There is a lot of mystique that swirls around using and making French Sauces. Hoitytoity French culinary schools like Le Cordon Bleu or US-based ones like Escofifier do battle over these sauces because French Sauces are the basis of many other sauces we use. It is to their benefit to keep the mystique going. The point of this article is to demystify these sauces and help you learn how and when to use them.
French sauces complement your food as well as impress your family or guests but they really are not that difficult to make. This article explores the range French sauces which fall into four basic categories: espagnole, velouté, bechamel, and hollandaise. These are called mother sauces. There are secondary or sometimes called compound sauces that are extensions of, or are-based on these mother sauces. We’ve also added a few other important sauces that don’t fall neatly into these categories.
The aim of a sauce is to take a dish from ho-hum to exceptional. The role of a sauce is to enhance flavor of your food. Sauces add layers of flavor and complexity to titillate your tastebuds. Sauces also add moistness, color to a dish as well as additional textures to please your palate. A sauce my be a complement or offer a contrasting taste.
Every regional cuisine has its own variety of sauces but the French have been the pioneers. The British have gravy and bread sauces. The Chinese have soy sauce, oyster and chili sauces. The Indians have tamarind sauce. The Japanese have teriyaki sauce and the Swede’s have their meatball sauce.
Here are the four main mother sauces:
- Espagnole – these are brown sauces
- Velouté – these are white sauces
- Bechamel – are milk and cream-based sauces
- Hollandaise – butter-based sauces that typically use yolks for emulsification
- Tomato – most of these sauces use tomato paste as a base
Let’s begin demystify many of the most basic French sauces.
Espagnole Sauce, A French Tradition
Espagnole Sauce uses a brown stock such as beef, veal, lamb or duck and is thickened with a brown roux. It is a basic brown stock base from which other brown sauces are created. Espagnole is flavored with aromatics, savory herbs, or tomato paste. These sauces are commonly served with roasted meats, such as lamb, beef, duck or veal.
Demi-glace is traditionally made by combining one part Espagnole sauce and one part brown stock. The sauce is then reduced by half, strained of any left over impurities and finished with a sherry wine.
Bordelaise sauce is a classic French sauce named after the Bordeaux region of France. The sauce is made with dry red wine, bone marrow, butter, shallots and demi-glace. Traditionally, bordelaise sauces are served with grilled beef or steak, though it can also be served with other meats that pair well with brown sauces, such ad duck or lamb.
Diable sauce is a basic espagnole sauce with the addition of wine, vinegar, shallots and red or black pepper. It’s usually served with broiled meat or poultry.
Lyonnaise is a compound sauce made of demi-glace, white wine, vinegar and onions served with small cuts of meat. It is mainly used for left-overs.
Madeira sauce is a savory French sauce defined as a demi-glace sauce and used Madeira wine. The sauce is made by sautéeing in butter shallots and mushrooms, then adding peppercorns, bay leaves, thyme, and the wine until it is reduced. Demi-glace is then added to the combination, which is whisked until blende. This sauce is an ideal choice for roasts, steaks, and chicken. It is the sauce most often served with beef Wellington.
Perigueux is a rich brown sauce flavored with black truffles and Madeira. The sauce, goes with a variety of dishes including meat, game, poultry and eggs. It is named after Perigueux, a city in the Pierigord region in southern France. It is a region most noted for its truffles.
Piquante is a tangy and slightly acidic sauce, perfect for cutting through the rich, smoky flavors of grilled beef, pork, lamb, or vegetables.
Poivrade sometimes called sauce au poivre, is a peppery sauce. It is made of a cooked mirepoix thickened with flour and moistened with wine and a little vinegar, then heavily seasoned with black pepper. It uses Espagnole sauce as a base to thicken the sauce.
Robert is a brown mustard sauce derived from the classic French demi-glace, which in turn is derived from Espagnole sauce. Sauce Robert is made from chopped onions cooked in butter without color, a reduction of white wine, pepper, an addition of demi-glace and is finished with mustard. It well suited for pork, especially grilled pork.
