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How To Make Perfect White Sauce and Best-Ever Gravy
One of the first Home Economics classes I remember, besides the dreaded twice-weekly sewing classes that materialized to plague me somewhere after Grade Six, was the "Welsh Rarebit" lesson. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this questionable delicacy, it is also known as cheese sauce on toast.
The dish, sometimes called "Welsh Rabbit" seemed to suggest that we were not clever enough to tell the difference between toast and rabbit. Either that, or it was a way of teasing the Welsh for being poor hunters, who couldn't snare a rabbit and so must eat bread instead. It was a total mystery to most of us girls - besides, why on earth would anyone ruin perfectly good toast by pouring cheese sauce all over it? We all knew that one ate toast in one's fingers, with jam or marmalade on it, or, even better, peanut butter - not with a knife and fork.
One did not, however, question the arcane wisdom of the Home EC teacher, unless one wished to receive a detention - which usually meant oven-cleaning duty.
Ours was a highly organized and tightly structured regimen. First, we sewed and monogrammed our very own bib-style cooking apron in Sewing Class. Then, we dutifully brought it, freshly laundered and starched, to Cooking Class every Friday. Woe betide the girl whose apron didn't pass muster.
Each class began with an introduction to the dish we would prepare, and we would transcribe notes on nutritional content, as well as the recipe and method for each dish.
We worked four to a kitchen area, in teams of two. Each pair of cleanly-aproned girls selected one, who went shopping (to the teacher's desk for ingredients), duly receiving their dribs and dabs of flour, butter, salt, milk, and flour, all neatly portioned out in glass dishes, and returned to the kitchen area to carefully measure and concoct their dish.
The other girl from the pair would cook, and both would be responsible to measure the ingredients carefully. Then the non-cooks would set the table with a clean cloth, napkins, and the required plates and cutlery for each dish to be cooked and served. Points were given for setting a pretty (appealing) table and using the correct dishes and utensils. Welsh Rarebit was served on a luncheon plate, thank you, not a dinner plate, and with a single sprig of parsley.
After the teacher had come around to each cooking station to taste our efforts, and check that there was a tiny dab of everything left over (this was supposed to prove that we had measured accurately and not just dumped everything in willy-nilly), we were allowed to serve and consume our dish. Yum - cold, dry, unbuttered toast with warmish cheese sauce on it.
To round out our afternoon as homemakers-in-training, we would clear the table afterward, and, of course, the non-cooks of the pairs would wash up while the others dried and put away the dishes. Then the cook would return all the "proof-bearing" ingredients dishes to the teacher's desk, and we would write a small quiz on the notes we had taken at the start of the class while she checked the amounts left over, to verify our accuracy at measuring.
As in so many other arenas of endeavor, so too, in Home Economics class - checks and balances .
We did, however, learn how to make superlative white sauce, which is the basis for cheese sauce and any number of other wonderful dishes.
The traditional method calls for starting with a roux, which is made by browning flour in melted butter or margarine, in a heavy saucepan. After the flour is golden in color, and all the butter is absorbed, the liquid is added - stock, cream, or milk, depending on what kind of sauce is being made.
Many sauces and gravies start with a roux, and can also include beurre manié, or kneaded butter, which can be used to instantly thicken a sauce or gravy.
Basic White Sauce Method
Basic White Sauce usually contains only four ingredients - flour, butter or shortening, milk or cream, and a pinch of salt. The variations used to turn this into cheese sauce, a base for casseroles, lobster or tomato bisque, and other delights are endless, but the ingredients for the basic sauce are quite simple.
You can add shredded cheese, white pepper, curry powder, minced onions, minced peppers, mustard, parsley, chopped mushrooms that have been sauteed in butter - the list of ingredients is only limited by your imagination and palate.
Most versions of the sauce call for equal portions of butter and flour, in proportions of about 1 tbsp of each to 1 cup of fluid for a thin sauce, 2 tbsp of each to 1 cup of fluid for a medium sauce, and three of each to 1 cup of fluid for a heavy or thick sauce. The medium white sauce makes a nice base for a cheese sauce.
