In the Beginning, There Was Mother Sauce

In the Beginning, There Was Mother Sauce

Mother sauces: The base sauces in the French culinary tradition of which all other [secondary] sauces are made; sometimes called grandes sauces, standard sauces, or classic sauces. In theory, once you learn the technique for making each of the mother sauces, future sauce making will be a breeze.

Okay, maybe not always a breeze (whatever that means anyway), but the hope is that you won’t feel so challenged by sauce and will instead LOVE to make it.

This is the second post in my series of epic posts “all about sauce.” You can read the first one here: A Sauce History. Today, I want you to dive into the world of mother sauces, so let’s get started already…

Mother Sauces in a Nutshell


Meat-based brown stock thickened with a roux. A few secondary sauces of espagnole: Bordelaise, Robert, Madeira.

Demi-glace (or demi-glaze)

A sauce made with espagnole sauce, brown stock, and herbs, which is reduced a great deal (sometimes categorized as an espagnole and sometimes categorized as a demi-glace).


A white sauce made with milk and thickened with a roux. (Yes, it’s what we used to quadruple the calorie count of the broccoli dish pictured above). A few secondary sauces of béchamel: mornay (cheese sauce), blush, mustard.


homemade tomato sauce A white sauce made with chicken, fish, or veal stock. A few secondary sauces of velouté: aurora, white wine sauce, Allemande, Normandy.


Um, yeah. This one has tomatoes in it. A few secondary sauces of tomato: cardinal, meat, provençal.

But wait, there’s more…cold, emulsified sauces

Espagnole, demi-glace, béchamel, and velouté came first. One hundred years later, tomato sauce made the cut. Then, at some point that’s not exactly clear to me, emulsified sauces came onto the scene. (Check out the sauce and dip dictionary for an explanation of terms).


Egg and fat based sauces that result thanks to our friend emulsification. A few secondary emulsified sauces: tartar sauce, green sauce, crème anglaise.


Oil and vinegar based emulsification. (Marinades and some jus fall under this category, too.) Secondary sauces of vinaigrette: Choose almost any combination of oil, vinegar, and aromatics to change up a vinaigrette.

But wait, there’s STILL more…what about stocks?

A quality mother sauce starts with a quality stock. (Does that make stock a mother?) I’ve been told more than once not to rely on bouillon or Swanson’s stock for a sauce base (sorry, Swanson’s), and to make your own vegetable, chicken, beef, or fish sauce when you can. Personally, I can’t get excited about making a stock, because I’m squeamish around innards of any kind. The remedy?

According to Chef Chuck Kerber of Pittsburgh Hot Platebuy Minor’s bases.

“In my experience, they [Minor’s] have the most authentic flavor, with fewer additives and preservatives than other brands,” Chef Kerber said. “Some supermarkets carry this brand, but you may have to go to a specialty store to pick them up. Look for them in the refrigerated section.”

minor's chicken stock

Great tip, Chef Kerber. Thank you for keeping me far away from those innards.

Hold on a second, I thought there were only five mother sauces?

If you’ve been counting, you’ve noticed that I’ve mentioned more than five main sauces. Welcome to the complicated world of mother sauces.

You could read three books on classic French sauces and get three different answers on what qualifies as a mother sauce. I think I spent over two hours trying to find a consistent answer without luck, so I went to my local sauce expert–Chef Matt Selby of Denver’s Vesta Dipping Grill and Steuben’s.

“Depending on how old or new school your [culinary] education is, any one of [the mother sauces mentioned] could or could not be considered a mother sauce,” Chef Selby explained. “Some would even say that béchamel, because of its use of roux, covers espagnole. There is even an argument that béchamel could be discussed in the same category as emulsified. Further more, and this gets REALLY interesting, you could say that none of the above are mother sauces in that none of them are true mothers, i.e., the product of a MOTHER preparation.

“Take for example jus, or stock…pan drippings turned into sauce. Those types of things. Mole, when prepared traditionally with chicken thighs, is a byproduct of the recipe, rather than a sauce made on its own, would be a mother sauce. I should stop right there…I can go on forever.”

He’s not kidding. We could talk about this forever.

Shut the front door. Why do the French get all the credit?

The truth of the matter is that French culinary tradition seems to get most of the attention when it comes to defining sauces and the basic techniques involved. But there are classic sauces in many other regional cuisines, especially Asian cuisines. Just look at fish sauce! An incredible number of sauces rely on fish sauce, which by definition would make it a mother sauce.

