By Brittany Davies and Tiffany La Forge
this article is brought to you in partnership with Cozymeal and Taste Europe | Butter of France. All opinions are our own.
When it comes to creating culinary wonders like the Mother Sauces, using the finest ingredients is key, and that includes incorporating the richness of European butter sourced from the heart of France.
A rite of passage for every chef, learning how to prepare the five mother sauces can transform an average dish into something extraordinary. Practicing these foundational mother sauces is an easy way for home cooks to strengthen their culinary skills and bring their creations to the next level.
A well-made sauce can give a sense of cohesion to the final plate while adding moisture, depth, texture and color. If you have ever dipped into a luscious bowl of macaroni and cheese, soaked up a rich demi-glace with a piece of juicy steak or enjoyed an eggs Benedict at brunch, you have sampled some version of the mother sauces.
French cooking is synonymous with quality, refinement and technique. Beyond its signature precision and style, French cuisine is embedded with an air of passion and romance. Perhaps this connotation comes from the gusto with which the French select, prepare and enjoy their food, choosing the highest quality ingredients at the peak of freshness and never skimping on flavor. French gastronomy showcases regional and seasonal ingredients elevated with classic techniques, Best of France explains. Food is a way of life in France, where meals are savored and shared with elements that appeal to all the senses.
If there is one ingredient that sums up the ethos of French cuisine, it is unequivocally butter. Made with care using time-honored methods, French butter transforms the average into unforgettable with its unparalleled texture and taste. High-quality butter enhances stews, sauces, pastries and other baked goods from the mouthfeel of a bechamel to the golden flake of puff pastry. European butter from France contains less water, giving it a richer, creamier texture than other types of butter. The premium cultured butter offers complexity and visual appeal with a subtle nuttiness and tang in an attractive yellow hue. With its high fat content and nuanced flavor, French butter is essential to flaky croissants, tender tart crusts and of course, France’s iconic mother sauces.
Revered throughout the culinary world, mastering the French mother sauces is a fundamental element of every chef’s training. Proficiency with the mother sauces enables chefs to create countless derivatives, or daughter sauces, that can bring textural contrast and balance the flavor of a dish. The term “mother sauce” first appeared in the early 19th century when revolutionary chef and pâtissier, Marie-Antoine Carême, whom NPR dubs the first celebrity chef, conceived four mother sauces as the cornerstones of French haute cuisine. Decades later, Georges Auguste Escoffier built upon Carême’s work with an updated list of these mother sauces in 1903’s “Le Guide Culinaire” which also designated a fifth sauce.
European butter — specifically French butter — is unique because it contains a higher percentage of butterfat (from cultures and longer churning) which results in a creamier and richer taste, perfect for luxurious pastries and sauces.
– Chef Ivan, New York City
An essential ingredient to creating luxurious mother sauces is good butter. Using a high quality product such as European butter from France provides an instant flavor boost as well as silkier sauces with a richer mouthfeel thanks to a higher percentage of fat. To achieve this, Butter made in France is cultured and churned longer than American butter to achieve that higher portion of butterfat. French butter is an exceptional building block for developing rich, flavorful sauces to upgrade everything from meats and vegetables to soups and pastas.
Each of the mother sauces is born from a base liquid combined with a thickening agent enhanced with other ingredients for texture and flavor. Four out of the five mother sauces traditionally begin with a roux, in which equal parts flour and fat (typically butter) are cooked together to form a thickener before adding other ingredients such as stock to build the sauce. These core sauces are vital building blocks in a chef’s repertoire and have become a ubiquitous feature of modern cuisine. The five French mother sauces include béchamel, velouté, espagnole, hollandaise and tomato.
A simple yet versatile mother sauce, béchamel is made using only a few ingredients, including butter, milk, flour and salt. Preparing this sauce begins with making a roux which is then mixed gradually with milk or cream to thicken. The resulting sauce should have a smooth, creamy consistency that has thickened just enough to coat the back of a spoon. Salt and other seasonings such as pepper, nutmeg or herbs may then be added to enhance the flavor. When making mother sauces like béchamel, Chef Ivan in NYC advises home cooks to “whisk constantly while adding milk to prevent lumps” and try dialing up the flavor by “infusing the milk with onion, garlic or spices.” From the base of a béchamel sauce, chefs can create an array of white sauces, cream sauces or cheese sauces that bring a rich unctuousness to a dish. Smooth, buttery béchamel is a key ingredient in many comfort foods with the creamy sauce and its derivatives appearing in numerous casserole, soup and pasta recipes.
Thought to be the oldest of the mother sauces, velouté gets its name from the French word velour, which means velvet, referencing the smooth, silky texture of the sauce. As noted by MAD, both velouté and béchamel appeared in Chef Pierre de la Varenne’s “Le Cuisinier François” published in 1651 which revolutionized the art of French cuisine. Velouté begins with a white roux that is cooked slightly longer than the base of a béchamel and has a subtly golden hue. Instead of milk, a light stock is added to create this mother sauce with the most common being chicken, veal or fish. Using stock instead of dairy gives the sauce a slightly more complex flavor and a smooth consistency that is thinner than a béchamel.