The basic method for all the sauces is the same:
- Heat water to boiling in the bottom of a double boiler
- In the top of the double boiler, melt the butter over medium heat
- Add flour and stir until frothy
- Remove from heat and whisk in cream, stock, or milk, in a slow, steady stream, stirring constantly
- Place top of double boiler on its base and cook the sauce over boiling water, stirring constantly, until it thickens
- Add salt and serve with vegetables or meat
- Heat water to boiling in the bottom of a double boiler
- Using a wire whisk, mix milk, cream, or stock a little at a time with flour and salt
- whisk 'til smooth and pour into the top of the double boiler
- Cook the sauce over boiling water, stirring constantly, until it thickens
- Add butter or shortening and whisk until melted
- Serve with vegetables or meat
Perfect Gravy Every Time Method
This method works brilliantly for any roasted meat or fowl, and you can use prepared (canned) stock to augment the meat juices. The whole process takes about 1/2 an hour, so allow for this in your timing, as it is well worth the extra effort.
- During the last half-hour of roasting the meat or fowl, remove the roast (or bird) from the oven.
- Transfer the meat or fowl to a covered platter while you pour off all the accumulated stock and pan drippings. Scrape the pan well.
- You can also de-glaze the roaster by placing it over high heat and adding about 1/2 cup water. As the water boils, scrape the pan to loosen the brown bits and remove them with the water to a heavy sauce pan.
- Return your roast or bird to the pan and place in the oven to finish roasting.
- Separate the fat from the stock, setting the stock aside. Add the fat to the brown bits in the heavy sauce pan, and place them over medium heat.
- Add flour (as for a thin white sauce) and stir until the flour and fat mixture bubbles and froths.
- Reduce heat and continue cooking to reduce any liquid in the pan.
- Add about half of the stock from the roasting pan and continue to cook and stir until the liquid is again reduced - some like to add all the drippings and make up the rest of the fluid with canned or fresh chicken or beef stock).
- Take care that the mixture does not burn -reduce the heat if necessary
- Once the pan drippings are again reduced, whisk in the rest of the stock or pan drippings, and add extra stock or a bit of water to make up the desired quantity of gravy.
- Continue stirring until the gravy thickens to the consistency of a thin white sauce.
- Add salt and pepper to taste - if the roast of fowl has been well-seasoned, you shouldn't need to add any other seasoning
- Serve hot over meat, fowl, and vegetables - great on garlic mashed potatoes
Beurre manié - A quick, delicious cheat
To achieve perfect sauces and gravies, you need not sweat over a hot stove for the requisite half hour - you need simply to master the age-old technique of making beurre manié, or kneaded butter.
To accomplish this speedy miracle:
- Knead together equal proportions of flour and butter, shortening, or margarine in the amount required to thicken your sauce or gravy - for example, you will need 2 tbsp of each per cup of fluid for a medium sauce.
- Bring the liquid for the sauce or gravy to a boil
- Using a wire whisk, stir the beurre manié into the boiling liquid and whisk until completely melted and combined - at this point the mixture will begin to thicken very quickly
- Remove from heat and serve immediately
The only caveat to this method is that you must serve the sauce or gravy right away. I only use this method once folks are already seated at the table, while the rest of the food is being brought out. Otherwise, if you leave it sitting on the heat, the flour will begin to cook, and take on that starchy, raw flavor of undercooked flour. At that point, you will just have to stand and stir while the sauce finishes cooking for the full half-hour.
How can homemade sauces be healthy?
So much of what we buy nowadays, the pre-packaged mixes, the little sauce packets that come with the pre-made, convenient, time-saving side-dishes also come with a load of extra salt, fat, sugar, and chemicals, none of which is particularly good for us or for our children.
Perhaps if we worried more about health and less about saving time, we would realize that the time used to make a healthier version of the sauce or gravy - with low-sodium, low-fat chicken or beef broth, or skim-milk instead of cream, and with shredded low-fat cheese to make the sauce for the noodles - could also be used to chat with our kids and spouse about how their days went.
We can involve our kids in supper preparation - setting the table, tossing a salad, stirring the gravy - instead of letting every meal flow from the mommy automat.
This can increase our "face time" with our kids, allow everyone to visit and unwind while preparing supper, and then thoroughly enjoy the meal they all helped to make. Now, does that still seem like a waste of time? Not to me!
Traditional Method or Beurre Magne?
Which method do you prefer?
© 2010 RedElf