X

The 5 Mother Sauces of Classical Cuisine & How to Make Them

A chef pouring béchamel sauce over meat in a casserole dish.
Mironov Vladimir/Shutterstock

If you’re a self-proclaimed chef or passionate foodie, chances are you’ve heard about classical cuisine and the five mother sauces. Even if you have no idea what we’re talking about, you’ve probably incorporated the elements of some of these without even knowing it. We’ll explain everything you need to know about these sauces, along with how to make them.

Classical cuisine is all about cooking with the finest ingredients and creating rich, elaborate meals that boast elegant presentations. There’s no room for light and healthy when it comes to mother sauces because the quality and flavor are far more superior in this style of cuisine.

What Exactly Is a Mother Sauce?

The term “mother sauce” refers to one of the five essential sauces of Classical cuisine. Each of these five mother sauces is used in various meals but can also serve as a foundational base to make a secondary sauce (or a “baby sauce,” as my editor likes to call it.)

These baby sauces are known by many names, including the following:

  • Petite sauces
  • Compound sauces
  • Secondary sauces
  • Derivative sauces

By taking a mother sauce and adding ingredients to alter the texture and flavor, you’ve created a secondary sauce.

You’ll find that mother sauces are incorporated in several recipes in classical cuisine, but they’re widely used today in variations, too. As you learn more about each type, you might discover that you’ve been making some of them all along.

We’ll provide an explanation and a standard recipe for each of the five mother sauces so you can make them at home. We’ll even give you a few secondary sauce examples and descriptions, too.

The five mother sauces are:

  • Béchamel
  • Hollandaise
  • Espagnole
  • Velouté
  • Tomato

Each requires specific ingredients and cooking methods, but, if followed correctly, the results are delicious and satisfying.

Most of these sauces (excluding hollandaise) are thickened with a roux, which is a paste-like thickening agent made from cooking butter and flour. So, understanding how to make a roux and its various types will also help you with the following recipes.

Before getting too far into any of these sauces, you’ll notice we recommend using a heavy-bottomed pot in most of these recipes. That’s because many recipes involve various steps, some of which require you to use two hands at once.

If you don’t own one already, look into the Le Creuset Dutch oven. It’s hefty and reliable, and will allow you to work through these sauces efficiently. Aside from that, though, you’ll use this piece of cookware for so many other recipes, not to mention the enameled exterior makes for a gorgeous dinner table showpiece.

Le Creuset Enameled Dutch Oven

This is the perfect heavy pot for making various sauces and so much more.

Béchamel Sauce

Béchamel sauce in a pan, surrounded by its ingredients.
AS Food studio/Shutterstock.com

Ahh, béchamel sauce! The creamy, rich base for so many delicious comfort foods you love most. If homemade macaroni and cheese or an authentic Moussaka are the types of meals you treasure, then you already love bechamel.

Making it is super simple, too! All you need is butter, flour, and milk, followed by stirring ability and minimal patience.

Ingredients:

  • 5 tablespoons of butter
  • 4 tablespoons of flour
  • 1-1/2 cups of milk
  • Salt and pepper (to taste)

Instructions:

  1. Whip out a reliable, sturdy saucepan and put it on medium-high heat.
  2. Melt your butter, and then using a whisk, stir in the flour.
  3. Continue to stir the thin paste and watch as it starts to bubble and cook.
  4. After a minute or two of constant stirring, start adding milk slowly as you continue to whisk carefully, then continue to stir as the sauce thickens and bubbles.
  5. Salt and pepper to taste and remove from heat. (Use white pepper for a neutral-colored sauce.)

Remember, béchamel is the mama sauce, which means there are various secondary (or baby) sauces you can make when using it.

Here are a few derivative sauces:

  • Cheese: Add some shredded cheese into your warm bechamel, and that’s cheese sauce. This is where the “homemade” part of baked macaroni and cheese comes in, and it always surpasses the flavor of boxed or frozen mac.
  • Cream: Take béchamel up an even richer notch by pouring in additional heavy cream. You can dazzle it up a bit with fresh herbs if you’d like, but it’s not necessary.
  • Mornay: This is basically a cheese sauce that uses béchamel as a base and is flavored delicately with onion and finished with gruyere and parmesan. Call it a fancy cheese sauce. Some variations use chicken or fish stock, too.