Veloute sauces generally are white sauces that use fish, chicken, or another white stock as a base. These sauces are thickened either egg yolks, a roux or cream. Veloute sauces are often served with lighter dishes such as pasta, fish, vegetables, fish, or poultry.
White Bordelaise sauce is a bordelaise sauce where white stock and white wine are used. It is often served with chicken or veal
Ravigote sauce is a traditional, lightly acidic sauce, which may be prepared either warm or cold. The warm sauce is classically based upon a vegetable or or a velouté, with herbs. Often Dijon mustard is added. The cold sauce version is based on a vinaigrette. In general ravigote sauces are highly seasoned with chopped, sautéed shallots or onion, capers and herbs like chives, chervil and tarragon. These are generally served with mild flavored proteins or those that have been boiled or poached, such as poultry, fish, or eggs.
Suprême sauce is a classic and popular “daughter sauce” made from the mother sauce velouté, then thickened with a cream reduction. A small amount of lemon juice is commonly added. In many cases, finely chopped and lightly sautéed mushrooms are added. It is a French version of a country gravy. You’re likely to see Supreme sauce served in dishes with mushrooms, like dishes where you saute a chicken breast or a pork chop.
Bechamel sauce, also known as white sauce, uses milk as a base and is thickened with a white roux. Bechamel sauces are commonly flavored with shallots, onion, nutmeg, or pepper. Other sauces that are made with béchamel include Mornay sauce, cheese sauces, or cream sauces. Bechamel based sauces are often served with egg, pasta, poultry, vegetables, or egg.
Mornay is a béchamel sauce with shredded or grated cheese added. Some versions use different combinations of Emmental cheese, Gruyère, white cheddar or even Parmesan cheese. A Mornay sauce made with cheddar cheese is commonly used to make macaroni and cheese.
Soubise is an onion-based sauce thickened with Béchamel sauce, cream or pounded cooked rice. It is generally served with meats, game, poultry and vegetables. It was formerly often used to coat meat. It has many versions but the simplest including just onions, butter, and cream.
Hollandaise sauce is a rich creamy sauce that uses butter as a base and is generally thickened with egg yolks. This sauce is often flavored with cayenne pepper, peppercorns, lemon, or vinegar. They can be made into secondary sauces such as mousseline, bearnaise, maltaise. Hollandaise sauces are often served with eggs, vegetables, or poultry.
Mousseline is a luxurious, light, smooth and very rich version of a classic Hollandaise sauce but uses heavy cream that has been whipped and airy. The mousseline needs to be served with other equally delicate textured foods, like fish and eggs.
Béarnaise sauce is simply an emulsification — egg yolks and butter cut through with vinegar flavored with tarragon and shallots, with a pinch of black pepper. The difference between it and Hollandaise is only in the flavoring: Béarnaise uses chervil, shallot, peppercorns, and tarragon in a reduction of vinegar and wine, while Hollandaise is a reduction of lemon juice or white wine vinegar, with white peppercorns and a pinch of cayenne.
Maltaise sauce is a classic sauce made by adding the juice of blood oranges to a basic Hollandaise. This sauce is traditionally served with asparagus.
Red sauces use a tomato base and are thickened with purees, a reduction, or a roux. Red sauces can be flavored with meat stock, mirepoix, or salted pork. Other sauces commonly made from red sauce include puttanesca, Creole or Spanish sauce. Red sauces are very versatile and can be served with nearly everything, including pasta, vegetables, fish, beef, veal, poultry, or polenta.
Other French Sauces
Mayonnaise is a French word for a thick, creamy sauce or dressing commonly used on hamburgers, sandwiches, salads, and with French fries. It forms the base for various other sauces, such as tartar sauce, rouille, fry sauce, and remoulade.
Beurre blanc is a warm emulsified butter sauce made with a reduction white wine, typically, Muscadet and shallots into which softened whole butter is whisked in off the heat to prevent separation. The small amount of emulsifiers naturally found in butter are used to form an oil-in-water emulsion. Although similar to hollandaise in concept, it is considered neither a classic leading nor a base for other sauces.