The Mother Sauces

By Jen Jackson
Photography by Jenna Noel

When I was in culinary school, once we had an adequate understanding of mirepoix (sautéed onions, carrots and celery), making stock and clarifying butter, we were taught the mother sauces: velouté, béchamel, espagnole, tomato and hollandaise. To make the sauces successfully, we were taught to choose the freshest, highest-quality ingredients and to use them properly, and that from these fundamental sauces we could make any number of derivative sauces in classic French cuisine. 


In Mastering the Art of French Cooking, beloved chef and author Julia Child suggests, “sauces are the splendor and glory of French cooking, yet there is nothing serious or mysterious about making them. These are indispensable to the home cook.”

With Child’s encouragement, we start with velouté. This sauce—as well as two of the other mother sauces—requires stock, and if you make your own, you’ll have more control over the flavor. Bones that are perfect for making stock are available at both Whole Foods Market and Wheatsville Food Co-op, but local butcher shops Dai Due and Salt & Time carry high-quality, ready-made stocks, as well. Avoid packaged stocks or bouillon cubes because they can make a sauce salty or chalky.

 

mothersauces2From left to right: Béchamel and Velouté

VELOUTÉ

This sauce has only four main ingredients, and any kind of stock can be used to flavor it. Velouté also employs another mother sauce basic: a roux of butter and flour. Use unsalted butter and unbleached, all-purpose flour for the roux, and avoid burning—burnt flour will not thicken properly and burnt butter will taste bitter. I usually make my roux in a pot and then slowly whisk in cold stock. Whisking slowly is important to avoid a lumpy sauce, but if lumps happen, try an immersion blender or strain the sauce through a fine-mesh strainer—pushing the lumps through with the back of a spoon or ladle. Afterward, simmer the sauce in the pot for five more minutes.

Velouté also requires a bouquet garni of fresh parsley, thyme and bay leaf rolled with celery and tied in a leek top—kind of fancy. I believe whatever fresh herbs are available will taste best; just use discretion when choosing. For example, too much rosemary could overpower, and fresh basil added too early won’t stand up to long cooking times.

2 T. unsalted butter
¼ c. unbleached all-purpose flour
1 qt. stock (vegetable, poultry, fish or meat)
1 bouquet garni (or a sachet of fresh herbs)
Salt and pepper, to taste

In a thick-bottomed saucepan that holds at least 2 quarts, slowly melt the butter. When the butter melts completely, stir in the flour with a wooden spoon. Continue to move the roux around the pot until it just begins to turn a darker gold color—about 3 minutes. Slowly whisk in the cold stock to first form a paste that will gradually get looser as the rest of the stock is added. Once all of the stock is incorporated, bring the sauce to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and add the bouquet garni. Simmer the sauce until it thickens and just coats the back of the wooden spoon—about 30 minutes. Stir frequently and skim off any scum that rises to the surface. Strain the sauce through a fine-mesh strainer and adjust the salt and pepper. The sauce is ready to serve, but if you choose to serve it later, stir it frequently as it cools to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate the sauce for up to a week or freeze for up to a month.

Every year after Thanksgiving, I make a stock with my picked-clean turkey carcass and some vegetables and herbs. Simmering it a few hours produces a stock perfect for a turkey velouté. Grab the leftover turkey, cook the vegetables that never made it into the stuffing and you have turkey gravy over biscuits, rice or maybe potatoes.

BÉCHAMEL

Always use high-quality milk for béchamel because the taste of the milk will be the taste of your sauce. And be sure to slowly whisk the milk into the roux to avoid lumps. This one takes practice and you might scald the milk and have to start over. But taste the milk first—if it tastes like milk, change out pots and continue. If it tastes burnt, start over. 

2 T. unsalted butter
¼ c. unbleached all-purpose flour
1 qt. milk
½ yellow onion, peeled
2 whole cloves, inserted into onion half
Salt, pepper and nutmeg, to taste

Follow the same method as velouté, substituting milk for stock. Skip cooking the roux for 3 minutes, though, and add the milk as soon as the flour is completely incorporated into the butter. Add the onion after reducing the milk to a simmer. Stir frequently to avoid burning the milk, and strain through a fine-mesh strainer once slightly thickened. Season as desired with salt, pepper and nutmeg and serve. Sauce can be cooled and refrigerated for up to a week or frozen for up to a month.

