What is Sauce? Importance, Thickening Agents, Mother Sauces

  • Post last modified:5 July 2023
  • Reading time:25 mins read
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What is Sauce?

The sauce is a thickened liquid that is flavored or seasoned to enhance the flavor of the food that it is to accompany. The sauce can be sweet, sour, spicy, or savory and may be added to the food to become part of a main dish or used as an accompaniment to the food being prepared. Sauces add a variety of features to foods, such as complimenting or enhancing flavors, succulence, attractive appearance, and additional texture.

Imporatance of Sauces

  • A sauce enhances the flavor.

  • The sauce-like white sauce adds creaminess to firm and dry food thus giving moistness to the food.

  • Sauces like mint sauce, and apple sauce with roast pork help in digestion.

  • The sauce adds color to the food.

  • Sauce served as an accompaniment, sometimes gives a contrasting taste to another food.

  • Sauce enhances the nutritional value of the dish.

  • The sauce gives tartness and contrasts or balances a bland food. Example: Devil sauce served with eggs gives appealing tartness.

  • The sauce makes food more palatable.

Thickening Agents Used in Sauces

Sauces, unless they’re just type sauces, shouldn’t be thin and watery. There are many ways to thicken a sauce. The following are a few sauce-thickening agents:

  • Cornstarch: Cornstarch is flour. It is the endosperm of corn kernels that have been dried and ground, much the same way that wheat flour is made (in England cornstarch is called cornflour). Like other flours, cornstarch makes a good thickening agent. It is frequently used in Asian cooking and a clear sheen is typical of sauces thickened with cornstarch.

  • Flour and making a roux: Used as a thickening agent for sauces, the traditional roux is equal amounts of flour and fat (usually butter) cooked together. The length of time that the flour is cooked depends on the color of the sauce being made. Cooked for a short time, the roux has little color and is used for white sauces. As cooked longer, the flour browns and results in a darker sauce.

  • Eggs yolks and cream: Yolks or cream are added as a finishing agent at the end of cooking. The product is never boiled when liaison is added, or it would curdle. The reason is added to thicken delicate cream or veloute sauces or cream soups.

Mother Sauces

Mother sauces are also called Grand Sauces. These are the five most basic sauces that every cook should master. Antonin Careme, founding father of French “grande cuisine,” came up with the methodology in the early 1800s by which hundreds of sauces would be categorized under five Mother Sauces, and there are infinite possibilities for variations since the sauces are all based on a few basic formulas. The five Mother Sauces are:

  • Béchamel: sauces that are made with milk and pale roux. Common sauces in this group include Crème, Mornay, and Soubise.

  • Brown (demi-glace) or Espagnole: sauces that are brown stock-based, such as brown sauces. Common sauces in this group include bordelaise, chasseur, chateaubriand, diable, diane, estragon, lyonnaise, madère, madeira, and zingara.

  • Velouté: sauces that are made with white stock and roux. Common sauces in this group include allemande, ravigote, suprème, and white bordelaise.

  • Red or Tomato Sauces: tomato-based sauces. Common sauces in this category include spaghetti sauce, marinara, and a wide variety of tomato sauces.

  • Emulsions: sauces that are emulsified such as hollandaise or mayonnaise.

Béchamel Sauce

Béchamel sauce ( pronounced (bay-shah-mel) also known as the white sauce is usually made today by whisking scalded milk gradually into a white flour-butter roux, though it can also be made by whisking a kneaded flour-butter beurre manié into scalded milk. The thickness of the final sauce depends on the proportions of milk and flour.

Sauce béchamel is one of the very few French sauces that are easy to prepare but is flavorful and delicate enough to serve on its own or as the basis for some fifty more complex sauces. This sauce is widely used with vegetables, eggs, fish, poultry, hot hors d’oeuvres, and dishes that are finished under the grill.

Béchamel sauce is the base for several other classic sauces including Mornay sauce (cheese); Nantua sauce (shrimp, butter, and cream); Crème sauce (heavy cream); Mustard sauce (prepared mustard); Soubise sauce (finely diced onions that have been sweated in butter); Cheddar cheese sauce (cheddar cheese, dry mustard, Worcestershire sauce)

Preparation of Béchamel Sauce

Béchamel sauce can be prepared in two ways. The first recipe that follows is considered traditional and takes more than an hour to prepare. The second is a quick method and will take only about 5 minutes. Some people prefer the first method. Others say that it is impossible to tell the difference between the two. Cooks can try both methods at least once before deciding on which method best suits their needs.

Clarified butter5 Tbsp
Very lean veal, cut in small dice50 gms
Flour5 Tbsp
Milk, brought to a boil before using3 cups
Onion, chopped2 Tbsp
Thyme1 small sprig
Bay leaf1
Nutmeg1 pinch
Salt and White pepper to taste
Béchamel Sauce – Traditional Method
  • In a small skillet melt 1 Tbsp. of the butter and in this cook the veal gently without allowing it to brown.

  • In a saucepan melt the remaining butter and to this add the flour and cook together over a low flame, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon for 5 minutes.

  • To this mixture (which is known as a “roux”), add the boiling milk, mix well, add the veal and remaining ingredients, and simmer very gently for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Strain through a cloth.

  • If not using the sauce immediately, float a thin film of milk or melted butter on the top of the sauce and set aside uncovered, or keep it hot by placing it in the top pot of a double boiler over hot but not boiling water.

Brown (Demi-glace) or Espagnole Sauce

The basic method of making espagnole is to prepare a very dark brown roux, to which are added several gallons of veal stock or water, along with 20–30 lb (9–14 kg) of browned bones, pieces of beef, many pounds of vegetables, and various seasonings. This blend is allowed to slowly reduce while being frequently skimmed. The classical recipe calls for additional veal stock to be added as the liquid gradually reduces but today water is generally used instead. Tomato sauce is added towards the end of the process, and the sauce is further reduced.

Espagnole has a strong taste and is rarely used directly on food. As a mother sauce, however, it then serves as the starting point for many derivative sauces. A typical espagnole recipe takes many hours or even several days to make and produces four to five quarts of sauce. In most derivative recipes, however, one cup of espagnole is more than enough, so the basic recipe will yield enough sauce for 16 to 20 meals. Frozen in small quantities, Espagnole will keep practically indefinitely.

Preparation of Espagnole

Yield: 1 ltr
Fat30 gms
Flour70 gms
Tomato puree30 gms
Brown stock1¼ gms
Mirepoix1 cup
Fresh pork rind finely chopped3 gms
Parsley, Celery, and Bay Leaf
Cut the vegetables into an appropriate size based on the cooking time of the dish

Velouté Sauce

Velouté or blond sauce is a bechamel sauce made with stock instead of milk. In preparing a velouté sauce, a light stock (one in which the bones used have not been roasted), such as chicken, veal, or fish stock, is thickened with a blond roux.

Thus the ingredients of a velouté are butter and flour to form the roux, a light chicken, veal, or fish stock, and salt and pepper for seasoning. Commonly the sauce produced will be referred to by the type of stock used e.g. chicken velouté.

It is often served on poultry or seafood dishes and is used as the base for other sauces. Sauces derived from a velouté sauce include allemande sauce (by adding lemon juice, egg yolks, and cream), suprême sauce (by adding mushrooms and cream to a chicken velouté), and bercy sauce (by adding shallots and white wine to a fish velouté).

Preparation of Velouté Sauc

Yield: 1 ¾ cup1½ cup
White stock (veal, chicken, or fish)1½ cup
Unsalted butter2 tbsp
Flour3 tbsp
Salt & Pepper, to taste
Velouté Sauce
  • In a medium-sized saucepan melt the butter.

  • Remove the pan from the stove and quickly stir in the flour.

  • Return the pan to the heat and cook the paste mixture, stirring frequently until it turns pale and straw-like in color. This should take several minutes.

  • Take the pan off the heat again and whisk or stir in half of the stock. Make sure that the paste has dissolved and a liquid has formed without any lumps.

  • Return the pan to the heat and stir in the remaining stock. Bring the liquid to a gentle simmer.

