The Five Mother Sauces Every Cook Should Know

July 13, 2016

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In the 19th century, Marie-Antoine Carême anointed Béchamel, Velouté, Espagnole, and tomato sauce as the building blocks for all other sauces in his work L'Art de la Cuisine Française au Dix-Neuvième Siecle. Later on, Hollandaise got added to the family. Since then, many people consider others sauces—sweet and savory from all around the world—as unofficial extended relatives of these five sauces.

Mother Sauces

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Though some will argue for the importance of chimichurri and chocolate sauce, it's a knowledge of the five French mother sauces that will prove essential. They may seem intimidating, but mother sauces will nurture your kitchen confidence. With a few simple ingredients (mostly flour, butter, and a liquid) and a couple easy techniques, these five sauces, all equally important to your cooking repertoire, serve as the starting point for a slew of other classics.

Once you get the feel for these sauces, you’ll be able to whisk them up whenever you want to get fancy. And soon enough, you'll feel confident enough to break tradition and take that Mother Sauce somewhere she’s never gone before. Here's what you need to know about the building blocks of sauces:


Beyond flavor, the most important element of any sauce is its ability to smother and cling to whatever it gets drizzled, dolloped, or poured on. That means making the sauce thick and stable, which is accomplished with three techniques: a roux, an emulsifier, and a reduction (liquid that's slowly cooked down until thick). 

Four out of the five mother sauces start with a roux. Roux is a fancy name for flour mixed with fat. Equal parts butter and flour get cooked over medium heat, then a liquid gets added. This mixture then boils, thickens (reduces), and becomes the base of your sauce. Just note, if you’re making a white sauce—like Béchamel or Velouté—do not brown the butter, as it will darken the finished product. The last mother sauce is a product of emulsification, which I'll explain below. 

More: Is it your first time making a roux? Here's how to do it, step by step.

Here are the basic formulas of the five mother sauces:

Béchamel: Roux + Dairy (traditionally milk or cream)
Velouté: Roux + White Stock (traditionally chicken, but also vegetable or fish)
Espagnole: Roux + Brown Stock (traditionally veal or beef)
Tomato: Roux + Tomatoes (or, go the Italian route by skipping the roux and simply reducing tomatoes over medium-low heat until thick)
HollandaiseEgg Yolks + Clarified Melted Butter + Acid (like lemon juice or white wine)

Now that you understand the basics, let’s talk about each Mother Sauce in more detail (and what to pair them with):

If you’ve eaten homemade macaroni and cheese, a classic croque madame, or lasagna, chances are you’ve experienced the rich creaminess of Béchamel. It can be made in its most basic form by just combining roux and cream, or it can be mixed with other ingredients to create new sauces: Mornay is made by adding Gruyère or Parmesan, and mustard sauce is made by adding—you guessed it—mustard.

Here are some other ways to use Béchamel:

  • Swap in Béchamel for some of the cream in a gratin.
  • Pour it over polenta cakes and broil for a few minutes until bubbly and golden brown.

Once you've mastered basic Béchamel, here's how to get more creative: Spike a classic Béchamel with soy and miso for a new take on Trent Pierce’s Miso-Creamed Kale or Nobu’s Fried Asparagus.


Like good old Béchamel, Velouté begins with a white roux, but then it gets mixed with white stock made from fish, chicken, or veal. Technically not a finished sauce, it's used as a flavorful starting point for gravies, mushroom sauces (hello chicken pot pie), and shrimp sauce (hello shrimp bisque). 

Here are some other ways to use Velouté:

  • Whip up Velouté with veal stock, then use it to make Swedish Meatballs.
  • Smother biscuits with an herby gravy for breakfast.

Once you've mastered basic Velouté, here's how to get more creative: Make velouté vegetarian with a mushroom-based stock for this Vegetarian Mushroom Thyme Gravy.


Although some think blond roux have more fun, Espagnole proves that dark roux know how to party, too. Also known as brown sauce, Espagnole begins with a mirepoix (carrots, celery, and onions), beef stock, and deglazed brown bits (fond) from beef bones. From there, tomato paste and spices may be added.

To make a demi-glace, a rich French brown sauce, combine the Espagnole with more beef stock; to create Bordelaise, a red wine sauce that pairs well with steak and mushrooms, mix the demi-glace with red wine and herbs. Serve this with filet mignon for an excellent dinner.

Here are some other ways to use Espagnole and its variations:

Once you've mastered basic Espagnole, here's how to get more creative: Take Espagnole somewhere new by adding tamarind paste and making Dan Barber’s Braised Short Ribs.


