Dressing up a basic white sauce for unlimited meal ideas

basic white sauce
Wikimedia Commons

One of the best ways to go green is to cook at home. You’ll save money and not generate as much trash as eating out or fixing prepared foods. Does that seem scary? You can have a mouth-watering supper on the table in half an hour. The stuff that comes in bags and boxes can take that long. If you know how to make a basic white sauce, you can jazz it up with lots of variations. One simple technique, unlimited meal ideas.

When I was in college and moved out of the dorm, I rented a room with kitchen privileges. I decided to use the kitchen as much as possible. 

For whatever reason, I didn’t talk to my mother about it. Instead, I bought some Wondra flour. All I had to do was mix milk, butter, and that fancy flour in a pan, bring it to a boil, and add some kind of meat and veggies. I just poured in on instant mashed potatoes, noodles or toast. I did that so often it’s a wonder I didn’t get sick of creamed whatever for life! 

Eventually, I learned how to make a basic white sauce with real flour. Not long after, I learned that I could make plenty of other sauces—and some gravies and soups—the same way. I could still use the same technique over and over and have a lot more varied meals.

The French call it béchamel sauce. They use it as a base for all kinds of fancy dishes. I won’t go into haute cuisine here, but you can find YouTube videos for anything you can think of. And probably more that you wouldn’t think of till you stumble on the video.

The basic white sauce recipe

To make one cup of basic white sauce, melt 2 tablespoons of butter (or heat 2 tablespoons of  oil) in a saucepan over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons of  regular white flour and stir everything together. Whole wheat flour doesn’t thicken sauces as well.

The resulting paste doesn’t look very appetizing, but the French call it roux (pronounced roo) and make all kinds of tasty dishes with it. The roux you have just made is called a white roux. Blond roux or brown roux just cook a little longer. They both have specialized uses, so don’t cook your roux that long.

Add a cup of milk, just a little at a time. Stir it into the roux after each splash. Too much milk at once and the roux won’t absorb it all. But eventually, you’ll have a smooth blend with no lumps. Bring it to a boil, stirring constantly, until it thickens. Then remove it from the heat. 

Add salt and pepper to taste, along with some parsley or chives if you think the color looks boring. Or really, add any other seasoning that suits your fancy. See curry sauce below.

That’s all there is to it. And it’s a lot tastier than using a can of soup concentrate!

Here’s a video to demonstrate the technique. The cook uses a whisk. I had been making white sauce and variations with a spoon for years before I ever saw a whisk.


Making a basic meal

You can make a meal from your basic white sauce by adding stuff. I once came across a recipe called “funeral for a ham.” It was nothing more than the creamed ham my mother used to make. When you can’t slice anything more off the bone, pull off all the chunks you can and dump them in the sauce.

Of course, you can use whatever other leftover meat you have on hand. Or a can of tuna. Then add whatever (cooked) veggies you want. Or you can add quick-cooking frozen veggies like peas to the pan before you add the flour.

If you use canned mushrooms, drain the liquid into the cup first and add enough milk to make a full cup. That way you keep all the vitamins. If you use tuna, preserve the water the same way, or if you get oil-packed tuna, use the oil to make the roux.

Then serve your creamed whatever over mashed potatoes, rice, biscuits, toast, noodles, or whatever you feel like making. 

White sauce variations

veal orloff with mornay sauce, variations on basic white sauce recipe
Veal Orloff with mornay sauce. Wikimedia Commons


If you can mix butter, flour, and milk, you have mastered the technique for making all kinds of yummy white sauce variations.

Some of these variations offer different flavors that you can put meat and veggies in. Some enable other creamy dishes. Others make gravies and soups.

Dairy-free white sauce

Are you vegan or lactose intolerant? Use soy milk, almond milk, or whatever else you like instead of regular milk. You may need to experiment with the amount of flour to use.

Cream sauce

If you want to be really decadent, use heavy cream instead of milk.

Cheese sauce

When you’ve finished your basic white sauce, add one cup of shredded cheese. Cheddar cheese is the most obvious choice, but you can use whatever suits your fancy. Imagine how many ways you can make macaroni and cheese!

In fact, a combination of gruyère and parmesan cheeses has its own name:  mornay sauce. Lose the gruyère and you have . . . 

Alfredo sauce

I really like Alfredo sauce, but since I live alone, I can’t use up a jar of it before it goes bad. Adding parmesan cheese to a basic white sauce makes a reasonable approximation. Adding parmesan cheese to a cream sauce makes it authentic. It’s a great pizza topping, too. 

(My basic recipe makes one cup of everything. Of course, you can make more or less than that, depending on what you need.) 

Curry sauce

Add one teaspoon of curry powder to the butter in the basic white sauce recipe and let it brown for a minute or so before you add the flour. Then it’s exactly the same technique.  Love that aroma! You can use any spice you think you’ll like. Herbs don’t require the extra cooking. For some reason, curry powder does.

Chop suey sauce

Use chicken broth instead of milk. I find it really boring by itself, but you can use chicken broth to make a tasty alternative to the curry sauce above. 

Pan gravy

Fry some chicken or pork chops and use a couple of tablespoons of that oil instead of butter. Then do the flour and milk routine. Or, if you bake chicken (at least), you can use the chicken fat at the bottom of the pan when it’s done.

For breakfast, you can make country sausage gravy. Cook some ground sausage. Drain off the fat and return two tablespoons back to the skillet. Two tablespoons of flour and a cup of milk, and you know what to do.

One of my cousins (when, if I recall correctly, he was in junior high school or high school) made hamburger gravy. That’s right, he made it the same way as country gravy, using hamburger instead of sausage.

While we’re on the subject of gravy, I might as well explain kettle gravy. When you make a pot roast (beef, pork, lamb, whatever), you have a lot of liquid left in the pot. Thicken it this way for a velvety kettle gravy: For each cup of gravy, add two tablespoons of flour (or a tablespoon of corn starch) and whatever seasonings you want to a quarter cup cold water. When the mixture is smooth, stir it into a pan of boiling broth. 

A couple of soups

I have another article on ways to make a lot of different kinds of soups. But here are a couple that use exactly the same technique as the basic white sauce recipe.

For potato soup, dice and cook some potatoes. Set the potatoes aside. Reserve a cup of the cooking water and add 1/3 cup of instant milk. Follow the instructions for the basic white sauce recipe, but use only half as much flour. Add the potatoes back. Add some corn or other veggies if you like. Bacon bits also add flavor and texture. 

I made that potato soup for years until I found another recipe I like better. Follow the link above to find it. It’s just as fast and easy. 

For New England clam chowder, make potato soup and add a can of clams, juice and all. It’s not the most authentic clam chowder in the world, but it’s pretty good and very easy. For a more authentic recipe, cook and crumble some bacon. Use bacon grease instead of butter and cream or half and half instead of milk.

Isn’t it amazing how many delicious meals you can make once you master a basic white sauce?

Shop related products:

Kind Earth Cookbook / Anastasia Eden

More With Less Cookbook / Doris Longacre

Diet for a Small Planet (20th Anniversary Edition) / Frances Moore Lappé


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