Chris Perrin of Blog Well Done agrees. “It’s equally valid to say that soy sauce, oyster sauce, etc. are Asian mother sauces, since things like soy sauce are as important to Asian cuisine as cream is to French cooking.”

Hallelujah! Given’ the East some credit.

Kishibori Soy Sauce

Kishibori Soy Sauce from Dean & DeLuca (affiliate link)

And Now, a Recap on Sauces

This was a lot of sauce talk for one post, and the scary part is that it barely scratches the surface. Here’s a recap of what we’ve covered so far:

  • The original four mother sauces include espagnole, demi-glace, béchamel, and velouté. Learn to make these and the door to hundreds of other sauces will be opened.
  • Many now consider demi-glace to be the true brown stock mother sauce. You’ll find espagnole and demi-glace used interchangeably in many places.
  • Tomato sauce and emulsified sauces (hollandaise, mayo, and vinaigrette) later became classified as mother sauces, although this can be argued depending on your perspective of what truly defines a mother sauce.
  • A quality sauce starts with a freshly made stock. When you think of this way, are stocks the true mother sauces?
  • While mother sauces refer to the classic French sauces, don’t forget that other regional cuisines have their own mother sauces.
  • Chef Chuck Kerber, Chef Matt Selby, and food expert Chris Perrin rock the saucy world. Thanks for your insights!

Other mother sauce posts worth reading…

Fall In Love With Mother Sauces

What Not To Do When You Make Sauce

The Sauce Maker’s Toolbox

Trends In Sauce

12 Responses to “In the Beginning, There Was Mother Sauce”

  1. sweetlife says:

    great post, I love how you give details on each sauce..oh bechamel..how you pack calories, but make eveything so drool worthy..lol


  2. Great post, it does get a bit confusing indeed…I agree that learning the sauce basics open up a whole word of treasures. Some of the sauces that are not considered “finishing sauces” are many times served as a final sauce with just a touch or two of something added. I adore sauces so I am rambling 🙂
    Hope you are having a wonderful weekend!

  3. Monet says:

    I think homemade stock makes all the difference in so many recipes. I’m not surprised to hear that make a HUGE difference in these mother stocks. I would love to learn how to make at least some of the many different varieties you mentioned. It would surely take my cooking to a new level! Thank you for sharing, my dear. I hope you have a good Monday. Let the week begin!

  4. Jen says:

    Wow, what a post! Tomato sauce is the only mother sauce I’ve made. I need to get cooking!

    Also, maybe stocks are the grandmother sauces?

  5. saral says:

    Magic of Spice – Ramble away! Glad to know I’m not the only one.

    Monet – From what I understand, making stock isn’t too difficult; it’s just intense.

    Jen – Grandmother sauces!!!! Love it. I’m sooo using that.

  6. elaine says:

    Hi, Saral. Thank you for visiting my blog! I just made bechamel tonight, but had no idea there were so many different mother sauces. I learned so much reading your post.

  7. Liz says:

    So fun to find your lovely blog, Sara! I’m going to love looking through all your wonderful posts…I need to make a béchamel today…wish me luck 😉

  8. Cathie says:

    Great article and very informative! Watch out for MSG in your packaged stocks, as you mention, some have tons of additives! I have never seen the brand you mention here. We usually buy organic whatever is on sale.

    We have made our own stock here and it can be hard to season enough….haven’t perfected it, I guess. You can freeze it, though!

    What about stock vs. broth? I usually buy broth because I hate bones, I am sure I am missing some flavor element.

  9. Sara says:

    @Elaine – Funny timing on that bechamel. There are tons of sauces.

    @Liz – Glad you came by. How did the bechamel go?

    @Cathie – All the reading I’ve done and all the chefs I’ve talked to have only mentioned stock…I’ll have to ask about broth and get back to you.

  10. Thanks for giving props to Asian mother sauces. Can’t survive without the fish sauce.

  11. […] also wrote several great posts about mother sauces several months ago.  The first breaks down the five mother sauces from tomato to velouté; the second explains why we should embrace these classic French sauces, […]

  12. Wow…sauce education at it’s best! I make stock. Sometimes. But I also used stock I purchase without reservation. Homemade is best but not always practical when I just want to make dinner!

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