White sauces form the backbone of so much of our cooking today – simple and quick, it’s one of the first thing I like to teach beginners. And if the beginner is a child, I often start with pudding or pastry cream – just one of the thousands of recipes that start out just like a white sauce.
The classic French name is Bechamel – somehow it just sounds better, doesn’t it! Oooh la la. Knowing how to make your own will free you up from all those recipes using canned soup. By the way, many of the suggestions below are a great way to use up left over white sauce, too.
Basic White Sauce & Bechamel:
When you make a roux with flour and butter and add milk, you have a white sauce. The below all use one cup of milk, and all may be doubled. The thin sauce makes about a cup, the thicker ones just a bit less. A medium white sauce is what is used in most recipes, unless the recipe specifies something else.
- Thin White Sauce: 1 tablespoon butter, 1 tablespoon flour
- Medium White Sauce: 2 tablespoons butter, 2 tablespoons flour
- Thick White Sauce: 3 tablespoons butter, 3 tablespoons flour
- Heavy White Sauce: 4 tablespoons butter, and yes, you got it, 4 tablespoons flour.
Melt the butter and heat until foam dissipates. Add flour, whisking, cook for several minutes to lose the “floury” taste, but not so long it begins to color. Slowly add cold milk, whisking constantly, and bring to a boil, till smooth and thickened. Add a little salt to taste.
A medium white sauce should pass the ‘spoon test.’ Dip a spoon into the sauce, then run your finger down the back. If it leaves a distinct line, you have the right consistency. Unless a recipe states otherwise, most recipes call for a “medium” white sauce. It’s the standard.
To make your white sauce a standard bechamel, add 1/2 onion studded with 3 – 4 cloves, a bay leaf and a grating of nutmeg right after adding in the milk.
- Light stock or cream may be added in place of some of the milk, and sometimes a Veloute sauce (butter, flour & stock) is enriched with cream or sour cream, making a flavorful white sauce.
- White sauce loves a little acid, perhaps a squeeze from a lemon or a bit of sherry or less frequently, white wine.
- Some white sauces may be “enriched” with egg, cream, sour cream, etc.
- Although traditionally flavored with nutmeg, you may prefer, for some recipes, to season with pepper, cayenne, celery salt, a bit of chopped parley or chopped chives.
- You may choose to saute a bit of onion or shallot with the butter before adding the flour. Many standard American recipes start out with sauteing onion in the butter then adding in the flour.
- Some gravies or dishes start out with a white sauce, but stock is used to replace some of the milk.
- White sauces may be built from a base of butter and flour, although in some instances, particularly when they are a gravy, they may be built up from pan drippings.
- Hints on troubleshooting your white sauce are at the bottom of the page.
When you add cheese to a white sauce, you have another thing altogether, a Mornay sauce. You’ll often see this as a basis for cheese soups, Mac & Cheese or Cheese Rarebit.
I’ve used it on this site for Eggs Florentine and Chicken Cordon Bleu, Deconstructed, as well as several other recipes, below. The classic is half Gruyère, half Parmesan, but any good melting cheese can be used with good result.
Cheese should be always added when the white sauce is finished. Turn off the heat and add in very small amounts, whisking each bit until melted into the sauce and then adding the next bit. If the white sauce cools too much during this process, turn the heat under the pan back on to very low and gently warm back up.
Too much cheese at once, added while the white sauce is too hot, may separate the cheese and make the white sauce grainy and give it an unappealing texture.
Here’s what to do with those sauces:
Use white sauce in place of many cream of canned soups in casseroles. Please see Cream of Anything Soup for a more exact quantity and a recipe with variations to replace canned soups. This Turkey Tetrazzini called for canned soup. In the post I show two photographs, one made with the canned soup and the other, below, made with the substitute cream of anything soup, a white sauce.
Macaroni and cheese generally uses a white sauce, and a white sauce is often the basis for Scalloped Potatoes and Au Gratin Potatoes.
Even this gorgeous Green Chile (Verde) sauce napped over my Steak Chimichangas is cooked just as white sauce is; it starts with flour & butter, then stock is added. At that point, it’s technically a Veloute sauce but it’s then enriched with sour cream.
Several types of soups rely on a thin or medium white sauce for body, especially things like “Cream of” soups, Wild Rice Soups (although some use canned soups as a base, which is really nothing more than a highly processed white sauce,) cheese soups, beer soups and of course, this recipe for Beer Cheese Soup.
My Cream of Broccoli Soup starts out with a white sauce, too. Basically it’s a roux to which broth and cream is added, so technically an enriched velouté sauce.
Alfredo sauces may sometimes be made with white sauce instead of cream, and many Parmesan sauces use white sauce – white sauce is often the base for any white or chicken type of pizza.
Spinach and Vegetable Lasagnas often rely on white sauce layer, although they are almost always referred to as a Bechamel in those recipes, and even many standard Lasagne recipes have Bechamel type sauces layered in with a Red Marinara Sauce or Bolognese sauce.
Many sandwiches are served open-faced with a white or Mornay sauce spread over the top and broiled to bubbly perfection. Sometimes cheese is added to the sauce, or on top, or both.
A great use for a bit of left over white sauce is one of our favorite sandwiches: a take on the “Hot Brown.” A Croque Monsieur, a French Classic with many variations, is another lovely sandwich using a Mornay sauce.
White sauces are the base for the white Country gravy served with chicken or Chicken Fried Steak and the gravy for the classic, Biscuits and Gravy; start out with the appropriate amount of pan drippings instead of butter, add the flour and then the liquid, which is usually milk or a mixture of mostly milk and a little stock. These are generally seasoned with quite a lot of pepper and a pinch of cayenne.
Many of these gravies start out with 3 tablespoons of butter or oil, three tablespoons flour and two and a 1/2 cups of milk or liquid. I use a white sauce as a gravy, with the addition of cheese and wine for my updated version of S.O.S., Creamed “Chipped” Beef and Artichokes.
A recipe with a similar style and completely different ingredients is the classic Chicken a la King; this recipe is updated and served over Pop Overs.
Many Stroganoffs and the sauce for the Americanized version of Swedish Meatballs, which are all usually made in a similar fashion, just seasoned a bit differently, are based on White Sauce. Usually they are made a bit richer with the addition of cream or sour cream.
Creamed or au Gratin Anything
Although it seems to have gone somewhat out of style, the older ones amongst us may remember a lot of little casseroles of creamed this and creamed that, sometimes using a plain white sauce and sometimes having cheese. A lot of these recipes contained no actual cream, but simply a white sauce. Often these were called “au gratin”, especially if cheese is involved.
My grandmother often served Creamed Pearl Onions. I have vague memories of Creamed Peas and Creamed Spinach. I mentioned, above, the Creamed Chipped Beef and although it is a gravy type of concoction, it also falls into this category.
My assumption is that this was perhaps a way to stretch a small amount of left overs into a more substantial dish, and I believe recipes like this were especially popular during the Great Depression. Obviously, some things lend themselves more easily to this process, and some are still classics today.
This from one of my Grandmother’s cookbooks: “For your vegetables, or your left overs, use a thick white sauce, and simmer until thick and bubbly.” Another variation would be to pour over your vegetables, dot with butter, and bake until everything is piping hot and the top is golden and bubbly.
My thoughts on these: If using vegetables, the best results would be from using ones that aren’t over cooked to begin with, or if already cooked properly, cook the white sauce until thick and bubbly, then add the vegetables to heat in the sauce.
Croquettes from Anything:
A great way to dress up left overs or start fresh, Croquettes are just little balls of love, bits of vegetables or meats held together by a heavy white sauce, rolled in flour, crushed crackers or bread crumbs, pan-fried or deep-fried. Several items to use for croquettes that come to mind immediately are ham, fish, or broccoli, but use your imagination and your left overs!
“Spam Bites” a croquette made with Spam and pickle are actually very popular at a restaurant in St. Paul…must be a Minnesota thing…
Not only are Croquettes a great way to use other left overs, they are a perfect use for Left Over White Sauce, because they can be made in small amounts.
Again, from my Grandmother’s Cookbook: “Grind or shred your cooked food material. You will need one cup of heavy white sauce, well seasoned for every three cups of food. Make the white sauce and mix together with the ground or finely diced food. Form the material into balls, dip into the crust material (1 to 2 tablespoons per ball, estimate depending on how much you’ve made), dip into egg diluted with 1 tablespoon of water (again, estimate), then back into the crust material. Deep fry at 365 degrees till golden brown. These may be served plain or with a sauce.”
