Once upon a time, every good cook frequently made white sauce. That was in the days before canned goods had the variety and safety they do today. While canned goods are tastier and safer than ever, they are also becoming increasingly expensive at a time when many households are tightening their belts as they cope with inflation and reduced income chewing on both ends of their wallets.
How many recipes do you usually make using one kind or another of cream soup, whether it is cream of mushroom, cream of celery, cream of chicken, or some other “cream of” variety? Did you realize that these canned soups replaced the white sauces that most recipes originally used?
With those cans of soup now rising on the far side of a dollar, these white sauces are not only easy to make and tastier with their fresh flavors, but they also cost less than half of what one of those cans will cost you at the grocery store. Plus…they don’t require another trip to the store using that gasoline that has also become increasingly expensive nor that you carry that heavy can and put it in your pantry. With their limited ingredients, almost any kitchen is prepared to make them at the drop of a hat, especially if evaporated or shelf stable milk is kept in the pantry for those “I forgot to buy milk” moments.
NOTE: For anyone who has NOT tried those boxes of shelf stable milk, they are available in both 8 ounce and 32 ounce containers, and I recommend refrigerating it for 24 hours before using it to drink. After that, it really DOES taste exactly like fresh milk. It’s great for those households that don’t use a lot of milk, because it usually has a shelf life of about six months after purchase (check expiration dates before purchasing to make sure it hasn’t been lingering on the shelf in the store for too long and use it before the expiration date for best results.) With “fresh” milk on your pantry shelf, no special trips to the store are required when it is needed for cooking or baking. It is more expensive, but the convenience often outweighs the expense if you don’t use milk but a few times a month.
Of course, the first step is one that is as old fashioned and familiar as getting out the rolling pin…first, you make a roux, which is almost like a cliche in this area. It’s not hard, and it starts with merely melting butter over low heat, then adding the flour and cooking it to make a white roux. Milk is added, and then…the basic unflavored sauce can become many things, whether it’s creamed peas or the foundation for your homemade pot pie. Add shredded or cubed cheese, and it’s a cheese sauce that will charm even your mother in law or your three year old niece who hates everything! Need a nacho dip for the guys for the football game? Add some diced Velveeta cheese and a minced jalapeno, along with a dash of Tabasco Chipotle sauce…and you have yourself a budget-friendly batch of nacho cheese sauce that you can claim is your “secret recipe”! Some leftover chicken, a bag of chopped broccoli, and some shredded Italian blend cheese can be combined with medium white sauce to make a quick & easy topping for pasta that will easily fool the family to think you have become a kitchen genius too. My “secret” broccoli cheese soup is actually nothing more than a thin white sauce with sharp cheddar cheese and a bag of frozen chopped broccoli. Almost any vegetable or cooked meat can be added to a thin white sauce to make the “cream of …” recipe of the day, and with far less sodium than what is found in canned versions, as well as a far fresher taste! For real “cream of mushroom soup”, try sauteing 1 cup of sliced mushrooms with 1/2 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp. pepper in 2 tbsp. butter. Add to a double recipe of thin white sauce (about 2 cups) and it will make 4 servings. I’ll guarantee that it tastes MUCH better than heating up a can of soup!
While it isn’t my favorite, my father absolutely loved having creamed macaroni as a side dish. It’s very simple, just medium white sauce mixed with elbow macaroni, and seasoned with salt & pepper. Creamy, it has the same texture as macaroni and cheese, but lacks the cheesy flavor. My favorite version of homemade macaroni and cheese is to combine the macaroni with the white sauce seasoned with salt and pepper, along with cubed hoop, colby or longhorn cheese, top it with breadcrumbs drizzled with a bit of butter, and bake until bubbly and the crumb topping is brown. Adding other cheese or a mixture of cheeses, such as blue cheese, smoked provolone, gouda, etc., can increase the complexity of the flavors and add more grown up appeal to a familiar comfort food. To downplay the dish to appeal to children, use American or processed American cheese, and combine shredded cheddar cheese with the breadcrumbs or even eliminate the breadcrumbs entirely.
Butter (or margarine, if you prefer), flour, and milk are the ingredients, and then the basic white sauce can be doctored to fit the occasion with whatever flavors you want. Salt & pepper are a natural addition, but use white pepper if you don’t want the black specks in your sauce. “Creamed” vegetables are often preferred by picky eaters, which simply means the prepared vegetables (steamed, sauteed, or boiled) are mixed with a medium white sauce. Thin white sauces are used for creamed soups, while thick white sauces are used for souffles, and heavy white sauces are used for binders in croquettes. The directions are always the same, the only thing that changes between the four types is the amount of flour and butter used to make the white sauce. Each recipe makes about a cup of white sauce, and the recipe can be doubled or tripled to suit your needs without much trouble.
HINT: Print or copy these basic directions and ingredients down, then hang them on your refrigerator or cabinet for easy reference without looking for the recipe again. If you put it on the inside of your cabinet door, it’s out of sight, yet quickly reviewed while cooking.
Basic White Sauce Directions
Melt butter over low heat in a heavy saucepan. When butter is melted, stir in flour. Cook over low heat for 4-5 minutes, stirring constantly. (This is ensures no “flour-y” taste and is important, but do not brown the flour.) Slowly add the milk, stirring constantly. Continue cooking over medium-low heat until mixture begins to thicken and bubble. Don’t be tempted to increase the heat or neglect stirring and risk scorching the sauce–nothing tastes less appealing than scorched white sauce!
Thin White Sauce Ingredients
- 1 tbsp. butter
- 1 tbsp. all purpose flour
- 1 c. milk
Medium White Sauce
- 2 tbsp. butter
- 2 tbsp. all purpose flour
- 1 c. milk
Thick White Sauce
- 3 tbsp. butter
- 3 tbsp. all purpose flour
- 1 c. milk
Heavy White Sauce
- 4 tbsp. butter
- 4 tbsp. all purpose flour
- 1 c. milk