When I decided to write about White Sauces & What To Do With Them, I realized it’s kind of a huge subject. And a confusing one to many. White sauces (sometimes called cream sauces) form the backbone of so much of our cooking today. At their most basic, white sauces are simple and quick. They’re really nothing more than a sauce (or a start to a more complex one) made from starting out with butter (or oil or drippings) that is heated, then mixed with flour and cooked for a minute. That’s called a “roux.” Then milk and/or other dairy is added and the mixture is brought up to a good simmer as it thickens.
If you do much cooking at all, you might immediately realize that you’re probably already making a white sauce of some type on a pretty regular basis. Many recipes imbed the ingredients and steps for white sauce right into the recipe itself but don’t specify that what you’re doing as you go through these steps is that you’re making a white sauce.
There are a lot of different variations on white sauce, some with fancy French names, and some of them overlap. I thought it might be helpful to start out with the most basic, simple recipe and work towards some of the more complex ones. A few examples might help clear things up. And there are a lot of troubleshooting tips at the end of the post so if you have trouble with your white sauce, take a peek.
Basic White Sauce & Bechamel
The classic French name for white sauce is Bechamel – somehow it just sounds better, doesn’t it! Oooh, la la. While our standard American White Sauces are usually made as a part of a recipe and might be specifically flavored just for that recipe, the French Bechemal usually has a very specific flavoring.
Below are the four basic white sauce recipes, in a small amount; each makes about a cup (the thicker ones are tighter and denser and make just a bit less) and all use a cup of milk. They can be doubled or more. The difference is in the thickness of the white sauce. They vary from silky and thin to wallpaper paste. A medium white sauce is the standard and is what is used in most recipes unless the recipe specifies something else, but all have their purposes.
- Thin White Sauce: 1 tablespoon butter, 1 tablespoon flour, 1 cup milk
- Medium White Sauce: 2 tablespoons butter, 2 tablespoons flour, 1 cup milk
- Thick White Sauce: 3 tablespoons butter, 3 tablespoons flour, 1 cup milk
- Heavy White Sauce: 4 tablespoons butter, and yes, you got it, 4 tablespoons flour, 1 cup milk
Melt the butter over medium-high and heat until foam dissipates. Add flour while whisking, cook for two to three minutes to lose the “floury” taste, but not so long it begins to color. You’ll see the mixture becoming a bit drier looking as it cooks. If in doubt, you can take a tiny pinch and taste it. While it won’t taste “good” you shouldn’t taste any raw flour taste. You’ll know when you taste it.
Slowly add cold milk in increments, whisking constantly, and bring to a boil. Cook until smooth and thickened. Add a little salt to taste and a teensy whisper of nutmeg for a classic white sauce.
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.
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. Obviously this is done with a greater amount than listed above; half an onion would barely fit in one cup of sauce!
- Although traditionally flavored with nutmeg, for some recipes you might want to season with pepper, cayenne, celery salt, a bit of chopped parsley or chopped chives.
- You may want to saute a bit of onion or shallot and/or other vegetables with the butter before adding the flour. Many standard American recipes start out this way.
- White sauces at their most basic can 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.
- White sauce loves a little acid; a squeeze of a lemon or a bit of sherry or less frequently, white wine.
- Some white sauces may use cream or half and half or other dairy, like sour cream, creme fraiche, etc., for a richer sauce.
- Some white sauces are “enriched” with the addition of egg yolks.
- When cheese is added to a white sauce, it’s called Mornay sauce.
- Some gravies start out as a white sauce, but stock is used to replace some of the milk; then it’s a Veloute sauce.
- Many dishes (but not all) that are creamed, are made with white sauces and may or may not have cream in them.
- Dishes that are Scalloped or baked “au gratin” are often made with white sauces as the base. The topping is usually breadcrumbs and/or cheese.
So right away, you can see how the whole subject of White Sauces can be confusing! First of all, it’s often a secret, imbedded in a recipe, then it seems there are no rules!! Everything and anything goes! That’s just what makes white sauces so versatile and so ubiquitous! And always delicious.
The recipes below are made with straight-up white sauce or Bechamel. Of course, there are Creamed Peas & Pearl Onions. A nod to my Grandma. The Tetrazzini has a touch of Sherry. The Updated a la King recipe is based on a white sauce enriched with egg yolk, and the Chipped Beef has a touch of wine. For Biscuits and Gravy and Chicken Fried Steak, the gravy is a white sauce built on the drippings.
You will see Bechemel used in Italian dishes, often layered in classic Lasagna and especially vegetable lasagnas or other dishes instead of Ricotta. And you’ll see it used as a pizza sauce, especially in white pizzas like chicken alfredo or seafood pizzas. See that it’s peeking out around the edges of that Cajun Flatbread Pizza.
Recipes Made with White Sauce
Canned Soup Substitute
I want to take a minute and talk about the canned cream soups. Things like Cream of Mushroom soup, Cream of Celery and Cream of Chicken soup. Those are often used as a convenience product in recipes to sub in for a white sauce, and if you’re a child of the 1960s like I am, you’re probably pretty familiar with using canned soup in all kinds of recipes, especially casseroles. Heck, I have a few on my site. (Only the best though, lol!)
Knowing how to make a white sauce will free you up from all those cans and their resulting expense (and the packaging), and if someone in your family has allergies or if you’re interested in additive-free cooking, a small amount of white sauce is fast and easy; Check out Cream of Anything Soup Recipe for amounts and additions that are just right to use instead of a can of soup.
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 and oh so many more! The classic Mornay is half Gruyère, half Parmesan, a combo that gives some meltiness from the Gruyere and a bit of punch from the Parm. These days, you’ll find Mornay made with all kinds of cheese.
Cheese should be always added when the white sauce is finished. Turn off the heat and add the cheese in very small handfuls, whisking each bit until melted into the sauce before 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/or oily and give it an unappealing texture. It can be practically inedible when that happens and really spoils whatever you’re making.
Here are a few of my favorite recipes made with the cheesy white sauce, Mornay – it uses are many and varied! You’ll often see Mornay sauce used to give cheesy dishes a little heft and a creamy base. A very light Mornay is used in my Cajun Stuffed Shells; it’s delicate and lets the shells shine. And the Mornay in the Chicken Cordon Bleu Casserole is thinner, with Swiss cheese and a touch of Sherry. In the Eggs Florentine? That Mornay is the best part and I have to say it is the best part of Classic Hot Brown Sandwiches.
The Mac & Cheese has a heavier sauce, so it sticks to the macaroni and the Mornay is essential to the Beer Cheese Soup and the Vermont Cheddar. Otherwise, they would just be Cheese Rarebit – a whole nuther dish. Even this queso dip in the Bob Armstrong’s Chili con Queso relies on Mornay and many Quesos start the same way – with flour & butter. Of course, you can’t forget cheesy scalloped au gratin items are often made with a Mornay, too, like this Cheesy Cauliflower au Gratin. I’ll write more on gratins, below.
While I mentioned the Hot Brown, A Croque Monsieur Sandwich also has a Mornay sauce, as do many other classic recipes.
recipes made with mornay
Veloute (It means Velvet in French) isn’t really a white sauce but it’s worth mentioning here. For one thing, it’s made like a white sauce: First, a roux is made, then stock goes in. (Yep, it’s gravy!) But where the lines blur is when the Veloute is finished with something like milk or cream (or sour cream or creme fraiche.) Then it might be called a Supreme Sauce. I’m guessing most people have a hard time trying to draw a distinction between a creamy white sauce and a creamy Veloute and/or a Supreme Sauce. The important thing is that if you’ve mastered a basic white sauce, it’s a small step to Mornay, and if you can make either, you can make any of these recipes!
You might know Supreme Sauce because it’s served with Chicken Cordon Bleu, or in the case of my site, served in my Chicken Cordon Bleu Sliders. And this wonderful Cream of Broccoli Soup (no cheese) is another example of a Veloute, but it’s finished with cream. So maybe that’s a Supreme Sauce, too. I’ve even heard Chefs on TV talk about Chicken Pot Pie and refer to the Veloute sauce as a white sauce. A rose is a rose…
Then this Artichoke Chicken Casserole (love this!) is started like a Veloute but finished with cheese. I don’t know what that mix up is called. And my Steak Chimichangas have a sauce that starts out like a Veloute but is finished with Green Chiles and Sour Cream. One of my fave recipes of all time is Swedish Meatballs, below. Now that sauce isn’t likely to be confused with a white sauce, but it is a Veloute with cream added. The Chicken or Turkey Newberg is a Veloute with 1/2 and 1/2 and a little Sherry – and you can see how closely that one resembles a white sauce recipe.
recipes made with veloute
So if the Veloute Sauce, made with a roux, is a stock-based sauce often enriched with dairy is a “gravy” there are gravies based just on the classic white sauce with no stock, Cream Gravies. I touched on them above, but these gravies, whether called country gravy, cream gravy, milk gravy, sawmill gravy, sausage gravy (when made with sausage) or white gravy, deserve a little recognition and explanation. The one thing they all have in common is they are built off of drippings along with little bits leftover in the pan (I call them gremlins) from cooking or frying something else, whether it’s fried chicken, chicken fried steak (sometimes called country fried steak) or sausage or some other item.
With the exception of the Sausage Gravy, where the flour is just sprinkled over the sausage, they usually have a special proportion of fat to flour to dairy. It’s usually three tablespoons of fat generally from the drippings and if the drippings don’t have that amount, butter or oil is added to make the three tablespoons, combined with three tablespoons of flour. That’s cooked to a roux, then 2 1/2 cups of dairy, usually whole milk; sometimes a little half an half or cream makes up part of the amount. The mixture, just like all white sauces is brought to a boil, turned down to a simmer and cooked till it coats the back of a spoon.
These gravies are generally seasoned with salt along with a lot of pepper and a pinch of cayenne, and sometimes a dash or two of hot sauce is added.
country gravy recipes
Creamed, Scalloped & au Gratin:
A lot of dishes that are creamed, scalloped (escaloped) or have the words gratin or au gratin in their name are built on white sauce. And while not all of them will have white sauce in them, there are definitely enough to talk a bit about them and learn what’s what. And just like white sauces, there can be a little overlap in the processes and recipes.
If something is “creamed” it means served in a cream(y) sauce, and traditionally that means to cook, poach or bake in actual cream. There are many recipes that rely on a white sauce instead for that creamy comfort factor and may not use any actual cream. And sometimes that white sauce is finished with a little half and half, cream, another dairy or egg yolks to make the white sauce richer.
Cheese is often added to creamed dishes and creamed dishes might have some stock in them in addition to the white sauce, and be flavored with wine or Sherry. Creamed dishes might be simmered or baked and might or might not have a topping of cheese and/or breadcrumbs (which would make them Scalloped or au Gratin; more on that, below.) So again there is not a “one size” fits all category for anything creamed and if you read about White Sauces, Mornay and Veloute this is all probably starting to sound familiar! (There are recipes that cream with other things, like cream cheese or yogurt, but those are a whole different animal.)
“Creaming” a food item has been around forever but was especially popular during the Great Depression, probably as a way to stretch a little sumpin’ into a more substantial dish as well as a way to rework a few leftovers. Some are still classics today. I remember Grandma’s Creamed Pearl Onions, and then there’s Creamed Corn, Creamed Peas (with or without pearl onions) and things like Creamed Spinach or and I’ve recently seen a lot of recipes for Creamed Kale since kale has become so popular. Even the old recipe for “Chipped Beef on Toast” or SOS is sometimes called “Creamed Beef” and just about any protein, especially chicken or eggs, can be “creamed.”
This is from one of my Grandmother’s 1917 Searchlight Cookbook: “For your vegetables, or your leftovers, use a thick white sauce, and simmer until thick and bubbly.” This would be added to the vegetables or protein and everything heated through on the stove or in a small casserole. If using a casserole, layer with the sauce, dot the top with butter and bake at 350 degrees F. until everything is piping hot and bubbly. The best results would be from using items that aren’t overcooked to begin with.
Dishes that are Scalloped (escaloped) are generally cooked with a breadcrumb or cracker topping, which usually doesn’t have but might have cheese, and often consists of layers overlapping each other; I suppose the curved edges looked like scallops, in the same way that crochet or lace items are scalloped. But that’s not the whole story; creamy or cheesy sauces might be included or not. And even the breadcrumb topping isn’t always a part of the dish. So I’m happy to have cleared that up for you, lol!
Some dishes that are scalloped are our US Scalloped Potatoes, which are potatoes layered with a white sauce or cream and baked until bubbly and golden brown. No bread crumbs. There’s Scalloped Corn which may have white sauce or cream or be made with the “milk” from the corn and obviously isn’t layered at all; it’s usually topped with cracker crumbs. Scalloped Tomatoes don’t usually have sauce or cream, just a topping. And there are all kinds of scalloped dishes, vegetables and/or meat, fish like salmon, or seafood like oysters, and even eggs, that may or may not have sauce, cheese or a topping.
From my Grandmother’s 1917 Cookbook: “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.”
au gratin dishes
Dishes that are made “au gratin” are traditionally made with a topping that is browned. Gratins are usually cooked in shallow dishes to maximize the amount of topping and that topping might be just cheese, breadcrumbs or a combination, and might have butter and/or herbs or might be just butter. The topping will brown as the dish bakes and might be placed under a broiler to maximize the golden brown and delicious aspect. And just like Scalloped dishes, the au gratin dish itself may or may not have a white sauce or cream, and may or may not have cheese. But a gratin will always have a browned crust on top, even if it’s just a good sprinkle of toasty breadcrumbs.
In the States, the dish that pops into most people’s heads immediately is Potatoes au Gratin. And what makes those potatoes “au gratin” is the topping, which is usually a crispy layer of gorgeous cheese. The potatoes might have a white sauce or be made with cream and/or cheese; it’s the topping that makes them “au gratin.” But just like anything “Scalloped”, it seems there is no end to the dishes, protein or vegetable-based that can be made “au gratin”.
My favorite scalloped and au gratin recipes are usually potato dishes, but aren’t limited to them! Only the Scalloped Potatoes and the Cauliflower au Gratin are made with white sauce.
scalloped and/or au gratin recipes
A great way to dress up leftovers or start from fresh, Croquettes are just little balls of love. They’re bits of vegetables or meats bound together, usually by a heavy white sauce, rolled in flour, crushed crackers or breadcrumbs, baked, pan-fried or deep-fried. Several items to use for croquettes that come to mind immediately are potatoes, ham, fish, or broccoli, but use your imagination and your leftovers! You can’t go wrong with serving them with the old school Classic Supreme Sauce (mentioned above under Veloutes) or another dipping sauce.
I gotta mention “Spam Bites“ a croquette made with Spam and pickle. They are actually very popular at a restaurant in St. Paul. Yeah, it’s a Minnesota thing since Spam are raised and processed in Austin, Minnesota.
Not only are Croquettes a great way to use other leftovers, but they are also a perfect use leftover 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 until golden brown. These may be served plain or with a sauce.”
One of my favorite ways to use a leftover white or Mornay sauce (or a favorite reason to make some or make a little extra when making some for another dish) is to make these Simple Country Souffles. These souffles can be baked in any small casserole dish and served as a main dish, a side or a part of light meal or brunch. This is another recipe in my Grandmother’s 1917 cookbook!
