A sauce is essentially a liquid plus some sort of thickening agent along with other flavoring ingredients. There are hundreds of sauces in the world, but basically they all come under five simple sauce-styles. In the culinary world, these five sauces are termed as mother sauces.
Four out of the five mother sauces start with a roux, a fancy name for flour mixed with fat. The only exception is Hollandaise, which uses egg yolk. To prepare roux, dissolve butter in a pan, add the flour and stir until the mixture forms a smooth paste which leaves the sides and base of the pan cleanly. Cook for two minutes to get rid of the flour taste. Pour in approximately one-fifth of the quantity of your chosen fluid and bring it to boil without stirring. You have your basic roux ready.
Below listed are the five mother sauces:
Béchamel: Roux + dairy (milk or cream)
Véloute: Roux + white stock (chicken, but also vegetable or fish)
Espagnole: Roux + brown stock (veal or beef)
Tomato: Roux + tomatoes
Hollandaise: Egg yolks + clarified melted butter + lemon juice
Now that you are aware of the basics, here is how you can pair them with your dishes:
Béchamel:If you have eaten homemade macaroni and cheeseor lasagna, chances are you have experienced the rich creaminess of Béchamel. It can be prepared by combining roux and cream, or mixed with other ingredients to create new sauces.
Tip to use Béchamel: Swap in Béchamel for some of the cream in a gratin and pour it over polenta cakes and broil for a few minutes until bubbly and golden brown.
Velouté: Like Béchamel, Velouté begins with white roux, but is then mixed with white stock made from fish, chicken, or veal. Technically not a finished sauce, it is used as a flavorful starting point for gravies, mushroom sauces, and shrimp sauce.
Tip to use Velouté:Whip up Velouté with veal stock, then use it to make Swedish meatballs.
Espagnole: Also known as brown sauce, Espagnole begins with a mirepoix (carrots, celery, and onions), beef stock, and deglazed brown bits (fond) from beef bones. From there, tomato paste and spices may be added.
Tip to use Espagnole: To prepare demi-glace, combine equal parts of veal stock and espagnole and simmer till reduced to half.
Tomato: The most common of mother sauces, tomato sauce is often a mixture of just onions, garlic, and tomatoes. Although some traditionalists may start with a roux, most tomato sauces merely rely on a tomato reduction to build flavor and create thickness.
Tip to use tomato sauce: It can be used on any dish.
Hollandaise:Think of Hollandaise as a fancy mayonnaise that uses clarified butter in place of oil and gets drizzled over asparagus and eggs. Instead of using a roux or a reduction, Hollandaise uses the method of emulsification: the act of using a binding agent (for example, an egg yolk) to bind two ingredients that do not mix well together. Hollandaise takes patience, as you will need to temper the mixture so that the eggs do not curdle. The sauce can break easily and also patched by adding a little heavy cream and whisking until the sauce returns to its smooth state.
Tip to use Hollandaise:Drizzle it over crab cakes, or use it as a dipping sauce.