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In French cuisine, the grand sauces, also referred to as the mother sauces, are an assemblage of fundamental sauces from which a plethora of secondary or derivative sauces are made. This is not to say that the grand sauces cannot stand alone. They are frequently employed in their unadulterated state in a variety of dishes. Nevertheless they can just as readily be morphed into any number of spin-offs. The specific sauces included in this elite club have changed somewhat over the years and even to this day there is still some divergence of opinion. To understand the codification of the grand sauces, we must look to French culinary history.
In 1789 the French revolution began. The king and queen were not the only ones getting the ax. The aristocracy in general was targeted and subsequently this meant pink slips for the country’s chefs as well. Until that time, professional chefs worked privately, cooking for the nobility and upper classes. The decline of the patriciate meant that chefs had to look elsewhere for work and hence the modern restaurant was born.
Chefs who had worked for the wealthy had unlimited resources and staff. But now as individual restaurant owners, they had to bare all of the expenditures. Food had to be prepared in a cost-saving manner. Economics thus demanded that the professional kitchen be systematized. Raw materials, methodology, recipes, and staff assignments gradually became organized and/or standardized in the interest of efficiency.
Marie-Antoine Carême (1784-1833), known as the “king of chefs” and considered the founder of grand cuisine, was a seminal figure in the emergence, proliferation, and systemization of classic French cooking. One of his many accomplishments included the classification of the grand sauces. Carême identified espagnole, (a.k.a. brown sauce), velouté, béchamel, and allemande as the grand or mother sauces.
Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935), was a chef, teacher, and restaurateur who continued Carême’s work. He made landmark strides in the systematization of French cuisine and the workings of the French kitchen. His influence remains to this day and is pivotal in the culinary world. His revamped classification of the grand sauces included espagnole, velouté, and béchamel. But he eliminated allemande and added tomato and hollandaise.
Escoffier eliminated allemande since it is a derivative of velouté. To make sauce allemande, you must first create a velouté. Again, the essence of a grand sauce is that it begets other sauces, not the other way around. Tomato sauce was added as tomatoes had become increasingly popular in the cuisine since Carême’s time.
Escoffier also added hollandaise which some modern chefs may take exception with. According to “Cooking Essentials,” the textbook of the Culinary Institute of America, (Donovan, Mary Deirdre, Ed., 1997, John Wiley & Sons), a sauce is considered a grand sauce if it can made in large batches and then be transformed as needed, (by adding additional flavorings or ingredients), into countless derivative sauces. Hollandaise, it is argued, cannot be made in advance and then used later to produce secondary sauces. This is because hollandaise, being an emulsion, will break if kept for an extended time. Secondary sauces from hollandaise are created immediately after, or simultaneously with the hollandaise.
Finally, some sources acknowledge demi-glace and not espagnole as a grand sauce. I never understood this variation since espagnole is a building block of demi-glace. One cannot make the latter without first making the former. Demi-glace is an unequivocal derivative of espagnole. Although some hair-splitting chefs would argue that demi-glace is the springboard from which many final sauces are made therefore rendering espagnole an intermediate step.
Be that as it may, I’m adhering to Escoffier’s classification scheme for the grand sauces: espagnole, velouté, béchamel, tomato and hollandaise. Below is a basic description and recipe for all of the grand sauces. As stated, they all give rise to many derivative sauces and I’ve offered one example for each. However, for a more comprehensive list of secondary sauces for each grand sauce, I again refer you to “Cooking Essentials,” chapter 8.