Cooking Techniques: White Sauce

Something simple yet versatile….

Every August finds me and my family up in the mountains of the Adirondacks where my husband’s family has been managing a forest for 60 years. Driving to the nearest major highway might get me two to three bars on my cell phone.  If I want to use the internet, I have to drive down into the local town to the library. Television viewing is limited to VHS tapes watched on a VCR. The radio picks up two stations, one of which is in Canadian French; and the house we stay in lacks modern amenities such as my coveted food processor, though we did upgrade the oven a couple of years ago from the kerosene/electric version to just plain electric.

For a number of years now I’ve been chief cook for the duration of my family’s stay, catering for dinners we have with the many folks who work for the family forest. While I enjoy the cooking, every summer I am reminded why modern conveniences such as food processors and hand blenders and Kitchen Aids are a joy to have in one’s kitchen. Chopping veggies for a ratatouille to feed 16 people takes about 5 minutes in my food processor — about five times as long by hand. A hand blender can turn lumps smooth in seconds — no matter how long you mash or stir with a masher or wire whisk, you’ll never get a puree. With a Kitchen Aid you can make a cake in minutes — creaming butter by hand takes a lot longer than one imagines it will.

As such, I love it when I can make something spectacular with little time and energy, so upon my return home I was thrilled to see a request for something “simple yet versatile.” My answer is just as simple: a basic white sauce.

White sauce is usually just milk, flour, and butter. On a stove top, you melt the butter (usually about 1/4 cup), stir in the flour (about 1/4 cup), add the milk (about two cups), and continuously stir until the sauce thickens. That’s it. Takes about 2 minutes.

But what you can do with a white sauce is amazing:

  1. You can adapt it to your needs: Have food allergies? You can use any type of “milk”, any type of flour, and any type of “butter” as a substitute. Trying to eat healthier? You can substitute 2 tbsp of olive oil for the butter or you can even omit the butter entirely and just stir about 1/2 cup of the flour into the milk and cook and stir until it thickens.
  2. You can add herbs and spices of any type. You want a curry sauce? Add curry powder. You want a garlic sauce? Simmer with minced garlic or stir in garlic powder. You want to try something a little different? Mix in a lot of thyme with a little bit of nutmeg.
  3. You can change-up the sauce: Want a cheesy sauce? Stir in shredded cheese or slowly melt in cream cheese. Want something with a more adult taste? Substitute a 1/4 cup of the milk with sherry or white wine or vodka. Want something a little less “milky”? Substitute half of the milk with a fat free, low sodium broth such as chicken or vegetable.
  4. You can add vegetables and meats: Looking for a veggie sauce to put over pasta or fish? Saute leeks, mushrooms and spinach and add to the white sauce with black pepper, thyme, and minced garlic. Want a nice sauce to use turn your leftover rice into a casserole? Chop leftover ham and chicken and throw it into a white sauce you’ve seasoned with curry powder.
  5. You can use it for anything: Like to make casseroles? Change up a white sauce to mix into any type of casserole — rice, pasta, veggie, meat…. Want to jazz up the side veggies or the chicken or fish? Make a sauce with freshly chopped herbs. Have just a little bit of leftover meats and veggies which you’re not sure how to use up? Throw them all into a more thickly made white sauce and serve them with toast triangles to the family.
  6. You can even use it for dessert: Want to jazz up your pie when you serve it? Make a slightly thinner white sauce sweetened with a little bit of agave with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Looking for a nice topping for bread pudding? Make a vanilla white sauce by steeping vanilla beans in your milk before making the sauce. Want something to contrast with your chocolate cake? Make a sauce adding white chocolate which you can drizzle over the cake.
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