When making mother sauces, Chef Lisa in Boston loves “the salty, tangy character of French butter” and prefers it to American butter in dishes that allow the richness and flavor to shine such as in a classic velouté. Despite being one of the simplest of the mother sauces to make, the versatile velouté is perhaps the most important to both classical French and modern cooking due to the vast number of daughter sauces that use it as a base. Velouté and its daughter sauces typically pair well with chicken or seafood dishes and work well as starters for creamy soups. Many of the daughter sauces of velouté each have their own derivative sauces that continue to build layers of flavor upon this essential base.
Sometimes known simply as brown sauce, espagnole is a rich, complex mother sauce that begins similarly to velouté. However, rather than the light or blonde roux used in other mother sauces, espagnole begins with a roux that has been cooked and browned several minutes to develop a toasted, nutty flavor. To elevate its richness, a generous touch of French butter is expertly incorporated into this brown roux, further enhancing its depth and indulgence. Beef or veal stock made from roasted bones is then added, infusing the sauce with even more profound flavors.
Most recipes for espagnole include a mirepoix of sautéed carrots, celery and onions as well as tomato purée and aromatics. Unlike the more neutral taste of mother sauces such as béchamel or velouté, this sauce carries a deep, bold flavor and serves as the base for a range of popular accompaniments to hearty meat and game dishes such as demi-glace and various wine reductions. Along with cozy beef stews in the New England winters, spring mushroom dishes and pan sauces for lamb, Chef Lisa in Boston highlights the versatility of this umami-rich sauce. She recommends keeping “a small reserve of demi-glace infused with the richness of French butter on hand just in case a sauce or base of a dish needs more depth. Sometimes only a small spoonful will make or break a dish!”
Of the mother sauces, hollandaise is perhaps the most unique. It relies on a technique called emulsification rather than a roux to thicken the rich, acidic sauce. Not included in Carême’s original four mother sauces, Escoffier demoted allemande, now a daughter sauce of velouté, and added hollandaise to the esteemed five mother sauces in the early 20th century. A luscious, creamy sauce made from butter, egg yolks and an acid such as lemon juice or vinegar, technique is key when making hollandaise.
To prepare this sauce, lemon juice and egg yolks are constantly whisked while heating gently over a double boiler. Temperature control is essential as the eggs should not get too hot or begin to scramble. Once the mixture has lightened in color and started to thicken, melted butter is slowly drizzled into the emulsion while the chef continues to whisk. It is important to have patience while incorporating the butter to avoid the sauce breaking or separating.
Chef Ivan in NYC suggests home cooks “use room temperature eggs and melted butter to prevent the sauce from breaking.” The finished hollandaise should be smooth and thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Hollandaise and its daughter sauces are very versatile and pair well with a wide range of dishes from delicate eggs and vegetables to hearty steaks and salmon.
Also known as sauce tomate or red sauce, the traditional French tomato sauce was added along with hollandaise to the esteemed mother sauces by Escoffier in 1903. With roots in classic Italian cooking, it’s no surprise that this popular sauce is commonly served with pizza and pasta dishes although it is widely used across many European cuisines.
While the original French variation is built from blending rendered pork fat with vegetables and stock into a roux to thicken, modern versions are often simply a reduction of tomatoes, herbs and other aromatics. Whichever way it is prepared, the most essential element of a rich, fragrant tomato sauce is always time. The longer it simmers, the deeper the flavor, resulting in a complex essence. This versatile sauce transcends continents, acting as the precursor to tomato-based dishes worldwide, from tikka masala to shakshuka. At its core, the finesse of French butter intertwines with tradition, enhancing the sauce’s allure. Like an artist’s finishing touch, it turns the ordinary into the extraordinary, a testament to the artistry of cuisine.
I love the salty, tangy character of French butter. Those qualities, along with the naturally deep yellow color and higher fat content, truly helps to set itself apart from American butter.
– Chef Lisa, Boston
While each of the five mother sauces is markedly distinct, they are all enhanced by one crucial ingredient: butter. Whether as the fat component of a roux, an essential emulsifier or a vehicle for flavor, butter plays a critical role in developing the taste and texture of each of the mother sauces. With 82% fat, using European butter from France improves both the flavor and texture of rich sauces, flaky pastry and more.
Chef Luana in Los Angeles uses “European butter both for sweets and savory dishes” using it “to make pastry doughs that need more acidity, richness and flavor as well as in sauces.” The chef is “always fascinated by butter’s different tastes, colors, and textures” throughout Europe, where butter-making is an art form. Much pride is taken in producing high-quality French butter. The process is authentic, steeped in tradition and very controlled with rigid regulations guiding the care of the cows, the land and the farmers.
Made with simple, all natural ingredients, French butter is rich in vitamin D and calcium and complements a wide range of diets and lifestyles. To integrate French butter into your cooking at home, Chef Andy in Chicago suggests incorporating “it into baking dishes first to taste the different flavors and eventually use it for sauces.” You might also use French butter to create compound butters infused with herbs or spices to finish proteins or spread some on a piece of toast for a simple yet decadent bite.
Proficiency with the classic mother sauces of French cuisine provides chefs and home cooks alike a foundation for building a vast and versatile array of dishes. Familiarity with these five base sauces opens endless possibilities for creativity in the kitchen. From developing layers of flavor in soups and casseroles to finishing the plate with an element of texture and color, a well-made sauce can make almost any dish feel elevated and complete. With a little practice and high-quality ingredients such as French butter, these mother sauces can take your favorite dishes to the next level.