Probably the first mother sauce you ever tasted (over a heaping bowl of spaghetti), tomato sauce is often a mixture of just onions, garlic, and tomatoes. Although some traditionalists may start with a roux, most tomato sauces merely rely on a tomato reduction to build flavor and create thickness.

Here are some other ways to use tomato sauce:

Once you've mastered basic tomato sauce, here's how to get more creative: Marcella Hazan's tomato sauce can't be beat, but if you want to think outside of Italy, use your tomato sauce to make Lentil Cakes with Tikka Masala instead. 


Think of Hollandaise as a fancy mayonnaise that uses clarified butter in place of oil and gets drizzled over asparagus and eggs without judgment. Instead of using a roux or a reduction, Hollandaise uses the method of emulsification: the act of using a binding agent (in this case, an egg yolk) to force two ingredients that don't mix well together (here, butter and lemon juice) to like each other immensely. Hollandaise takes patience, as you'll need to temper the mixture so that the eggs do not curdle. The sauce can break easily, but you can patch things back together by adding a little heavy cream and whisking until the sauce returns to its smooth state; or use Amanda's trick for fixing broken aioli—a close relative of Hollandaise sauce—by using the broken emulsification to start your next batch. Sound like a lot of hard work? This Fried Green Tomato Benedict makes it all worth the trouble.

When mixed with unsweetened whipped cream, Hollandaise suddenly becomes airy Mousseline that can be poured over fish or vegetables

Here are some other ways to use Hollandaise:

Once you've mastered basic Hollandaise, here's how to get more creative: Let another breakfast staple enjoy the creaminess of Hollandaise with this Savory Oatmeal recipe. Or take your next Caramelized Pork Bahn Mi to new heights by replacing the mayonnaise with a Sriracha-spiked Hollandaise sauce. 

Short rib photo by Sarah Shatz; last photo by Marta Greber; all others by James Ransom. This article originally ran in February of 2015; we're re-running it now to revisit the classics—and just in case you don't know them yet.



Ola K. December 11, 2018
That is one great comprehensive text on what sauce is all about!
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Michaela May 31, 2017
Thanks! I can't wait to learn all these sauces! I'm inspired!
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Vũ C. March 20, 2017
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JR E. January 15, 2017
SUCH a great article, thank you for posting. But, I wonder: here in the south most of my fat based rouxs start with bacon grease, not butter. Obviously, unless making a bechamell. But even even my Louisiana kin don't start a roux with butter, it would be shortening. We're still doing the same thing right? We just can't technically call it the same?
Dilan September 22, 2016
Good help bro
Sophia H. September 4, 2016
I love making Hollandaise, but I am lazy and never clarify my butter, I mix the egg yolks and lemon together place the bowl over simmering water and drop pieces of cold butter wishing until melted, then repeating until all added. Maybe it is not considered hollandaise, but who cares it works for me. I love making leftover risotto to make stuffed peppers then poor left over sauce and bake them together.
Connie H. February 22, 2017
When clarified butter is called for I always try to use "ghee" - buy a good quality at Whole Foods & keep it (unrfrigerated) next to your cook top. It's awesome!
Fiona S. March 29, 2016
Calm down people ! hehe. These sauces are French, while training to be a chef you need to learn French tradition first. What cuisines a qualified chef chooses to create is individual and exciting. <br />
Aarati A. May 20, 2016
French cuisine was only able to become the staple of culinary education because we still live in a world dominated by the west. French cuisine is amazing, but don't be so naive about the politics of food! Every ingredient has its history. Its part of what makes cooking so interesting.
scott.finkelstein.5 July 20, 2016
The French aren't the only ones to have developed the roux, puree, and emulsion methods of thickening. They actually occur in pretty much every cuisine, and the French specifically learned them from Italy. It also leaves out starch and gelatin thickened sauces popular worldwide.<br /><br />Really, the mother sauces should be roux-thickened (bechamel, veloute), manual emulsions (mayo, hollandaise), boiled vegetables and purees (tomato, caramelized onions), natural emulsions (cream), gelatin (pan sauces), and starches (all the glossy/gloopy stuff using corn starch).
FoodFanaticToo March 28, 2016
great resource for my young adult kids! thank you very much :)
ChefWannaBe January 17, 2016
Yet to finish the movie though but also please watch CHEF the movie, all about passion and loving what you do! Salute to our 5 Mother Sauces!!!