It might surprise you that all the subtlety and complexity of the sauces found in French Haute cuisine flow from a shortlist of so-called “Mother Sauces,” but this is exactly what French culinary legend Auguste Escoffier observed in his seminal volumes Le Guide Culinaire. He put forth Béchamel, Velouté, Espagnole, Hollandaise, and Tomate as the roots of all French sauces.
The skinny on Mother Sauces:
1) Béchamel is the most newbie-friendly, as anyone with some milk, flour and butter can churn one out. Simply make a roux from equal parts of flour and butter and sauté it briefly, and use it to thicken heated milk.
Typical stir-ins include onion and a pinch of nutmeg. Or, add a handful of grated Gruyere to make a nice Mornay sauce for your veggies.
2) Velouté is a very similar affair, with stock substituted for milk. Chicken stock is typically used to make Veloute, but veal and fish Veloutés are common.
With the help of a little heavy cream Velouté becomes the famed Sauce Suprême, often served over sautéed chicken.
3) A step up in complexity is the Espagnole. This is again stock thickened with roux, but the stock here is more involved. The stock is made from oven roasted bones to give the sauce a rich brown color. A flavor boosts comes from tomato purée and mirepoix, as well.
With some extra stock and much reduction Espagnole becomes the famed demi-glace, which has graced some of the finest beef in Paris.
4) Hollandaise is the tangy, golden ambrosia you see on your Eggs Benedict. The process is similar to making a vinaigrette dressing: pour a THIN stream of the melted butter into the beaten egg yolks, whisking constantly. Pour too fast, and you’ll end up with scrambled eggs floating in butter.
Add some shallot and tarragon, and you’ve got Béarnaise. This sauce often graces the noble Filet Mignon, but it truly shines when served over white fish.
5) Finally, we have Tomate, which is a more refined and complex cousin to basic pizza or spaghetti sauce. It typically lacks the oregano found in its more humble relation and is often flavored with salt pork and/or ham hocks.
This hearty sauce forms the base of several kinds of soups and stews.