Hollandaise Sauce

Hollandaise sauce in a metal saucepan surrounded by its ingredients.
Rimma Bondarenko/Shutterstock.com

Hollandaise is another luxurious sauce that can really spruce up a simple dinner or create a fun dining experience at home when making a big breakfast for the family. To make it, you’ll need egg yolks, butter, lemon juice, and salt, and emulsification to thicken it up.

Emulsification is the process of combining two ingredients that usually don’t mix well. Similar to combining oil and vinegar to make a vinaigrette, hollandaise is emulsified by rapidly whisking the ingredients until they’ve come together as one.

This sauce has a reputation for being finicky or challenging to whip up, but I can assure you it’s quite simple with the right steps. Before attempting to make this unforgettable sauce, please do check out all the tips for making it, along with our favorite ways to serve it up.

Ingredients:

  • 2-3 egg yolks
  • 1 stick of butter
  • 1 tablespoon of lemon juice
  • A pinch of salt

Instructions:

  1. Fill the bottom pot of a double boiler with a few inches of water and bring it to a boil.
  2. Turn it down to barely a simmer, add the egg yolks and lemon juice to the top pot, then place it over the bottom pot.
  3. Work carefully to whisk the yolks at a rapid speed, never allowing them to sit. This causes the eggs to cook and curdle, and we don’t want scrambled eggs.
  4. While continuing to whisk, start slowly adding butter in a steady stream and watch as the sauce thickens. You’ll notice it really develops body from the whisking and butter.
  5. Add salt to taste and enjoy over poached eggs, or with a grilled salmon or steak dinner.

Two popular compound sauces of Hollandaise are:

  • Bearnaise: This makes a delicious finish for most steak or fish dinners. While a standard hollandaise uses lemon for acidity, bearnaise is spiked with white wine vinegar instead. It’s also flavored with shallots, fresh herbs, and white wine.
  • Dijon: This simple derivative of hollandaise only requires the addition of some Dijon mustard. It tastes especially delicious over grilled chicken, steak, or fish because the pungent kick is swirled into the mix.

Espagnole Sauce

A brown Espagnole sauce in gravy boat next to a whisk.
jmattisson/Shutterstock.com

Espagnole (aka, brown) sauce is made by combining a dark roux with a brown stock made from roasted bones, along with a few other select ingredients.

The flavor is quite exquisite, thanks to the addition of tomato puree, brown stock, and fragrant mirepoix, which provides a depth of flavor. The dark roux thickens the sauce and provides a dark iconic color that you won’t find in any other mother sauces.

You can further transform it into an even richer sauce called Demi-glace, which is a reduction of Espagnole sauce combined with additional brown stock.

Ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons of butter
  • 2 tablespoons of flour
  • 2-1/2 cups of brown stock
  • 3/4 cup of chopped mirepoix (equal parts onion, celery, and carrots)
  • 2 tablespoons of tomato sauce (canned purée)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1-2 garlic cloves (smashed and roughly chopped)

Instructions:

  1. Melt butter in a saucepan, then add the chopped mirepoix.
  2. Cook on medium heat until onion, carrots, and celery begin to soften (at least five minutes or longer).
  3. Add flour to the saucepan and use a whisk to stir until it reaches a nice paste-like roux.
  4. Put heat on low and stir until the roux darkens in color. It should look like peanut butter when it’s done, which could take around 15-20 minutes to develop.
  5. After the roux has developed, start adding brown stock while continuously stirring with the whisk.
  6. Add the tomato sauce, bay leaf, and garlic cloves.
  7. Continue to cook at a low simmer for 30-60 minutes, or until the sauce reduces and thickens more.
  8. Before serving, pour your sauce over a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl to remove all the ingredients. This will result in a rich and flavorful sauce, free of any lumps, and the mouthfeel is incredible.

