a base for many other sauces.
Popular sauces made from béchamel include:
- Mornay: béchamel with onion, cloves, Gruyère cheese, and Parmesan
- Cream sauce: béchamel with heavy cream
- Soubise: béchamel with butter and caramelized onions
- Nantua: béchamel with shrimp, butter, and heavy cream
- Cheddar sauce: béchamel with whole milk and cheddar cheese
Béchamel and its derivative sauces can be used in countless dishes, including casseroles, creamy soups, and pastas.
Béchamel is a rich, white sauce made from flour, butter, and milk. It’s often used to create classic cream-based sauces.
A velouté is a simple sauce made from butter, flour, and stock.
Stock is a savory, flavorful cooking liquid created by simmering bones, herbs, and aromatic vegetables for several hours.
Velouté is similar to béchamel because it’s a white sauce thickened with roux, but it features stock for the base instead of milk. Chicken stock is the most common choice, but you can also use other white stocks, such as those made from veal or fish.
- Calories: 50
- Fat: 3 grams
- Carbs: 3 grams
- Protein: 1 gram
To make velouté, start by making a white roux with butter and flour. Next, slowly stir in warm stock and let it simmer until a creamy, light sauce forms.
A basic velouté can be used by itself on meats and vegetables, or fashioned into numerous secondary sauces.
Some popular sauces derived from velouté include:
- Supreme: chicken velouté with heavy cream and mushrooms
- Hungarian: chicken or veal velouté with onion, paprika, and white wine
- Normande: fish velouté with cream, butter, and egg yolks
- Venetian: chicken or fish velouté with tarragon, shallots, and parsley
- Allemande: chicken or veal velouté with lemon juice, egg yolk, and cream
Although it’s not traditional, you can also make vegetarian velouté using vegetable stock.
Velouté is made with butter, flour, and either chicken, veal, or fish stock. This sauce and its derivatives are very versatile and usually served as a gravy over meats or vegetables.
3. Espagnole (brown sauce)
Espagnole, otherwise known as brown sauce, is a rich, dark sauce made from roux-thickened stock, puréed tomatoes, and mirepoix — a mix of sautéed carrots, onions, and celery that’s used as a base.
Like velouté, espagnole uses roux and stock as the main ingredients. However, instead of white roux and stock, it calls for brown stock and brown roux.
Brown stock is made from beef or veal bones that have been roasted and simmered, while brown roux is flour and butter that’s cooked just long enough to brown the butter. These ingredients give espagnole an especially rich, complex flavor.
- Calories: 50
- Fat: 3 grams
- Carbs: 4 grams
- Protein: 1 gram
Espagnole also serves as a base for the following sauces:
- Demi-glace: espagnole with additional beef or veal stock, herbs, and spices that’s reduced to a thick, gravy-like consistency
- Robert: espagnole with lemon juice, dry mustard, white wine, and onions
- Charcutière: espagnole with dry mustard, white wine, onion, and pickles
- Mushroom: espagnole with mushrooms, shallots, sherry, and lemon juice
- Burgundy: espagnole with red wine and shallots
Because espagnole and its derivative sauces tend to be heavy and thick, they’re usually served alongside dark meats like beef or duck.
Espagnole is a basic brown sauce made from brown roux, brown stock, puréed tomatoes, and mirepoix. Its rich, complex flavor pairs well with dark meats, such as beef and duck.
Hollandaise is a tangy, creamy sauce made from butter, lemon juice, and raw egg yolks.
It’s probably best known for its role in the classic breakfast dish Eggs Benedict.
Hollandaise stands out from the other French mother sauces because it relies on the emulsification — or mixing — of egg yolks and butter in place of roux.
It has a reputation for being somewhat challenging to prepare because of the tendency for butter and egg yolks to resist combining — much like water and oil.
The key to making a proper hollandaise is slightly warm egg yolks, room temperature butter, and steady, constant whisking. It’s essential to add the butter to the yolks slowly and incrementally so that the ingredients remain stable and don’t separate.
A 2-ounce serving of hollandaise provides (
- Calories: 163
- Fat: 17 grams
- Carbs: 0.5 grams
- Protein: 1.5 grams
Hollandaise is delicious on its own but also kickstarts other sauces, such as:
- Bearnaise: hollandaise with white wine, tarragon, and peppercorn
- Choron: hollandaise with tarragon and tomato
- Maltaise: hollandaise with blood orange juice
- Mousseline: hollandaise with whipped heavy cream
Hollandaise and its derivative sauces are often served over eggs, vegetables, or lighter meats like poultry and fish.
Hollandaise combines egg yolks, butter, and lemon juice. Both it and its derivative sauces are popularly served over eggs, vegetables, fish, or chicken.
Tomato sauce is arguably the most popular of the French mother sauces.
Classical French tomato sauce is thickened with roux and seasoned with pork, herbs, and aromatic vegetables. However, most modern tomato sauces primarily consist of puréed tomatoes seasoned with herbs and reduced into a rich, flavorful sauce.
A 2-ounce (60-mL) serving of tomato sauce contains (
- Calories: 15
- Fat: 0 grams
- Carbs: 3 grams
- Protein: 1 gram
Its derivative sauces include:
- Creole: tomato sauce with white wine, garlic, onion, cayenne pepper, and red bell peppers
- Algerian: tomato sauce with green and red bell peppers
- Portugaise: tomato sauce with garlic, onions, sugar, salt, parsley, and peeled tomatoes
- Provençal: tomato sauce with olive oil, parsley, garlic, salt, pepper, and sugar
- Marinara: tomato sauce with garlic, onions, and herbs
Tomato sauces are remarkably versatile and can be served with stewed or roasted meats, fish, vegetables, eggs, and pasta dishes.
Any chef will tell you the best tomato sauces are made with fresh, vine ripened tomatoes. Try making a big batch of sauce with fresh tomatoes while they’re in season, then can or freeze the leftovers so you can enjoy homemade tomato sauce year round.
Classical French tomato sauces are thickened with roux and flavored with pork, whereas modern ones usually consist of puréed tomatoes reduced into a thick, rich sauce.
How to compare the sauces
Now that you know the difference between the five sauces, here’s an infographic for easy reference.
The bottom line
The five French mother sauces are béchamel, velouté, espagnole, hollandaise, and tomato.
Developed in the 19th century by French chef Auguste Escoffier, mother sauces serve as a starting point for a variety of delicious sauces used to complement countless dishes, including veggies, fish, meat, casseroles, and pastas.
If you’re looking to fine-tune your culinary skills, try cooking up one of these delectable sauces and see where it takes you.