The names themselves may be unfamiliar but chances are, you’ve likely come across a mother sauce.

In this week’s Quickfire Challenge, chefs went head-to-head against a fellow competitor to make one of these five foundational sauces. Those at this level of competition should know exactly how to make Hollandaise, Velouté, Espagnole, Béchamel and Sauce Tomate without a second thought. Known as the so-called mother sauces, these recipes are building blocks of cooking and are a feature in everything from your standard eggs Benedict to a traditional lasagna. As guest judge John Higgins, director of George Brown Chef School said, “You make a béchamel, you can make macaroni and cheese. You make a velouté, you can make chicken pot pie. That’s why they’re important.”

ohn Higgins puts the chefs through the ‘mother’ of all Quickfire Challenges.

Originally, there were four “grandes” sauces — so dictated by Marie-Antoine Careme in the early 19th century: béchamel, espagnole, véloute and allemande (a velouté thickened with egg yolks and whipping cream). But 100 years later, French chef and restaurateur Auguste Escoffier dropped allemande, adding brunch bastion Hollandaise and a sauce tomate. Some two centuries later, these sauces are still typically taught in culinary schools around the world and used frequently by home cooks.

Barring hollandaise, mother sauces all start with a roux — even a traditional sauce tomate, though it’s not unusual for that part to be skipped.  Made from fat mixed with flour, the roux is what thickens the liquids added to it. A roux is typically made with butter, but other fats and oils can be used. Once hot, flour is stirred in and cooked for a minute or two to eliminate the raw flour flavour, before the liquid is slowly added and cooked until thickened. The type of liquid used is what separates the mother sauces

Let’s break them down, shall we:

1) Béchamel
That creamy white sauce found in traditional lasagna is a béchamel, which is a roux that has cream or milk added to it. Traditionally, a little nutmeg is also thrown into the mix. A béchamel is the starting point for most cheese sauces, like those for macaroni or for topping steamed or roasted veggies. Here’s a step by step recipe on how to turn a béchamel into a family friendly cheesy sauce for veggies.

Curtis Luk added sour cream to his béchamel and served it with roasted cauliflower.

2) Velouté
Like béchamel, velouté is among the easiest of the five mother sauces to make. It again starts with a roux, but then either chicken, vegetable or fish stock — all pale in colour — is added. Its name shares its roots with “velvety,” and this sauce should be smooth and soft. Jesse Vergen went the seafood route for his velouté, using lobster as a base and serving it with crab and chanterelles.  A simple version using chicken stock is good in a chicken pot pie, like this Ina Garten recipe.
Jesse’s seafood casserole made with his lobster velouté, dungeness crab, chantrelle mushrooms, old cheddar and pine nuts.

3) Espagnole
Translated as the ‘Spanish’ sauce, though why a recipe so intrinsically linked to French cooking bears this name is up for debate, this one is essentially a roux mixed with veal or beef stock. However, most recipes for this rich and meaty sauce start with a mirepoix of onions, celery and carrots and call for the addition of bones, bits of meat and tomato puree — along with a bouquet garnish of herbs — to build flavour.

Connie builds flavour in her espagnole sauce using mirepoix.

Unlike the other mother sauces, espagnole is rarely served as is, but instead is used as a jumping off point for a sauce chasseur (hunter’s sauce, with herbs and mushrooms) or added to a bourguignonne sauce (made with red wine, herbs and onions or shallots).  Try this not-so-traditional recipe for Beef Bourgignon that uses the mother sauce technique.

Surf and Turf: Trista unconventionally paired her rich, beefy espagnole sauce with a seared, meaty piece of halibut.

4) Hollandaise
It’s often proclaimed that hollandaise is a tricky sauce to master and there are numerous tips and tricks for what to do if it “breaks” or curdles. Patience is key here as the melted butter has to be slowly drizzled into the whisked egg yolks, all while keeping the temperature steady so you don’t end up with scrambled eggs.

John Higgins tests if the Hollandaise coats the back of the spoon properly.

Virtually any breakfast spot is going to have hollandaise on the menu, but it’s also nice with fish, and can be easily transformed into a Béarnaise — delicious on steak — by swapping out most of the lemon juice for vinegar, and adding some shallots and tarragon.

By browning the butter, Dennis Tay gave his hollandaise a nuttier flavour before adding soy and lime and serving it with poached salmon.TTC-Episode-3-Dennis-Tay-Salmon-Hollandaise-2

For a luxurious seafood dinner, try this recipe for Lynn Crawford’s pan seared salmon with wild mushrooms and pink shrimp hollandaise sauce.

5) Sauce Tomate
More modern versions of this sauce exist, but at the time that Escoffier was listing off the five mother sauces, his recipe called for a few unexpected ingredients, including salt pork and a roux. The pork, no doubt, added flavour, but cooking the tomatoes down will thicken a tomato sauce just as easily — and with fewer steps — than a roux.

John Higgins tastes Nicole and Trevor’s versions of sauce tomate.

No matter how complicated you want to go, the base remains the same: tomatoes. A standard mirepoix is usually also part of the recipe, along with garlic and herbs. Fantastic over pasta, bien sur, this sauce is also good with recipes that have a Provençal flair, like Nicole Gomes’ dish of seared lamb, grilled eggplant and Nicoise olives.

Nicole’s Quickfire Challenge winning dish using sauce tomate.

Try this recipe for lamb shoulder chops in tomato sauce, a  lamb dish with a Mediterranean flair that you can make at home.

Looking to learn more? Discover the 5 Knife Skills Every Chef Should Know.