The 5 master sauces in French cuisine

The 5 master sauces in French cuisine
Scott Daniels

Chimichurri is great with steaks, broiled poultry, hearty fish, cauliflower and mashed potatoes.


An awful lot of us, if social media is to be believed, spent our forced time indoors through 2020 baking, especially sourdough breads.

You can’t go far wrong in learning anything new, and now we have the ability to bake a loaf of great bread anytime we want. If we have to spend much of this year still kept away from others, perhaps we can make 2021 the Year of Mastering Sauces.

Many classic cookbooks are arranged with sauces being the next step after first getting the knack of stocks, and for good reason; they build upon one another and give you a good base on which to pile up skills that are indispensable for serious cooking.

I’m often surprised, however, to find a restaurant chef who relies exclusively on ready-made sauces. A local fine dining joint recently advertised their weekend special, which was a filet mignon plopped on a bed of egg noodles and drowned in mushroom gravy from a bag in the walk-in fridge. This is where the Trump years have landed us.

There are five master sauces in French cuisine on which most, if not all, other sauces around the world are based or to which they can be traced. Most begin with a fat and flour mixture, or roux, which is then combined with a liquid.

The first sauce most of us learn to make is the white, or béchamel sauce, which is equal parts flour and butter with added milk or cream. Build it up by adding cheese and you have Mornay. Add mustard for mustard sauce.

A veloté begins again with the roux and then gets an addition of chicken, vegetable or fish stock, depending on its final use.

An espagnole starts with a roux cooked slowly until it browns along with diced onions, carrots and celery and is finished with a rich beef stock. This third sauce can be varied to become others with the addition or red wine, or more stock and tomato paste, or other flavorings.

The classic French tomato sauce is a roux with the addition of tomatoes. Many cuisines skip the roux and simply use time to reduce and thicken the sauce.

And then there is Hollandaise, a mixture of egg yolks, butter and an acid, usually lemon juice. It becomes béarnaise when we add shallots and vinegar instead of lemon.

If you’re serving dinners without some kind of sauce, you’re missing the addition that brings everything together, along with a whole lot of extra flavor. Broccoli is just a necessary evil until you add Mornay or Hollandaise. A pork chop is just a meat course until it gets a rich, browned gravy to nestle into.

Once you get past these five essential sauces, there are literally hundreds of variations and sauces that are unique to specific cuisines and cultures. Still, others can be difficult to classify, one of which I want to share with you today — chimichurri.

It’s simple to make, requires no cooking and pairs with just about anything. It’s slightly spicy and a bit sour, and if you add enough garlic, you’ll taste it the next day. Chimichurri is great with steaks, broiled poultry, hearty fish, cauliflower and even the snowflake mashed potatoes I shared with you last month. This also can be used as a marinade.


1 shallot, finely diced

1 jalapeno chili, finely diced

1 mild red chili, finely diced

3-4 garlic cloves, finely diced

1/2 cup red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro

1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano

3/4 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil

Mix together the shallot, chilies, garlic, vinegar and salt and allow to sit for 10 minutes. Add the herbs and then whisk in the olive oil. Allow to stand at room temperature for a while to give the flavors a chance to combine and serve alongside a savory course.

Recipe: Bon Appetit

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