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These Are The Five Mother Sauces Every Cook Should Know

Master these sauces, then conquer the world. (Or at least the kitchen.)

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1. Béchamel

James Ransom / Via food52.com

What it is: A rich white sauce traditionally made of roux (or butter and flour) + cream.

If you've eaten homemade macaroni and cheese, a classic croque madame, or lasagna, chances are you've experienced the rich creaminess of Béchamel. It can be made in its most basic form by just combining roux and cream, or it can be mixed with other ingredients to create new sauces: Mornay is made by adding Gruyère or Parmesan, and mustard sauce is made by adding — you guessed it — mustard.

Here are some other ways to use Béchamel:

• Swap in Béchamel for some of the cream in a gratin.

• Pour it over polenta cakes and broil for a few minutes until bubbly and golden brown.

Once you've mastered basic Béchamel:

• Spike a classic Béchamel with soy and miso for a new take on Trent Pierce’s Miso-Creamed Kale or Nobu’s Fried Asparagus.

2. Velouté

James Ransom / Via food52.com

What it is: Just like Béchamel, it starts with a white roux and then gets mixed with white stock made from fish, chicken, or vegetables.

Velouté is used as a flavorful starting point for gravies, mushroom sauces (hello, chicken pot pie), and shrimp sauce (shrimp bisque, anyone?).

Here are some other ways to use Velouté:

• Whip up Velouté with veal stock, then use it to make Swedish Meatballs.

• Smother biscuits with an herby gravy for breakfast.

Once you've mastered basic Velouté: 

• Make meatless velouté with a mushroom-based stock for this Vegetarian Mushroom Thyme Gravy.

3. Espagnole

Sarah Shatz / Via food52.com

What it is: Roux + a brown stock (traditionally veal or beef).

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.

To make a demi-glace (a rich French brown sauce), combine the Espagnole with more beef stock. To create Bordelaise (a red wine sauce that pairs well with steak and mushrooms), mix the demi-glace with red wine and herbs. Serve this with filet mignon for an excellent dinner.

Here are some other ways to use Espagnole and its variations:

• Pair roast lamb with a demi-glace.

• Drizzle a little Bordelaise over mushroom risotto.

Once you've mastered basic Espagnole:

•Take Espagnole somewhere new by adding tamarind paste and making Dan Barber’s Braised Short Ribs.

4. Tomato

James Ransom / Via food52.com

What it is: In some cultures it's roux + tomatoes, but many go the Italian route by skipping the roux and simply reducing tomatoes over medium-low heat until thick.

Probably the first mother sauce you ever tasted (over a heaping bowl of spaghetti), tomato sauce is often a mixture of just onions, garlic, and tomatoes. Although some traditionalists may start with a roux, most tomato sauce just rely on a tomato reduction to build flavor and create thickness.

Here are some other ways to use tomato sauce:

• One word: pizza.

• Turn tomato sauce into breakfast with shakshuka.

Once you've mastered basic tomato sauce:

Marcella Hazan's tomato sauce can't be beat, but if you want to think outside of Italy, use your tomato sauce to make Lentil Cakes with Tikka Masala.

5. Hollandaise

Marta Greber / Via food52.com

What it is: Basically a fancy mayonnaise made with egg yolk + acid (like lemon juice or vinegar), but with clarified butter instead of oil.

Instead of using a roux or a reduction, Hollandaise uses the method of emulsification: the act of using a binding agent (in this case, an egg yolk) to force two ingredients that don't mix well together (butter and lemon juice) to get along. Hollandaise takes patience, as you'll need to temper the mixture so that the eggs do not curdle. The sauce can break easily, but you can patch things back together by adding a little heavy cream and whisking until the sauce returns to its smooth state.

When mixed with unsweetened whipped cream, Hollandaise suddenly becomes airy Mousseline that can be poured over fish or vegetables

Here are some other ways to use Hollandaise:

• Drizzle it over crab cakes, or use it as a dipping sauce.

• Substitute it for mayo in roasted potato salad.

Once you've mastered basic Hollandaise:

• Let another breakfast staple enjoy the creaminess of Hollandaise with this Savory Oatmeal recipe. Or take your next Caramelized Pork Bahn Mi to new heights by replacing the mayonnaise with a Sriracha-spiked Hollandaise sauce. 

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