Troubleshooting White Sauces
It seems a lot of people have trouble when they first start making white sauce. That’s because most recipes are written by experienced people who whip them together at a drop of the hat and the directions are almost always vague and not worded well. And while it’s super easy to make a white sauce (once you get them) messing one up can be really discouraging.
- For the easiest white sauces, use a pot 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; that helps to keep it from burning) and use a heavy pan so it won’t spin as you whisk. If you have a pot that has a curve to the sides where they meet the bottom that’s ideal. If not have a large spoon ready; you may need it to scrape along the edges after you add the milk if your whisk doesn’t reach there. Most importantly, use an actual whisk. I’ve made plenty of white sauces with a spoon, but it’s so much easier with a whisk.
- Don’t use too high of heat. The directions might say medium-high heat but different burners on different stoves heat differently. Look for the butter to melt, get a little bubbly but not get brown. When the bubbles start to dissipate, the excess moisture is leaving and that’s when the flour is added.
- Add the flour all at once and cook for a minute or two, whisking it almost constantly. You want to lose the raw floury taste but not brown it. If you’ve ever tasted a white sauce where this step isn’t done right, it is absolutely unmistakable. It’s horrible. Watch the flour; you’ll see it smooth out a bit and then start to get dryer. It will start to change color ever so slightly and turn just a bit golden. You can take a pinch and taste it. When it’s cooked enough it isn’t going to taste good but you shouldn’t be tasting raw flour.
- The cooked butter and flour mixture is called a roux. The color of the cooked roux varies in recipes from “blonde” to very dark. The roux in white sauces is always cooked to “blonde” still pretty white but with just a faint tinge of golden color.
- Have your milk measured and ready. The cold milk might be needed to be added immediately if your roux starts to brown. It will cool things down. Adding the milk cold helps it mix in easier, too.
- Most recipes say to “add milk slowly.” What they mean is not to add in a slow stream but to add in increments. It’s like making hot chocolate mix. If you add all the milk at once it won’t mix in easily and might leave you with lumps.
- Add a little milk at first, maybe about a cup, while whisking constantly. It will start to make a thick, smooth mixture and then whisk in a little more milk, and once it loosens up, add the rest.
- If your pan is too hot, the mixture might start drying out and evaporating away as you add the milk. Keep going, work through it, adding milk and whisking like mad. You probably won’t have a second to stop and turn down the heat, with both hands in use pouring and whisking, 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.
- As you whisk in the milk, make sure you’re getting back in the corners where the sides meet the bottom. You might have to grab a spoon for that. If you get to the point where your white sauce is all the way thinned out when you realize there is a build-up of roux in the corners that hasn’t mixed in, it’s a judgment call. It might be best to just let it be…if you work it out of the corners, it might add lumps, or worse might have scorched and then the scorched residue gets throughout your sauce. Cleaning the pan might be a bit of an issue, but if not disturbed and mixed in, the taste of the white sauce shouldn’t be badly affected. (Unless, of course, you’ve really badly burned the whole works.)
- Whisking Constantly: Every recipe pretty much says whisk constantly, but as you make more white sauces and get the feel for them, you realize that you can stop for a few seconds here, a half a minute there – 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.
- Gravies or white sauces that are lumpy can sometimes be saved by whisking like mad! If that fails, strain it through a sieve.
So you can see, white sauces and their variations do really form the backbone of so many dishes. It truly is one of the five “Mother Sauces” of French Cuisine. (And Veloute is another.) Knowing how to make white sauce can free you up from canned soup and boxed scalloped potatoes, and will allow you to make so many dishes from soups to casseroles, to side dishes, gravies, croquettes, and souffle – and more! Who knew a little flour and butter could be so versatile and so delish?
Well, this is everything that I think I know about white sauces and I’ve only scratched the surface! I hope you enjoyed White Sauces and What To Do With Them and I hope you found what you wanted when you visited me here. If not, please let me know! And of course, if you have anything to add, I’d love to hear from you.
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