French cuisine is renowned for its sauces, often considered the cornerstone of its culinary supremacy. Here’s a guide to ten classic French sauces that are essential to any aspiring chef’s repertoire:
Velouté (or Rich White Sauce)
This foundational sauce, a staple for many white sauces, is made from a roux mixed with either a stock or a fumet. It serves as a base for numerous sauces such as poulette (with mushrooms, butter, and parsley), suprême (with chicken broth, cream, butter, and egg yolks), and normande (with fish stock and oyster juice).
Attributed to Louis de Béchamel, maître d’hôtel to Louis XIV, béchamel is a roux with milk, seasoned with a pinch of nutmeg. It’s a versatile sauce used in vegetable gratins, lasagna, and “œufs à la béchamel.” Béchamel can be transformed into a Mornay sauce with the addition of egg yolks and grated Emmental cheese, into a sauce aurore with tomato sauce, and into an ivory sauce when mixed with chicken broth.
Espagnole (Brown Sauce)
A cornerstone among the brown sauces, Espagnole includes bacon and aromatic vegetables (carrots, onions, thyme, bay leaf) deglazed with white wine and enriched with tomatoes. Its derivative, the demi-glace, is finished with dry Madeira wine.
Américaine (or Armorican Sauce)
Originally called “armoricaine,” this sauce was mistakenly renamed “américaine.” It’s made with lobster heads or, in a modern twist, with smaller crabs or green crabs. The crustaceans are sautéed in oil, flambéed with cognac, and simmered with a stock. It’s characterized by its lobster-red color from the addition of tomatoes and cayenne or Espelette pepper.
A classic accompaniment for beef, as well as white meats and grilled fish, béarnaise is made from a reduction of shallots, tarragon, pepper, and vinegar, to which egg yolks are added. The sauce is finished with butter. Variations include Choron (with tomato fondue) and paloise (with mint replacing tarragon).
Based on a demi-glace, Bordelaise sauce is made with a reduction of Bordeaux wine, shallots, peppercorns, thym, bay leaf, and beef marrow. It’s a perfect match for red meats.
A lemony sauce essential for Eggs Benedict, hollandaise is made by whisking egg yolks into a sabayon and then incorporating clarified butter. When flavored with orange zest and juice, it becomes a maltaise sauce.
A sauce for game, poivrade is made with game trimmings, red wine, aromatic vegetables, and cracked pepper. Its variation, with redcurrant jelly and cream, is known as a venison sauce. It’s distinct from the grand-veneur sauce, which is a clear poivrade sauce thickened with hare’s blood.
This sauce, which can be served hot or cold, balances the richness of certain dishes like calf’s head. It’s based on a vinaigrette with fresh herbs when cold, and on a poultry velouté mounted with butter, chervil, and chives when hot. It’s often confused with gribiche, which is always served cold and made from sieved hard-boiled egg yolks, pickles, capers, herbs, and chopped eggs.
A versatile sauce that starts with peeled tomatoes sautéed with smoked bacon, carrots, and onions in olive oil. It’s enhanced with chicken stock, garlic, thyme, bay leaf, and a touch of sugar. It complements eggplant gratin, adds depth to bolognese, or simply dresses white fish.