Souffle from Anything:
One of my favorite ways to use a left over white sauce or Mornay (or a favorite reason to make some or make a little extra when making white sauce for another dish) is to make these Simple Country Souffles that can be baked in any small casserole dish and served as a side or a part of light meal or brunch. I found the recipe in my Grandmother’s 1917 cook book!
We’re all familiar with Scalloped Potatoes, but I have very vague memories of eating many scalloped recipes when I was young. It’s gone out of fashion, but can dress up anything from vegetables to meats. Of course, it never hurts to add cheese!
Make with finely shredded, chopped or sliced cooked meat or fish, diced or sliced cooked or uncooked vegetables, or cooked pasta. Fill a well oiled baking dish with alternating layers of food and medium white sauce. Cover top with buttered bread crumbs. Bake at 375 degrees until thoroughly cooked, uncover and brown. You can add cheese or not as you wish – all though, then, this would be “Au Gratin.”
I once threw together a wonderful little casserole when I had about a cup and a half of left over pasta languishing in my fridge and a few left over Oven Roasted Cherry Tomatoes. I simply added a bit of Parmesan to my white sauce, layered the pasta and tomatoes, covered with the sauce and baked. It became a family favorite.
Sometimes people have problems making white sauce and have trouble getting it to turn out. The directions of slowly adding the milk to the roux seems to be the issue I hear about most. Once the flour is incorporated into the butter and has cooked for a moment or two, the milk is added.
One can go wrong in a few ways, so here’s a few pointers for successful White Sauces and a suggestion or two on how to save them:
- Don’t use too high of a heat. The butter/oil should not be so hot that as the flour is cooking, it browns.
- Cook the flour for just a minute or so, whisking pretty constantly. If you’ve ever tasted a white sauce where this step isn’t done correctly, it is absolutely unmistakable.
- Add the milk product slowly, but not too slowly. If the pan is quite hot and one is trying to pour and whisk, and it is drying out and evaporating as you go, keep going, work through it. You probably won’t have a moment to stop and turn down the heat, with both hands in use, but you might be able to nudge the pan partially or even completely off the burner, carefully, so it isn’t taking the full brunt of the heat from the eye or the ring, and buy yourself a bit of time until you can take a second and turn the burner down.
- What is meant by adding the milk slowly is not to add the milk in a very slow stream, but just add a little bit at first, whisking it up, then a little bit more, still whisking. After the sauce loosens up a bit, you’re safe to pour the rest in quickly. Even someone who’s never made a white sauce probably has the experience of mixing milk into hot chocolate mix – making a white sauce is just like that. If all the milk is dumped in, it becomes lumpy and hard to mix, so one needs to start out with just a bit, mixing it in, then a bit more, whisking it in, then a bit more and then the rest can go in easily.
- Gravies or white sauces that are lumpy can sometimes be saved by whisking like mad! If that fails, strain it through a sieve.
- For the easiest white sauces, use a pan that’s got a bit of extra room, but isn’t too large (so the small bit of butter and sauce isn’t spread over too large of a surface area) and use a heavy pan so it isn’t spinnng around as one whisks. Most importantly, use an actual whisk. I’ve made plenty with a spoon, but it’s so much easier with a whisk.
- Make sure to get into the corners as you are adding the milk. If you have a pan that is a bit curved in on the bottom, those work wonderfully with white sauces and gravies, if not, you may want to have a spoon ready to run around the bottom edges of the pan as you whisk – the whisk might not reach there. If you get to the point where your white sauce is all the way thinned out when you realize there is a build up in the corners, it might be best to just let it be…it might be a bit scorched by then and if one works it out of the corners and loosens it up, it might add lumps, or worse put the scorched residue into your sauce. Cleaning the pan might be a bit of an issue, but if not disturbed and mixed in, the taste won’t be affected. (Unless, of course, you’ve really badly burned the whole works.)
- Whisking Constantly: Every recipe pretty much says whisking constantly, but as you make more white sauces and get the feel for them, one realizes that often whisking can stop for a few seconds there, a minute here – of course there is not really a way to write this into a recipe. Once it is smoothed out and starting to thicken and simmer, you can multitask very quickly with other things, but pay close attention to it as it approaches the end.
Well, this is everything that I think I know about white sauces! I hope you enjoyed it – White Sauces are an important building tool for so many recipes – and though they’re all rather simple, there’s a lot of overlap between the different types.
I’d love to hear from you if you have any comments, and I hope you found what you wanted when you visited me here – If not, please let me know!