The 5 Mother Sauces

In the culinary arts, the term “mother sauce” refers to any one of five basic sauces, which are the starting points for making various secondary sauces or “small sauces.” They’re called mother sauces because each one is like the head of its own unique family of sauces. A sauce is essentially a liquid plus some sort of thickening agent along with other flavoring ingredients. Each of the five mother sauces is made with a different liquid, and a different thickening agent — although three of the mother sauces are thickened with roux, in each case the roux is cooked for a different amount of time to produce a lighter or darker color. Below we will break down the five mother sauces and show examples of some of the small sauces that can be made from each mother sauce. 1. Béchamel Sauce Recipe Béchamel is probably the simplest of the mother sauces because it doesn’t require making stock. If you have milk, flour and butter, you can make a very basic béchamel. Béchamel is made by thickening hot milk with a simple white roux. The sauce is then flavored with onion, cloves and nutmeg and simmered until it is creamy and velvety smooth. Béchamel can be used as an ingredient in baked pasta recipes like lasagna, and also in casseroles. But it’s also the basis for some of the most common white sauces, cream sauces and cheese-based sauces. Here are some of the small sauces made from béchamel:
  • Crème Sauce
  • Mornay Sauce
  • Soubise Sauce
  • Nantua Sauce
  • Cheddar Cheese Sauce
  • Mustard Sauce
2. Velouté Sauce Recipe Velouté is another relatively simple mother sauce. Velouté sauce is made by thickening white stock with roux and then simmering it for a while. While the chicken velouté, made with chicken stock, is the most common type, there is also a veal velouté and fish velouté. Each of the veloutés forms the basis of its own respective secondary mother sauce. For instance, chicken velouté fortified with cream becomes the Suprême Sauce. Veal velouté thickened with a liaison of egg yolks and cream becomes the Allemende Sauce. And the fish velouté plus white wine and heavy cream becomes the White Wine Sauce. Small sauces from velouté can be derived from the velouté directly, or from each of the three secondary sauces. For example:
  • Normandy Sauce
  • Bercy Sauce
  • Hungarian Sauce
  • Mushroom Sauce
  • Aurora Sauce
  • Poulette Sauce
  • Shrimp Sauce
  • Herb Seafood Sauce
3. Espagnole Sauce Recipe The Espagnole Sauce, also sometimes called Brown Sauce, is a slightly more complex mother sauce. Espagnole is made by thickening brown stock with roux. So in that sense it’s similar to a velouté. The difference is that espagnole is made with tomato purée and mirepoix for deeper color and flavor. Moreover, brown stock itself is made from bones that have first been roasted to add color and flavor. The espagnole is traditionally further refined to produce a rich, deeply flavorful sauce called a demi-glace. The demi-glace is then the starting point for making the various small sauces. A demi-glace consists of a mixture of half espagnole, half brown stock, which is then reduced by half. For a short-cut, you could skip the demi-glace step and make the small sauces directly from the espagnole. You’ll lose some flavor and body, but you’ll save time. Here are some examples of small sauces made from espagnole: Marchand de Vin Sauce (Red Wine Reduction)
  • Robert Sauce
  • Charcutière Sauce
  • Lyonnaise Sauce
  • Chasseur Sauce
  • Bercy Sauce
  • Mushroom Sauce
  • Madeira Sauce
  • Port Wine Sauce
4. Hollandaise Sauce Recipe Hollandaise is unlike the mother sauces we’ve mentioned so far, but as you’ll see, it is really just a liquid and a thickening agent, plus flavorings. Hollandaise is a tangy, buttery sauce made by slowly whisking clarified butter into warm egg yolks. So the liquid here is the clarified butter and the thickening agent is the egg yolks. Hollandaise is an emulsified sauce, and we use clarified butter when making a Hollandaise because whole butter, which contains water and milk solids, can break the emulsion. Clarified butter is just pure butterfat, so it helps the emulsion remain stable. Hollandaise sauce can be used on its own, and it’s particularly delicious on seafood, vegetables and eggs. But there are also a number of small sauces that can be made from Hollandaise:
  • Béarnaise Sauce
  • Dijon Sauce
  • Foyot Sauce
  • Choron Sauce
  • Maltaise Sauce
  • Mousseline Sauce
5. Classic Tomate Sauce The fifth mother sauce is the classic Tomate Sauce. This sauce resembles the traditional tomato sauce that we might use on pasta and pizza, but it’s got much more flavor and requires a few more steps to make. First we render salt pork and then sauté aromatic vegetables. Then we add tomatoes, stock and a ham bone, and simmer it in the oven for a couple of hours. Cooking the sauce in the oven helps heat it evenly and without scorching. Traditionally, the sauce tomate was thickened with roux, and some chefs still prepare it this way. But in reality, the tomatoes themselves are enough to thicken the sauce. Here are a few small sauces made from the classic tomate sauce:
  • Spanish Sauce
  • Creole Sauce
  • Portuguese Sauce
  • Provençale Sauce

Sauces elevate a meal and make it easy for anyone to turn a bunch of vegetables and proteins into a finished dish with almost no thought. While every cuisine has its own standard sauces and flavour bases, once you know at least a few of them, you can add additional ingredients or flavour accents to expand your meal options. Here are a few to consider.

