In the culinary arts, the term "mother sauce" refers to any one of five basic sauces, which are the starting points for making various secondary sauces or "small sauces."
They're called mother sauces because each one is like the head of its own unique family.
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Béchamel sauce is probably the simplest of the mother sauces because it doesn't require making stock. If you have milk, flour, and butter you can make a very basic béchamel.
Béchamel is made by thickening hot milk with a simple white roux. The sauce is then flavored with onion, cloves, and nutmeg and simmered until it is creamy and velvety smooth.
Béchamel can be used as an ingredient in baked pasta recipes like lasagna, and also in casseroles. But it's also the base for some of the most common white sauces, cream sauces and cheese-based sauces. Here are some of the small sauces made from béchamel:
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Velouté sauce is another relatively simple mother sauce, made by thickening white stock with a roux and then simmering it for a while. While the chicken velouté, made with chicken stock, is the most common type, there is also a veal velouté and fish velouté.
Each of the veloutés forms the basis of its own respective secondary mother sauce. For instance, chicken velouté fortified with cream becomes the Supreme Sauce. Veal velouté thickened with egg yolks and cream becomes the Allemande Sauce. And the fish velouté plus white wine and heavy cream becomes the White Wine Sauce.
Small sauces from velouté can be derived from the velouté directly, or from each of the three secondary sauces. For example:
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The Espagnole sauce, also sometimes called Brown Sauce, is a slightly more complex mother sauce. Espagnole is made by thickening brown stock with a roux. So in that sense, it's similar to a velouté. The difference is that Espagnole is made with tomato purée and mirepoix for deeper color and flavor. And, the brown stock itself is made from bones that have first been roasted to add color and flavor.
Espagnole is traditionally further refined to produce a rich, deeply flavorful sauce called a demi-glace, which is itself the starting point for making the various small sauces. A demi-glace consists of a mixture of half Espagnole and half brown stock, which is then reduced by half.
For a shortcut, you could skip the demi-glace step and make the small sauces directly from the Espagnole. You'll lose some flavor and body, but you'll save time. Here are some examples of small sauces made from Espagnole:
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Hollandaise sauce is unlike the mother sauces we've mentioned so far, due to a liquid and a thickening agent, plus flavorings. Hollandaise is a tangy, buttery sauce made by slowly whisking clarified butter into warm egg yolks. So the liquid here is the clarified butter and the thickening agent is the egg yolks.
Hollandaise is an emulsified sauce, and we use clarified butter when making a Hollandaise because whole butter, which contains water and milk solids, can break the emulsion. Clarified butter is just pure butterfat, so it helps the emulsion remain stable.
Hollandaise sauce can be used on its own, and it's particularly delicious on seafood, vegetables, and eggs. But there are also a number of small sauces that can be made from Hollandaise:Continue to 5 of 5 below.
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The fifth mother sauce is the classic Tomate sauce. This sauce resembles the traditional tomato sauce that we might use on pasta and pizza, but it's got much more flavor and requires a few more steps to make.
First, we render salt pork and then sauté aromatic vegetables. Then we add tomatoes, stock, and a ham bone, and simmer it in the oven for a couple of hours. Cooking the sauce in the oven helps heat it evenly and without scorching.
Traditionally, the tomate sauce was thickened with roux, and some chefs still prepare it this way. But the tomatoes themselves are enough to thicken the sauce. Here are a few small sauces made from the classic tomate sauce: