Developed over centuries of haute cuisine, French chefs have an arsenal of more than 100 sauces to bring out the best in both classic and contemporary dishes.
Text by Cherrie Yu, photos by Samantha Sin
Special thanks to Épure
Here are 10 French sauces which you absolutely need to know in order to nurture your kitchen confidence and prepare a range of recipes like a pro:
A vinegar-based chunky green sauce served cold or warm, it is generally made from vinegar, a type of oil, onion, herbs such as tarragon and parsley, seasoned with capers, salt, pepper, and often with Dijon mustard. It can be served with fish or tête de veau (veal head slowly poached with carrots and onions). Warming the ravigote sauce draws out the acidity from the gelatine in the veal. Avoid overheating as this may affect the parsley flavour.
A “daughter sauce” derived from classic Hollandaise, Béarnaise can be made with white wine or white wine vinegar for the reduction with shallots, tarragon and crushed black pepper. Then let it cool before whisking egg yolks until thickened, and add in clarified butter while whisking. Timing is crucial to perfecting this emulsion. For food pairing, it goes well with steak and fish.
This red wine sauce is derived from sauce espagnole and is typically paired with steak or snails. Because of its high butter content and relatively light taste, it also goes well with white fish. It’s made by reducing a mixture of chopped shallots and red wine – preferably a dry red from Bordeaux – before adding in the reduced brown veal stock. Then add small cubes of fresh butter.
A common mother sauce used in many restaurants. Temperature control and patience is key to making this sauce through emulsification: using a binding agent (whisking egg yolks and water over a bain marie until thickened), to join together two ingredients that don’t mix well, which refers to clarified butter and lemon juice. It is most commonly served with a variety of vegetable dishes, including asparagus and artichokes. Or opt for a classic eggs Benedict or white fish such as cod and halibut.
This rich and creamy mother sauce starts with a white roux – made by boiling equal quantities of melted butter and flour – into which milk or cream is poured. There are many ways to flavour this sauce: salt and pepper, grated nutmeg, or traditionally by simmering the mixture with lean veal and onions. Setting a base for most butter and cream sauces, Béchamel goes well with the classic croque monsieur, macaroni and cheese (simply stir in grated melting cheeses like cheddar to the mixture) or get creative by piping into pastry puffs, topped with cheese and baked.
This classic orange-yellow cold sauce is made from olive oil, garlic, egg yolk, salt, chilli peppers and occasionally with saffron threads. It is typically served with Provence’s famous bouillabaisse, fish stew made from coastal fish such as John Dory, red gurnard and scorpion fish. Small local fish also work well (big fish tend to have a stronger, more bitter taste). A reduction of bouillabaisse stock can be added to the rouille for extra flavour.
In French gastronomic encyclopedia Larousse Gastronomique, this soupy blonde mother sauce is made by stirring white stock made from veal, fish or chicken into a white roux ( flour and butter), then simmered for 30 minutes. Then strain the sauce through a cloth and stir until completely cold. This is a flavourful starting point for making mushroom sauces and shrimp sauce (for shrimp bisque). Boutin suggests flavouring this sauce with different vegetables to be simmered together, such as cauliflower velouté paired with grilled cauliflower.
Perhaps one of the most versatile sauces, this slow-cooked red sauce can be used warm or cold. Boutin makes this with fried carrots and onions, fresh tomatoes, garlic, blanched lean ham, cayenne, and herbs such as basil and coriander. Adding vegetable stock to the sauce is optional. Tomato sauce with poached eggs is a popular children’s meal in the Poitou-Charentes region of western France. In restaurants, it is typically served with meatballs and pasta but also goes well with rice, fish, chicken, potatoes, beef, pork, and vegetables.
Literally translated as “sauce of the pork butcher”, this sauce is a classic accompaniment to white meat and particularly pork chop and potato purée, this daughter of espagnole sauce is a hot brown sauce with crunchy chopped cornichons. It’s made by frying onion and garlic in a covered pan, then adding tomato purée, white wine and veal stock and simmering. Once reduced, stir in diced cornichons and mustard.
This flavour-loaded brown sauce comes from a brown roux (slowly cooking butter and plain flour until light brown), mirepoix (chopped carrots, onions and celery), together with mushrooms, tomatoes and brown stock from veal bones or beef. Pass it through a fine sieve to yield a smooth texture. This sets a main basis for other sauces, for example adding more beef stock to make a demi-glace to pair with roast lamb. Although rarely served alone it still makes a good accompaniment for braised meat such as beef cheeks or oxtail.
All sauces prepared by Nicholas Boutin, executive chef at Épure.