How to Cook: Making a Great Sauce

In my opinion, one of the most underrated components of any meal is the sauce. Gravy, pan sauce, alfredo, tomato sauce, cheese sauce — they can make or break a delicious meal. Today, we’re going to learn all about how to make sauces that are balanced, bold, not overpowering, and, most important of all, delicious.

The 5 Mother Sauces

There are thousands of different sauces out there, but most of them can be connected back to the 5 “mother” sauces. The concept originated in the early 1800s, but they were modified and updated in the early 1900s to become the delicious sauces we know and love today. And yes, these are all French sauces, but the same principles apply across much of the culinary world.

  • Velouté: translates to “velvety,” it’s light in color and in flavor, and made from a roux and a light-colored stock (chicken, vegetable, fish, white veal)
  • Béchamel: classic white sauce, ultra creamy, made from a roux and milk
  • Espagnole: a richly flavored brown sauce made from a dark roux plus brown veal or beef stock, sometimes with tomatoes
  • Tomato: or “sauce tomat” if you want to be fancy, it’s exactly what you think it is (the traditional French version is thickened with a roux, but that’s become rare)
  • Hollandaise: melted butter and egg yolks, cooked gently while whisking until it thickens up, brightened with a squeeze of lemon

If you’re new to cooking, that might not have made much sense. That’s okay! We’re here to learn. If you can understand these 5 sauces, then you can make any sauce with ease. Pretty much everything else is just a derivative of one of these mother sauces.

What’s a Roux?

First off, you need to know how to make a roux. It’s the ultimate sauce-maker. It can turn beef stock into beef gravy. It can turn chicken soup into a chicken pot pie. It’s basically just flour and fat, usually in equal amounts, whisked together until smooth and cooked in a saucepan until it’s thick. You can modify which fat you use and how long you cook it to make a whole variety of different flavors that will form the base of your sauce. The most common (and versatile) version uses equal amounts of all purpose flour and butter. Other commonly used fats include bacon fat, olive oil, vegetable oil, and ghee. A whisk is really helpful here, because it will help to break up any lumps. Cook it, stirring constantly, until it’s thick and the color you’re looking for, then SLOWLY add your liquid (milk or stock) while whisking constantly. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of adding your liquid slowly. The roux will soak up the liquid and slowly start to thin out, turning itself into a creamy thick sauce. If you go too quickly, the roux won’t be able to soak up the liquid evenly and you’ll get a soup with pasty lumps of roux. Gross.

If your roux looks like this, you’ll have enough sauce to feed a small army.

When you’re making your own roux, I recommend 1-2 tbsp each of flour and butter for most applications unless the recipe you’re following says otherwise (I like to wing it). A small amount can thicken a lot more liquid than you think. You can thicken or thin it down later if needed.

If you’re making a derivative of a velouté or béchamel sauce, you’ll want to cook your roux until it’s thick, and then add your liquid. If you’re making an espagnole sauce, you’ll want to cook the roux until it’s a dark golden color before adding liquid. Alternatively, you can toast the flour in your saucepan until it turns golden brown, then add your fat and continue cooking until it’s the color you want.

What Does It All Mean?

So that’s cool and all, but what can you do with this knowledge? What kind of meals can you use these sauces to make? Fear not! We’re going to learn how to use these base sauces to create an amazing meal. Many of these aren’t even used as a “sauce” so much as they’re used as a base for the whole meal. So what can you make with these base sauces? Here are some foods you’re likely familiar with that come from one of the mother sauces:

  • Velouté: white wine sauce, pan sauce (for chicken), chicken/turkey gravy, chicken pot pie
  • Béchamel: mac and cheese, alfredo, croque monsieur (a delicious grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich with a béchamel sauce), cheese sauce, biscuits and gravy
  • Espagnole: pan sauce (for steak), demi-glace, red wine reduction, beef gravy
  • Tomato: pasta, pizza, shakshouka (a tasty breakfast dish of eggs cooked in tomato sauce), vodka sauce, BBQ sauce
  • Hollandaise: eggs Benedict, béarnaise sauce (a creamy, herby sauce usually served with steak)

So do you need to know the exact recipe to make a classic French Espagnole sauce? No. Absolutely not. Do you need to know that you can make a roux, cook it until it’s dark gold, add beef stock, and get a delicious sauce? For sure. When you know that, you can add other ingredients for flavor. A sprig of thyme? Delicious. Shallot? Yes. A little red wine? Yum (just be sure to cook the alcohol out for the best flavor). If you make it in the same pan you used to cook your steak, you’ll get the added umph of beef from what’s stuck to the bottom of the pan. Taste it as you go, and don’t forget the salt. You’ve just made a delicious pan sauce for your steak dinner!

If I’m making a chicken pot pie (a family favorite — it was even tasty that one time I forgot to add the chicken 🤣), I never use a recipe. It’s not because I have the recipe memorized, it’s because I know how to make a velouté sauce. Sauté your veggies, cook your chicken, pour everything into a bowl, then make your velouté in the same pan. Toasting the roux to get a little color improves the flavor, but feel free to cook more or less depending on how you’re feeling. So long as the roux is thick and you add the liquid slowly, you’ll get a tasty sauce. I like to add a little white wine to my roux first, let the alcohol cook off, then add my chicken stock. Pour all your ingredients back in the pan and see how it looks. Does it need a little more chicken stock to cover all the veggies? If it’s too soupy, let it cook down a little. Taste it. Does it need something? Salt? Herbs? Add something and taste it again. Maybe a splash of heavy cream to give it some body. I like to put a single pie crust on top of the cast iron pan I cooked everything in and bake until it’s golden brown, but you can certainly cook it in a traditional pie pan with a double crust. You do you!

Do you get it? It’s not about the recipe, it’s about using the idea of a mother sauce to create something that’s entirely your own. We’ll get into the weeds with specific sauces later (eggs Benedict, anyone?), but for now I want you to get out there, use what you know about balancing flavors, and get saucy!

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