The Five Mothers – Or Is It Eleven? All About Sauces

“A well made sauce will make even an elephant or a grandfather palatable.”

Grimod de la Reynière

It’s mothers’ day today. For our ‘60s menu we have steak – and what is the classic sauce pairing with steak? In a Berni Inn it would be a flavoured butter probably, but anywhere a bit more up market it would be a béarnaise sauce. Béarnaise is what is known as a ‘daughter’ sauce of hollandaise. So what makes hollandaise a ‘mother’, what else is a ‘mother’ and what exactly is the structure of sauce families? How can we use this knowledge to cheat in the making of them?

What is a ‘mother’ sauce?

A ‘mother’ sauce is a basic sauce – excellent in its own right – but which can have ingredients added and thereby transform itself into something else, another sauce with its own name – becoming a ‘daughter’ sauce.

The great French chef Escoffier, following his mentor, Carême, identified five main sauces, béchamel (a basic white sauce thickened with flour), espagnole (another name for dark gravy), velouté (gravy made from chicken or fish stock thickened with flour and/or cream), hollandaise (notoriously unstable warm emulsion of egg yolks) and tomate (essentially tomatoes thickened with a roux).

how to make a salade nicoise
The great Auguste Escoffier – who defined the family of sauces.

The famous Savoy Hotel dish of omelette Arnold Bennett uses both hollandaise and béchamel sauces mixed together. One sauce too many maybe? Starting to lose the will to live? These days you can buy fresh ready-made hollandaise from most supermarkets…..

In the film The Hundred-Foot Journey (see trailer below – the soundtrack is also good to cook to), the hero Hassan (played by Manish Dayal) tries to impress sous-chef Marguerite (played by Charlotte Le Bon) by producing perfect versions of each of the mother sauces – a challenge, the film suggests, of the same magnitude as one of Hercules’ twelve labours. In fact most are not that difficult, it is all a matter of practice. In the film Hassan uses all kinds of of other sauces – I spotted an Indian yoghurt-based raita for example – and I, too, have updated the list of mother sauces, replacing Escoffier’s tomato sauce with the flourless Italian version and adding:

• mayonnaise (stable cold emulsion) – in fact Escoffier included mayonnaise in a later version
• flavoured butters
• butter sauces
• yoghurt sauces
• salad dressings and marinades
• fruit or vegetable sauces



Milk-based, thickened with a roux

Mornay – add cheese. Serve with eggs or vegetablesParsley – add parsley and onion. Serve with gammon or white fishMushroom – add mushrooms. Serve with vealSoubise – add onion purée. Serve with sausages, bacon or muttonAlbert – made with horseradish. Serve with trout or beef


Veal stock based, thickened with a roux and tomato paste

Bordelaise – add red wine and shallots  Bourguignonne – to the Bordelaise above add bouquet garnis. Whisk in some butter towards the end. Both good with gameBigarade – add bitter orange juice (Seville, Bergamot, Chinotto…). Serve with duckDemi-glace – simmer equal quantities of brown stock together with sauce espagnol and reduce to half. Skim off impurities and strain. Robert – add onions, white wine, gherkins, mustard to the demi-glace sauce described above. Good with porkMadeira – add madeira and beef consommé. Serve with game


Light, thickened, stock-based

Suprême – make with mushroom stock, add crème fraiche. Serve with chicken breastsAurore – add tomato paste. Serve with eggs, poultry or fishVenetian – add tarragon, shallots, chervilNormande – make with fish stock, add cream, butter, egg


Emulsion; egg,butter, acid. You can very often buy fresh Hollandaise ready made (look near the fish counter)

Béarnaise  – add shallot, tarragon, chervil to a fresh Hollandaise sauce. Serve with steak or salmonMousseline or Chantilly – add whipped cream.Sauce Devine – first add reduced sherry to the whipped cream. Serve with poultry or offalBavaroise – add cream, horseradish and thyme. Serve with steak or beefNoisette – make with browned butter. Serve with asparagus, trout, salmon, potatoes
MayonnaiseAïoli – add garlic. NB this is not the original aïoli made by pounding garlic and breadcrumbs.Rémoulade – add mustard, shallots, pickles. Serve with celeriac


Gribiche – cucumbers, capers, parsley, chervil, tarragon and hard-boiled egg whites cut into matchsticks

Tartare – add capers, parsley, shallot, lemon. Serve with fishElizabeth – add curry powder, tomato purée, apricot jam. This is the sauce for Coronation Chicken
TomatoLebanese – add tahiniBolognese – add beef mince and chicken liversPuttanesca – add anchovies, olives, capersArrabiata – add chilli
Butter – flavouredLime – add juice and zest of lime, coriander, espellette pepper jellyAnchovy – add mashed anchovies or Patum Peperium. Serve with fishHorseradish and chive. Good with smoked trout or salmon. Also steakBasil, parmesan and tomato paste. Serve with vegetables
Butter – meltedSimple, melted butter… or the slightly more sophisticated beurre noisette (nutty burnt butter)With wine – beurre blancWith lemonWith lemon and herbs
YoghurtWith cucumber (basis of an Indian raita) or with cucumber and garlic (basis of a tzatziki)With cheese… …cheddar…With garlic and: saffron, paprika, walnuts, kale, aubergine….. the sky is the limitWith hummus or tahini for a middle eastern flavour
Salad dressings and marinadesOil with vinegar, an ordinary vinaigrette or with additions – for example a sauce vierge which adds shallots, coriander, chives, chopped tomato and tarragon. Excellent with fish. Oil with wine makes a good marinadeOil with lemon juice, pomegranate molasses or other fruit juiceOil with yoghurt or creamOil with garlic – such as a bagna caoda, or with parsley
Fruit or vegetableCoulisApple …. with calvados or brandyPlum – sweet, with crème de cassis. Or savoury, with black cardamomChutneys… with spices and an acidic preservative – vinegar or a citrus juice

Music to cook to

From the film, The Hundred Foot Journey:

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