Bring Back White Sauce — Your Food Needs It

by:

in: Soapbox

White sauce on broccoli

Whatever happened to white sauce? Has that wonderfully comforting creamy sauce thickened with butter and flour disappeared for good from our plates? Forty years ago white sauce was as much a staple as gravy, the foundation of fritters and soups, soufflés and fricassées, and indeed the starting point for a whole family of Southern cream sauces. There was a time when we revelled in chicken à la king and creamed oysters and onions au gratin.

The rot began with nouvelle cuisine, that short-lived French aberration which one chef called “a little bit of nothing on a big white plate.” Flour was banned from the kitchen in favor of “light” butter-mounted sauces that relied on meat reductions and glazes for flavor. Flour, it was claimed, led to heavy, sticky, lumpy sauces with a depressing resemblance to library paste. Well of course it didif the sauce was badly made.

Fussy pretenders

But the new butter emulsions proved far trickier, needing a careful hand to create them, and a constant watch to maintain just the right temperature so they did not break. In a home kitchen, few cooks had the sharp eye and quick turn of the whisk needed for such fragile constructions. Professional chefs heaved a sigh, tried a few gimmicks like vacuum flasks for keeping such sauces warm (not hot), and moved on. Cooking the finicky embellishments to order was the only realistic approach, too labor-intensive for all but the most expensive restaurants.

Sauces began to disappear, revealing the naked ingredients that had been artfully hidden underneath. Poached fish fillets and boneless chicken breasts were stripped, shivering on the plate. Colorful sides of vegetables were not enough. To hide the misery, the food would be coated in a colorful rub, or topped with a fresh chutney or relish. Flavors took on a new kick with global outreach. Once-exotic fresh ginger and chili, soy, sesame oil and cilantro became commonplace. Sriracha took pride of place in front of the Worcestershire sauce in the pantry. The underlying ingredients were masked, enabling parsimonious cooks to economize on quality — who would notice a stringy bit of chicken or a bland, mushy fish beneath a blizzard of conflicting flavors? But let’s not be cynical.

I’m on a campaign to revive white sauce and its cousin velouté, made with the cooking broth from the main ingredient. When young cooks come into the kitchen, one of the first things I show them is white sauce, and invariably they look mystified. I make them whisk a butter and flour roux in a figure  eight, then stir in the milk and bring to a boil over medium heat. Quick, simple, with constant whisking the key until the sauce thickens. “But it’s easy!” they exclaim.

So I’m urging a return to homemade macaroni cheese and those vegetable gratins of chard or spinach topped with white sauce and a luscious crust of grated Gruyère. How about lobster mornay and veal blanquette and chicken divan? I yearn for a delicate fillet of sole, poached in fish stock and white wine that is used for the glistening coating of sauce suprême. Escoffier knew what he was doing!

White Sauce

Use white sauce to thicken soups and stews, or to bind gratins of cooked vegetables. Thin white sauce gives the creamy texture to macaroni and cheese or layered pastas such as lasagne. Thick white sauce binds fritters and forms a base for soufflés. 

Makes 2 cups  

Ingredients

3 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons flour

2 cups cold whole milk

Salt and white pepper to taste

 Note: For thick white sauce, use 4-5 tablespoons each of butter and flour for 2 cups of milk. For thin white sauce, use 2 tablespoons each of butter and flour for 2 cups of milk.

 Directions

1. Melt the butter in a heavy-based saucepan, whisk in the flour and cook until bubbling. Take from the heat and whisk in the milk (it should be cold), pouring it in all at once. Season with salt and white pepper if you have it (so the white sauce is not spotted with black pepper).

2. Return the pan to medium heat and bring the sauce to a simmer, whisking constantly until it thickens, just below boiling point. Lower the heat and simmer 1-2 minutes to thoroughly cook the flour. If by any chance some lumps have formed, simply work the sauce through a strainer into a bowl. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

3. To store white sauce, pour it into a bowl and while still warm cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap so a skin does not form.  The sauce will do fine in the refrigerator up to 2 days. It will have thickened slightly when reheated, so stir in a little more milk.

Variations

Cream Sauce

After the sauce thickens, whisk in 2-3 tablespoons crème fraîche and simmer 1-2 minutes longer. Taste and adjust seasoning. 

Cheese (Mornay) Sauce  

After white sauce has simmered, take it from the heat and whisk in 3-4 tablespoons grated Gruyère cheese or 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan. Taste and adjust seasoning. Do not recook the sauce as it will form strings.

Parsley Sauce

After simmering, whisk 3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley into the sauce, taste and adjust seasoning. Good with fish, especially salmon.

Top photo: White sauce over broccoli. Credit: Nicole Quessenberry


This week’s Zester Soapbox contributor, Anne Willan is the co-author of “The Cookbook Library: Four Centuries of the Cooks, the Writers, and the Recipes that Made the Modern Cookbook,” published in April 2012 by the University of California Press.

recommend

Email

PRINT

Comments

Elaine Corn
on: 2/19/13
Thank you! It never left my kitchen. I also felt so retrograde making it the past two decades, yet my husband, a Chinese chef, and I love it. I can't start mushroom soup without white sauce.
josephine
on: 2/19/13
Bravo and well said! Long live white sauce and I second your campaign. A very well written post with much more thinking behind it than the mere subject of white sauce might imply ...
Rachel Brady
on: 2/19/13
Couldn't agree more! Once you know how to make a white sauce, the world is your... well, oyster! I make many things: lasagne, fish pie, macaroni cheese... but your article has reminded me that a good old plain white sauce, or indeed with parsley can be just as nice. Thanks : ) Rachel x
michlhw
on: 2/19/13
thank you! white sauce deserves a revival. must. make. this. when reheated, can this be done in a microwave in short bursts? what do you recommend?
Elizabeth
on: 2/19/13
A much appreciated reminder that inspiration lays not necessarily around, but behind, every corner, from a true master.
Susan Lutz
on: 2/19/13
Count me in! My girls (ages 3 and 6) will eat almost anything if it's covered in a delicious cheese sauce. I use that as my excuse, but I must admit that I love it as much as they do.
Maggie Drake
on: 2/20/13
Thanks, I just made a Mornay sauce for hot browns, and now my husband is asking for it again. I use these sauces sparingly, but with gusto and enjoyment.
katherine leiner
on: 2/20/13
How about substituting almond flour for the wheat flour? Gluten-free!
Anne Willan
on: 2/21/13
Thank you for all of the kind comments. For reheating white sauce, I recommend the traditional way in its orginal saucepan over medium heat whisking until almost boiling. Add more milk if necessary to bring back to original consistency.
Todd Schulkin
on: 2/22/13
What's the difference (if any) between White Sauce and Bechamel?
KarenLM
on: 2/25/13
White sauce was the first real thing i learned to cook. My mom told me once i learned it i was ready to make gravy, soup, macooni & cheese and all sorts of things. Even gumbo! For years after, i was 'in charge' of anything requiring such a sauce.
Barbara lauterbach
on: 2/28/13
Bravo Anne! I am instructing my 7 year old granddaughter in the art of white sauce, and then we'll move on to the variations, Veloute, Mornay, etc. Thank you for calling attention to this subject! It's a definite must in one's basic repetoire.
ellie
on: 10/4/13
THIS IS NOT HELPFUL. WHAT CAN YOU YOU USE WHITE SAUCE WITH??

Add a comment