  • Reduce the heat but continue to simmer the sauce for about 25 minutes, stirring from time to time and skimming off any skin that forms on the top.

  • Once the sauce has reached the desired consistency, season with salt and pepper and strain the sauce through a sieve.

Tomato Sauce

A tomato sauce is any of a very large number of sauces made primarily out of tomatoes, usually to be served as part of a dish (rather than as a condiment). Tomato sauces are common for meat and vegetables, but they are perhaps best known as sauces for pasta dishes.

Tomatoes have a rich flavor, a low liquid content, very soft flesh which breaks down easily, and the right composition to thicken up into a sauce when they are cooked (without the need for thickeners like roux). All of these make them ideal for simple and appealing sauces.

The simplest tomato sauces consist just of chopped tomato flesh (with the skins and seeds optionally removed), cooked in a little olive oil and simmered until it loses its raw flavor, and seasoned with salt.

Water (or another, more flavorful liquid such as stock or wine) is often added to keep it from drying out too much. Onion and garlic are almost always sweated or sauteed at the beginning before the tomato is added. Other seasonings typically include basil, oregano, parsley, and possibly some spicy red pepper or black pepper. Ground or chopped meat is also common.

Sauces derived from tomato sauce are Bretonne; Tomated Chaudfroid; Portugaise; Italienne; Barbecue; Green tomato sauce; Salsa; Puttanesca; Tomato gravy.

Preparation of Tomato Sauce

Yield: 1 cup
Fresh tomatoes1 kg
Olive oil1tbsp
Onion peeled and chopped1
Garlic cloves peeled and crushed3
Brown sugar
Salt and freshly milled black pepper
Tomato Sauce
  • Put the tomatoes in a big bowl. Pour boiling water over the tomatoes until everyone is submerged. After a few minutes drain the tomatoes and hold them under running cold water. Slip their skins off.

  • Heat the oil in a medium saucepan, then add the onion and garlic and let them gently cook for 5-6 minutes, until they are softened and golden. Now add the tomatoes. Simmer the tomatoes on a very low heat, without a lid for 1½ hours or until all the liquid had evaporated and the tomatoes are reduced to a thick, jam-like consistency, stirring now and then.

  • Add salt and pepper to taste.

  • If the sauce is extremely acidic add brown sugar in teaspoon increments.


The emulsion is a mixture of two liquids that normally can’t be combined. Combining oil and water is the classic example. Emulsifying is done by slowly adding one ingredient to another while simultaneously mixing rapidly. This disperses and suspends tiny droplets of one liquid through another.

However, the two liquids would quickly separate again if an emulsifier were not added. Emulsifiers are liaisons between the two liquids and serve to stabilize the mixture. Eggs and gelatin are among the foods that contain emulsifiers. In mayonnaise, the emulsifier is egg yolk, which contains lecithin, a fat emulsifier. Emulsion sauces are hollandaise and mayonnaise.

Hollandaise Sauce

Hollandaise Sauce (pronounced HOL-un-dayz). This is an emulsion of butter and lemon juice using egg yolks as the emulsifying agent, usually seasoned with salt and a little black pepper or cayenne pepper. It is served hot with vegetables, fish, and eggs (like egg benedict). It will be a pale lemon color, opaque, but with a luster not appearing oily. The basic sauce and its variations should have a buttery-smooth texture, almost frothy, and an aroma of good butter.

Hollandaise requires some skill and knowledge to prepare; care must also be taken to store it properly after preparation. Properly made, the sauce should be smooth and creamy. The flavor should be rich and buttery, with a mild tang added by the lemon juice and seasonings.

It must be made and served warm, not hot. If the ingredients are emulsified improperly by over-or under-heating them they will separate, resulting in the sauce “breaking” from the emulsion and the yolks coagulating from excessive heat. The sauce may be portioned and frozen for future use. When ready to use, let it come to room temperature; some stirring may be required.