You can make a delicious béchamel using “corn milk” to bake in a gratin with potatoes and fennel, topped with bread crumbs. I save corncobs in my freezer all summer, and in November, I drop them into some milk and slowly simmer for a few hours.


mothersauces32
From left to right: Espagnole and Tomato

ESPAGNOLE

This sauce employs a little different roux because of the mirepoix. Since I like my mirepoix to reflect the season, if there are no yellow onions, I use shallots or leeks; for carrots, try parsnips and for celery, maybe celery root or stash a little celery seed in your bouquet garni. I like to slightly caramelize the mirepoix, but be careful not to burn it. If that happens, take out the burnt pieces or start over—don’t worry; you’re at the beginning!

2 T. unsalted butter
1 c. chopped onion
½ c. chopped carrot
½ c. chopped celery
3 T. unbleached all-purpose flour
2 T. tomato paste
1 qt. meat stock
Bouquet garni or herb sachet
Salt and pepper, to taste

Melt the butter and add the vegetables for the mirepoix. Sauté to just golden, then add the flour. Stir the coated mirepoix until the flour smells slightly nutty and the mirepoix has just started to caramelize—about 4 to 6 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste, then slowly whisk in the stock. Bring to a boil, add the bouquet garni and reduce to a simmer. Cook for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the sauce coats the back of a spoon. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Espagnole can be kept for a week in the refrigerator or up to two months in the freezer.

Espagnole makes a delicious accompaniment to many meat dishes, especially pot roast. Make an even better sauce by adding fresh mushrooms, which turns espagnole into sauce duxelles.

TOMATO

For this sauce, canned tomatoes provide more flavor, but choose one with few additives, like San Marzano tomatoes from Italy. The stock also matters. I generally want the tomatoes to stand out, so I choose the stock (meat, poultry, fish or vegetable) based on what I intend to serve with the sauce. Be sure to stir this sauce frequently to avoid burning the tomatoes at the bottom of the pot.  

2 T. unsalted butter
½ c. onion
¼ c. carrot
¼ c. celery
2 cloves garlic, sliced
2 T. unbleached all-purpose flour
1 28 oz. can tomatoes
1 pt. stock or water
Bouquet garni or herb sachet
Salt and pepper, to taste

Follow the same method as espagnole, except add the garlic just before adding the flour, and only cook the floured mirepoix for about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and then the stock and cook the sauce for about 45 minutes—stirring frequently. Run the sauce through a food mill or mash with a whisk and pass through a colander. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Tomato sauce will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week or in the freezer for up to two months.

For an alternative that makes a delicious tomato sauce, try using unripe green tomatoes in place of canned tomatoes. They have an interesting flavor, are less watery than ripe tomatoes and pair well with white beans, squash and bacon for a fun side dish for turkey or pot roast.


mothersauces4
Hollandaise


HOLLANDAISE

The final mother sauce tastes best with fresh, high-quality eggs. Because butter is equally important to the hollandaise, use an unsalted, quality butter like Plugrá or Organic Valley. In classic French cooking, we clarify the butter for hollandaise—which means cooking the butter until the milk solids separate and can be skimmed and discarded. But I often skip this step and just melt the butter in exchange for baking fresh English muffins for eggs Benedict. No one ever complains.

2 T. white wine vinegar
3 black peppercorns
8 oz. butter, clarified
2 egg yolks
Salt, to taste
Lemon juice, to taste

Put the vinegar and peppercorns in a small pan and reduce to about a half-tablespoon. Strain out peppercorns and let the liquid cool. Clarify the butter by putting chunks of the cold butter in a saucepan on medium heat. As the butter melts, the water in the butter will evaporate and the white milk solids will sink to the bottom of the pot. When this happens, turn off the heat, ladle off or pour out the yellow butterfat into another pot and keep warm. Discard the milk solids.

Bring a saucepan of water to a boil and turn off the heat. Put the egg yolks in a stainless steel mixing bowl that fits on top of the saucepan. Whisk the cooled vinegar into the yolks and put the mixing bowl on the hot water saucepan. Whisk the yolks until they thicken to foamy and frothy but not scrambled—about 1 minute. Take the bowl off of the heat and, drop by drop at first, add the clarified butter while whisking the yolks. As the sauce thickens, slightly increase the rate to a few drops at a time. Once the sauce is at the desired consistency (not all of the butter may be needed), adjust the seasoning with salt and lemon juice. Hollandaise is best served fresh and warm.

Hollandaise may break or separate into an oily, chunky liquid if the butter is added too fast. This happens all of the time in professional kitchens, too, so just grab a clean, stainless steel mixing bowl and, off of the heat, add a couple of teaspoons of cold water to the bowl. Then slowly (drop by drop at first), whisk in the broken hollandaise. Breaking and fixing a hollandaise becomes a rite of passage for most professional cooks, but if you fix the sauce and it tastes delicious, we can start talking about making those English muffins.