Béchamel (White Sauce)

Béchamel, a creamy white sauce, is one of the “Mother Sauces” or leading sauces from which all other sauces are born. (Others include veloute, brown sauce/espagnole and hollandaise, below.) The Joy of Cooking says:

This French sauce is prized for its unassertive character and smooth texture, which make it the ideal agent to thicken and bind a wide range of dishes and to coat many kinds of foods. Make your béchamel a little thicker than you think it should be, because it is easier to thin it out than to thicken it.
Use béchamel sauce in lasagne, to cook vegetables in a casserole, for mac and cheese, and pretty much any cheese-based dish. You can substitute vegetable stock instead of the milk for a vegan version. Basically, you moisten white roux (equal parts butter and flour) with milk, salt an onion with cloves stuck in it, and simmer until it’s creamy and smooth. As an alternative, the New York Times offers a healthy version using extra virgin olive oil instead of butter.

My fellow writer and food lover, Alan Henry also offers these tips:

The trick to a Béchamel is that it can be tricky if you don’t control heat, and if you’re the type who can’t pay attention to one thing in the kitchen at one time, but you start with a roux (flour and butter/lard/shortening), get it nice and blonde (or brown, but usually not), and then add your dairy. Stir for what seems like forever until it thickens up and smoothes out, and you’re set. Try making a Béchamel with bacon fat. It’ll change your life.


It has a fancy name, but veloute is basically like béchamel, only instead of milk you make it with a light-coloured stock (chicken, fish or vegetable stock). It’s really versatile, since you can use this sauce with any protein or just vegetables (and you can add mushrooms, shallots and or white wine for more variations).

The video above from shows you how easy it is to make. Mix 2 sticks of butter with about a cup and a half of flour to make the roux, and then add 3 cups of chicken stock.

For a Chinese version (great for stir frying or fried rice), check out this video from the Art of Cooking.

Espagnol (Brown Sauce)

This is basically a simple brown gravy that can form the basis for steak sauce, mushroom sauces, Madeira and more. Like the sauces above, you use equal parts butter and flour (or try making it with bacon fat instead of butter!). Then add mirepoix — onions, carrots and celery — and stir in tomatoes and beef stock.

There are lots of other ways to make brown sauce, but you get the idea. If you just want a quick sauce, however, consider just making a simple gravy from the pan drippings. As Alan says:

We talk a lot about how to make the perfect steak — why let all of those delicious brown bits on the pan go to waste? Add some fat like butter, a little flour to thicken, salt and pepper, and something to deglaze the pan like wine, balsamic vinegar or sherry (or any other cooking wine). Scrub up those brown bits and stir until it’s all smooth, and you’re good to go. Honestly, I could go on about the myriad ways to make simple pan gravy — everyone should do it at least once, if they haven’t already for Thanksgiving or something. It’s easy and super-fast, especially if you’ve already fried or cooked something in the pan, or you’ve roasted something and have drippings to spare!
Or, as the Reluctant Gourmet advises, make a brown sauce base quickly using demi-glace, a shallot, and red wine.

Marinara Sauce

A basic spaghetti sauce, as we’ve mentioned before, not only is fundamental for many Italian dishes, it’s also a great way to learn basic cooking techniques. This is Chef Anthony Thomas’ roasted garlic and spaghetti sauce recipe, but again, there are tons of variations on this classic, which is part of what makes it so useful to know how to make. Above is Giada Laurentiis made-from-scratch, in-under-30-minutes instructions. (I’m a big fan of the Pioneer Woman’s version, even though — gasp! — she uses a jar of premade sauce.)

Garlic Sauce
Five Sauces Everyone Should Know How to Make for Endless Meal Options
Here’s a simple sauce for garlic lovers. It’s similar to a mayonnaise (which many consider an essential sauce), but lighter. Tony Tahhan says Arabs call it toum (toum being the Arabic word for garlic) and offers this simple recipe. You can make it with just garlic, lemon juice and oil, or, as the recipe shows, add egg white. Try it on grilled chicken, potatoes or just about anything you would put mayo on.

Of course, these five sauces are only scratching the surface of what you can learn and there are many other cuisines to explore. (Mexican mole, Thai peanut sauce, Indian curries, Chinese curries to name a few. Here are 12 more, including hummus, nut sauce and pestos.) Keep the pantry staples on hand to make these sauces, however, and you can make an array of delicious food. (Don’t forget you can make your own Sriracha too.)