The following list is a non-exhaustive listing of minor sauces created by adding ingredients to Hollandaise Sauce (as a ‘mother sauce’): Sauce Mousseline; Sauce Béarnaise; Sauce Maltaise; Sauce Divine; Sauce Noisette; Sauce Bavaroise; Sauce Colbert.

Preperation of Hollandaise Sauce

Yield: 1 cup
White-wine vinegar2 tbsp
Cold water2 tbsp
Salt¼ tsp
White pepper to taste
Egg yolks3
Unsalted butter, cut into tbsp. pieces1 cup
Unsalted butter, cut into tbsp. pieces2 tbsp
Cayenne¾ tsp
Hollandaise Sauce
  • Boil vinegar, 2 tablespoons water, salt, and white pepper in a 1½-quart heavy saucepan until reduced to about 2 tablespoons. Remove from heat and stir in the remaining tablespoon of water.

  • Whisk in yolks, then cook over very low heat, whisking constantly, until thickened (be careful not to scramble yolks), about 1 minute. Whisk in butter 1 piece at a time, lifting the pan occasionally to cool the sauce and adding each piece before the previous one is completely melted.

  • Remove from heat and whisk in lemon juice, cayenne, and salt to taste.


Mayonnaise (often abbreviated mayo) is a thick condiment, whitish-yellow in color. Mayonnaise is a basic cold sauce. It is used as a salad dressing and as an accompaniment.

Mayonnaise is made by combining lemon juice or vinegar with egg yolks. Eggs (containing the emulsifier lecithin) bind the ingredients together and prevent separation. Then, oil is added drop by drop as the mixture is rapidly whisked. Adding oil too quickly (or insufficient, rapid whisking) will keep the two liquids from combining (emulsifying).

But, as the sauce begins to thicken, oil can be added more rapidly. Seasonings are whisked in after all of the oil has been added. Worldwide, mayonnaise is most commonly served in a sandwich, or with salad such as potato salad or canned tuna (“tuna mayo” or tuna salad). Numerous other sauces can be created from it by adding additional seasonings.

Mayonnaise is the base for many other chilled sauces and salad dressings. For example:

  • Aïoli is olive-oil mayonnaise combined with garlic.

  • Rouille is aïoli with added red pepper or paprika.

  • Tartar sauce is mayonnaise spiced with pickled cucumbers and onion. Capers, olives, and crushed hardboiled eggs are sometimes included. A simpler recipe calls for sweet pickle relish and more lemon juice.

  • Fry sauce is a mixture of mayonnaise, ketchup, or another red sauce.

  • Mayonesa is a lime-flavored mayonnaise, usually found in Mexican or Spanish grocers in North America.

  • Ranch dressing is made of buttermilk or sour cream, mayonnaise, and minced green onion, along with other seasonings.

  • Honey Mustard is made primarily of mayonnaise and includes lemon juice, mustard, and brown sugar.

Preparation of Mayonnaise

Egg yolks2
Vegetable or olive oil340 ml
Lemon juice or white wine vinegar1 tbsp
Dijon mustard1-2 tsp
Salt and pepper
  • In a large mixing bowl whisk together the egg yolks with a pinch of salt.

  • Add one drop of oil to the egg yolks and whisk together with an electric whisk.

  • Continue to add one drop of oil at a time, whisking continuously until the mixture begins to blend together and thicken. The process is to add one drop of oil and then blend it in before adding the next drop. This will take several minutes.

  • After a quarter of the oil has been blended, add the lemon juice or vinegar and beat into the mixture.

  • Continue to whisk in the remaining oil, which you should be able to add a lot quicker by now, in a thin stream.

  • Once all the oil has been beaten in, add the mustard to give extra taste and season with salt and pepper.

  • If the mayonnaise is too thick, you can whisk in a few teaspoons of boiling water.

  • Chill the mayonnaise in the refrigerator before serving.
Article Reference
  • Peterson James (1998), Sauces, John Wiley & Sons.

  • Sokolov, Raymond (1976), The Saucier’s Apprentice, Knopf.

  • McGee, Harold (1984), On Food and Cooking, Macmillan.

  • McGee, Harold (1990), The Curious Cook, Macmillan.

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