Research: Mother Sauces

Monday, January 2, 2017
I love the feeling of curiosity that sparks in my mind when I encounter an origin, trend, or mystery surrounding food. When my friend Kyle got an entree that was served with an accompanying agrodolce sauce, I was as excited about looking into what its components were as I was in tasting it. During that minor research avenue, it struck me that it linked up to a major one. There’s an entire class of sauces that are far more defined, yet never receive a lot of attention in popular food culture. I'm talking about Mother Sauces, which as the name suggests, provides the basis for countless offshoots. Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard the term; it’s puzzling how little they’re discussed. Ready to get your taxonomy knowledge on? Let’s get saucy!

Before we get to the moms, though, here’s a brief description of that agrodolce sauce: For anyone who speaks Italian, it won’t come as a huge surprise that this is a sweet-and-sour sauce. It’s primarily used in Italian cuisine, and is made by reducing vinegar and sugar. Additional ingredients (in this case, it was ginger for use on a trout entree) are often added. If this method sounds familiar, give yourself a gold star for recognizing its almost identical cousin, gastrique. This is also a good place to point out that not all sauces trace back to one of the Mother Sauces: Gastrique, agrodolce, and many others are excluded from the family tree. And though those exceptions can be delicious, today is devoted to the sauce matriarchs.

Béchamel is also known as “white sauce”, and is often considered the simplest of the Mother Sauces, since you don’t have to make a stock. It utilizes milk as a base, which is thickened with a roux (flour and butter), and generally flavored with onion, shallots, and spices such as pepper, clove, or nutmeg. Béchamel is the mother of many cream and cheese sauces, and shows up in a lot of egg, vegetable, casserole, and baked pasta dishes, such as lasagna. Secondary sauces that owe allegiance to Béchamel include Mornay sauce, Soubise sauce, and the good ol’ Cheddar sauce that shows up in our mac & cheese.

Velouté is also a white sauce thickened with a roux, but this time, the “white” refers to the stock it uses as its base (chicken, fish, or veal). The stock replacing the milk is the main difference between Velouté and Béchamel, although sometimes, a Velouté will be thickened with a liason (egg yolk and cream) instead of a roux. Velouté also has three main secondary sauces, serving as mothers of various sauces themselves. Velouté made with chicken stock and fortified with cream becomes a Suprême sauce. Using fish stock (plus white wine and cream) yields a White Wine sauce. And veal stock thickened with a liason is known as Allemande sauce. These three daughters then go on to propagate tasty sauces such as herb sauces, curries, or Normandy sauce for light poultry and fish dishes.

Espagnole is also known as “brown sauce”, and is more complex than some of the others. At first glance, it seems like it’s just brown (beef) stock thickened with roux, but unlike Velouté, this sauce has additional steps involved. Tomato puree and mirepoix (carrots/celery/onion) are added to deepen the flavor, and let’s not forget that brown stock itself involves more work than a white one. The sauce is then refined into a demi-glace, which is used as a starting point for the secondary sauces. The demi-glace step isn’t strictly necessary, but since it adds so much flavor and body, it generally piggybacks in on the Espagnole’s back. The secondary sauces in this family are often used on roasted meat dishes like duck and lamb, and include Bordelaise sauce, Madeira sauce, and red wine/port reductions.

Hey, we’ve got places to be and things to do! How about a sauce that’s not so much work? Hollandaise to the rescue! In Hollandaise, all you need to do is slowly whisk clarified butter into warm egg yolks. Additional flavors can be added, of course, but that’s the basis. Hollandaise can be used on its own, but you shouldn’t ignore its secondary sauces, the most famous of which is Béarnaise sauce. Others include Mousseline sauce (Hollandaise with whipped cream folded in), and Mourtarde sauce (Hollandaise with Dijon mustard). Hollandaise sauces are terrific on eggs, but can also be used for vegetables and poultry.

Tomate (or “tomato” or “red”) sauce is probably the most familiar to American eaters, but can be prepared in a plethora of ways. Obviously, it has a tomato base, but there are tons of methods for thickening that base. As with the other Mother Sauces, you can use a roux. Or you can thicken it with additional purees. Or you can reduce it. Or, like a lot of chefs, you can decide that the tomatoes are thick enough themselves. Classic Tomate is flavored with rendered salt pork, mirepoix, or meat stock. Tomate is good on pretty much anything, but especially pasta. In addition to Puttanesca, Creole sauce and Provençale sauce fall under the Tomate umbrella.