Here are two sauces derived from Espagnole or demi-glace:

  • Red wine reduction: After reducing Espagnole to a demi-glace, you can add red wine and further enhance it to create this sauce.
  • Mushroom: You just add sliced mushrooms to Espagnole or demi-glace to call it a mushroom sauce. You can further flavor it with garlic or shallots, too!

Velouté Sauce

Someone ladling a veloute sauce over a chicken breast.
James Nicholas Peterson/Shutterstock.com

This sauce is similar to Espagnole, but less complex to make. Instead of using brown stock made from roasted bones, you use white stock, made from unroasted bones.

The results are more delicate, lighter in color, and with less depth of flavor, which is favorable in some recipes. The white stock is added to a roux, then simmered for a bit.

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons of butter
  • 2 tablespoons of flour
  • 2 cups of white stock

Instructions:

  1. Melt the butter into a heavy-bottomed pot on medium-low heat.
  2. Slowly add in flour while whisking.
  3. After about two minutes of continuous whisking, slowly add the white stock.
  4. Let your sauce barely simmer for 20-30 minutes, with occasional stirs every few minutes or so to avoid any thick lumps that may form on the bottom. You’ll know your sauce is done once it’s reduced a bit and reaches a velvety texture.
  5. Run the sauce through a fine-mesh strainer or sieve to remove impurities.

Next, try making these baby velouté sauces:

  • Mushroom: You can make the mushroom sauce just the same way you would with an Espagnole. This variety would top any grilled chicken dinner beautifully.
  • Supreme: Finish your velouté with a spike of heavy cream and enjoy this luxurious sauce over grill chicken and veggies. It doesn’t get any richer.

Tomato Sauce

A pot of homemade Italian tomato sauce with basil.
Goskova Tatiana/Shutterstock.com

Tomato (aka, classic tomato) sauce is similar to most traditional tomato sauces. A few other ingredients include roux to thicken and salt pork for additional flavor enhancement.

You can simmer the sauce all afternoon for stellar flavor, or whip it up in well under an hour, and still have a delicious sauce fit for any pasta or fish dinner.

Ingredients:

  • 1 oz. of salt pork
  • 1 cup of mirepoix chopped (1/2 cup onion, 1/4 cup celery, 1/4 cup carrots)
  • 1-2 garlic cloves (roughly chopped)
  • 1 tablespoon of butter
  • 2 tablespoons of flour
  • 1, 28 oz. can whole tomatoes (roughly chopped)
  • 1 cup brown stock
  • 1/2 teaspoon of sugar
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions:

  1. Prepare your mirepoix, and gather all ingredients needed.
  2. Add salt pork to a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-low heat and stir a few times as the fat turns to liquid.
  3. Add mirepoix and garlic and cook until it softens.
  4. Once the vegetables have softened, add the butter and then the flour to create a roux. Let it cook for at least a few minutes.
  5. Add the tomatoes, stock, bay leaf, and sugar. Using a wooden spoon, continue to stir as the ingredients work together.
  6. Simmer for 30 minutes to an hour, then remove the bay leaf before blending.
  7. Work in batches to carefully blend your sauce with a high-quality blender or food processer until you’ve reached a smooth consistency.
  8. Salt and pepper to taste.

One of the best ways to turn tomato sauce into something new is by creating a Creole sauce. To do so, just adding the holy trinity (onion, celery, and green bell pepper), along with a few additional Cajun spices. This will turn your tomato sauce into a lovely gumbo companion.


Each of these sauces is standard in the culinary world, but what you add to them makes all the difference when creating a signature recipe. Who knows? Your recipe might become the next TikTok food trend!

Emilee Unterkoefler Emilee Unterkoefler
Emilee Unterkoefler is a freelance food writer, hiking enthusiast, and mama with over ten years of experience working in the food industry. Read Full Bio »

The above article may contain affiliate links, which help support LifeSavvy.


LifeSavvy is focused on a single goal: helping you make the most informed purchases possible. Want to know more?